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Scramming the nuke reactor in Russia

2015-11-08 15:32

Peeking inside the nerve centre at the Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant in Russia is awe-inspiring, writes Yolandi Groenewald 

Sandile Kumalo, Wits student and future nuclear mechanical engineer, has just scrammed Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant’s Unit 4 nuclear reactor.

Moments before, engineer Joe-Nimique Cilliers tripped the turbine. Alarm bells and flashing lights announce the end of the world in the softly lit control room, but the burly South African barely lifts an eyebrow.

“I always wanted to do that,” Kumalo tells the worried-looking Russian technician.

“Enough,” the Russian retaliates. “I think that is enough damage for today.”

Yet no screaming cars arrive to cart our rowdy South African party off to a Gulag. Our nerve centre might mirror the real Kalinin control room 5km away, but this simulator is actually where people are trained on how to avoid another Chernobyl disaster. And scramming a nuclear reactor is a critical skill in an emergency.

Hundreds of trainees learn this every year.

“Safety is our main concern,” says Kalinin Plant manager Mikhail Knyshev. “After Fukushima, we had to revamp the plant, put in additional measures such as mobile diesel units to power the plant if isolated from the world. And we have to keep our technicians in shape for emergencies.”

We had viewed the actual Unit 4 nuclear control room earlier in the day. That room is manned constantly by two operators and a shift boss. The first operator monitors the nuclear reactor for any problems, while the other operator’s responsibility is focused on the turbines that generate the electricity. The shift boss ensures that these two operators are happy and working.

“It is quite a prestigious job to become an operator. You have to train for many years,” says Knyshev.

Many of Udomlya’s population of 30 000 work at Kalinin – the plant employs almost 4 000 people. Everyone in the town breathes and speaks nuclear. One of the main buildings in the town is an information centre where interested parties can view a replica of the VVER-1000 reactor, which powers the four units at the plant, as well as learn the mechanics of how nuclear power is generated. Outside, a giant billboard displays the amount of radiation in Udomlya.

Soviet-style apartment blocks are covered in graffiti and children disappear in overgrown parks. But that is old Udomlya, built in the early 1980s, our guide is quick to point out. There is also new Udomlya, built almost a decade ago.

New Udomlya is uplifting sagging Udomlya. Outside the city’s only restaurant, pretty houses do indeed break the mundanity of the apartment blocks.

In the distance, the four cooling towers of Kalinin rise above Udomlya. In winter, Kalinin uses its surrounding lakes to cool down the steam that turns the turbines, but the four cooling towers come into play in summer.

Most impressive are the shells of the four containment buildings. Inside lurks the beast that bestows its power on to
the world.

Follow the wires from Udomlya and you’ll end up at Kalinin. Our party’s credentials were scanned nearly a month ago, and we were found worthy to enter the facility. Security is tight. You are not even allowed to view the Russian soldier in the booth as he scrutinises your appearance and passport.

Kalinin also has its own billboard announcing its level of radiation. Though the number is higher than the one in town, the experts assure us that you get more radiation from eating a banana.

We arrive just as an exodus takes place at the plant – lunch time. Most of the employees eat lunch at home, and the plant is mostly deserted.

The plant is considered to be the “youngest” power plant in Russia – the average employee is between 36 and 40 years old.

Kalinin’s new safety measures receive top billing on the tour, but the sarcophagus towering above us constantly demands attention.

Overhead, high-voltage electricity sings through the cables, freshly generated from the plant’s turbines.

Of course, we can’t venture inside the containment buildings – the control room and turbine hall is the closest we’ll get to that particular beast.

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July 23 2017