Atommash, an abbreviation of 'atom machinery', was a factory opened in 1978 to manufacture large components for the Soviet nuclear power programme. The power reactors used in the USSR were essentially of two types: the RBMK (reactor, high-power, channel-type) and the VVER (water-water power reactor) designs.
In 1970 the USSR had two RBMK-1000s under construction but the prospect of building VVERs of the same power was remote. RBMK-1000 reactors could be assembled from smaller parts, whereas the VVER-1000 needed a single, large heavy solid steel structure which Soviet industry could not manufacture.
It was therefore decided to create a super-giant factory, Atommash, to manufacture pressure vessels and components. The first VVER-1000 was planned for 1978 with the parts manufactured at Atom- mash; the largest being the pressure vessels weighing perhaps 500t to 800t.
No proper site investigation
Atommash was thus a key project in the Soviet energy programme (Medvedev, 1988, p29). A special site at Volgodonsk in the Rostov region was selected for the plant and the workers settlement. A 'strategic' decision to 'accelerate' nuclear power had been made in 1974, caused largely by the rise in the international price of oil and by new export demands. With planners and builders in a hurry, no proper site investigation was carried out, and no attention appears to have been paid to the voluminous literature on the distribution and dangers of collapsing loess ground.
The classic book by Abelev and Abelev (1968) clearly spelled out the dangers and indicated the widespread existence of collapsing loess ground within the bounds of the USSR (see figure 1). But all the experts, and all the hard-won knowledge, were ignored.
The Rostov regional party boss (obkom secretary) Ivan Bondarenko was a close friend of CPU secretary Brezhnev. The siting of Atommash was a favour bestowed by a patron. It was hoped that Atommash would make it possible to inaugurate the first VVER in 1978.
Atommash was, in fact, officially opened in 1978, but only part of the plant was in operation.
In addition to siting the plant on classic collapsing ground, another extraordinary ground engineering mistake had been made. Atommash, and the new town of Volgodonsk, were sited just behind the hydroelectric dam across the Don which had created the Tsimplyanskoye reservoir of nearly 2,000km2.
The water table under Atommash/Volgodonsk was rising. It is possible, suggested Medvedev, that in the early 1970s, when the geological survey of the Atommash site was hastily carried out, the water table was still well below the surface. But by the time the project was nearing completion, the problem was already obvious and a hindrance to construction.
Volgodonsk was then already a city of more than 100,000 people and the operation could not be moved.
So we have construction on classic collapsing ground, and the worst possible scenario, a steady and inevitable rise in the water table. According to the original plan, Atommash should have produced eight pressure vessels by 1980, as well as components for the primary circuits. But only one or two vessels had been completed by 1983, when one of the plant's huge walls suddenly collapsed as a result of the sinking foundations. There were casualties, and the accident was so serious that it was reported in the Soviet press (Pravda 20 July 1983). A commission set up to investigate the causes and consequences.
The accident called into question the whole programme of rapid development of VVER-1000 nuclear plants. Atommash was the key to the accelerated development of nuclear energy, and the plans for manufacturing and installing reactors of the VVER-1000 type were now well behind schedule for both the 1981- 85 and 1986-90 Five Year Plans. Atommash is thought to have delivered its fourth pressure vessel by August 1985.
Collapsing loess ground
There are collapsing soils in many parts of the world (Rogers 1995, Derbyshire et al 1995) but those in the western part of the old Soviet Union are considered to be the classic occurrences. Here the coincidence of a widespread deposition of collapsing loess and a high concentration of population and industry provide a plethora of ground engineering problems. It was this concentration of population and industry that led to many of the Soviet power reactors being in Ukraine and other western regions. Soviet engineers were well aware of the dangers posed by loess and in his keynote address at the 1988 Regional Soils conference M Yu Abelev spelled out the history and scope of Soviet investigations (but made no mention of the Atommash failure: Abelev 1989). In 1988, according to Abelev, more than 30,000 people in the USSR were concerned with the problems of research
into the properties of loess and the development of special methods of construction for use on loess soils/ground. Unfortunately all the vast efforts could be circumvented by stupid political decisions.
There is even a tentative connection to be made between the Atommash ground failure and the 1976 Teton dam collapse in the US. Both involved a failure to understand, or to take into account, the remarkable nature of loess material. In the case of the Teton Dam, local Idaho loess was used for the core of a large earth dam, and this contributed significantly to its failure (Smalley & Dijkstra 1991, Smalley 1992, Rogers et al 1994). It was a failure to recognise a difficult material; at Atommash/ Volgodonsk dangers were wilfully ignored.
Not that long after the Atommash collapse, the Soviet Union was dismantled. Volgodonsk is in Russia. In about mid-1995 the Atommash enterprise went bankrupt. At the beginning of 1997, according to Tamara Gramotenko, director of the Rostov Territorial Bankruptcy Agency, the organisation was taking steps towards the revival of production. Through investment from the Energomashkorporatsia organisation, orders have been found which should fully utilise the plant's output for 10 to 15 years. At the beginning of 1997 a new company, Energomash-korporatsia-Atommash, was registered, which planned to double the production volume in 1997 and to sell Roubles 500bn worth of products.
IF Jefferson, IJ Smalley and PJ Richardson, Collapsing soils research group, Nottingham Trent University
Abelev, M Yu 1989. Loess and its engineering problems in the USSR in Engineering problems of regional soils ed. CISMFE, Pergamon Oxford, 3- 6.
Abelev, Yu M & Abelev, M Yu 1968. Fundamentals of design and construction on collapsible macroporous ground. Izd-vo Lit po Stroiltel'stvu Moscow 431p (in Russian).
Derbyshire, E, Dijkstra, TA & Smalley, IJ eds 1995. Genesis and properties of collapsible soils, Kluwer Dordrecht 424p (NATO ASI C468).
Medvedev, Z. 1988. The Soviet nuclear energy programme: the road to Chernobyl in Something in the Wind: Politics after Chernobyl d L Mackay & M Thompson, Pluto London 13-45.
Rogers, CDF. 1995. Types and distribution of collapsible soils, in Genesis and properties of collasible soils ed E Derbyshire, TA Dijkstra & IJ Smalley, Kluwer Dordrecht 1-17.
Rogers, CDF, Dijkstra TA & Smalley, IJ 1994. The Teton dam failure (Idaho USA 1976) in Engineering Characteristics of Arid Soils ed PG Fookes & R Barry, Balkema Rotterdam 415-417.
Smalley, IJ 1992. The Teton dam: Rhyolite foundation + loess core = disaster. Geol. Today 8(1) 19-22.
Smalley, IJ & Dijkstra, TA, 1991. The Teton dam (Idaho USA) failure: problems with the use of loess material in earth dam structures. Eng Geol 31, 197-203.