Tech UPTechnologyEugeni Velikhov:

Eugeni Velikhov:

Velikhov arrived at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant shortly after the accident and there he was in contact with previously unknown doses of radioactivity. He is one of the most eminent Russian scientists: he heads the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, is vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and chairs the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), one of the main scientific projects in the world, with which Russia, Japan The United States and the European Union intend to jointly launch the energy of the future, fusion, which is simpler, cheaper and cleaner than the current fission of nuclear reactors.

He has spent almost his entire life researching fusion, trying to reproduce in a reactor the energy from which the Sun is nourished. But he is more than a staunch defender of fusion, that which takes advantage of the energy released when a a deuterium nucleus with a tritium nucleus and which is still in the experimental phase.

Thanks to him, who convinced Gorbachev, Russia is present at ITER, the international fusion project. In the institute that he directs in Moscow, not only new fusion is being investigated, but also fission, that energy that we know as nuclear energy.

How did you feel the first time you saw the Chernobyl reactor after the accident?
-It was like a war, an unexpected war. Nobody knew what to do and it was very difficult to make predictions, and the rulers asked every hour what would happen. We needed to make measurements, but we were not prepared, because there were no instruments for it, nobody had instruments to work in an environment with such a high level of radioactivity.

Was everything new?
-Yes, although not completely, because many people work with radiation, but generally outside radiation. In that case, we had to be inside. Our team from the Kurchatov Institute was the only one who worked inside the reactor from the beginning. We did very intensive work and the truth is that there were high doses of radiation.

Have they had any health problems?
-Some members of the team have died for different reasons, but above all due to stress, as a result of heart attacks and similar things, something that is not directly connected with radiation.

And to you, after having been so long in Chernobyl, has nothing happened to you?
-Not yet (laughs). In any case, all of us are destined to die. And the main problem is having good or bad health until that moment arrives.

But you were there and radiation, in the long run, can cause a multitude of diseases, especially those related to cancer. Are you not afraid?
-Of course, I tried not to be silly. Any visit to the reactor was equivalent to receiving certain doses. And we needed to visit it to be able to make decisions.

Were they wearing suitable clothes?
-They weren’t of any help. Most of the radiation was in the dust, and we tried not to remove it. Also, radiation, especially gamma radiation, penetrates everything and clothing is not very helpful. What does help is a filter for breathing, because one of the problems was the penetration of this dust into the lungs, but we used very good filters.

What conclusions did you draw after this accident?
– I convinced myself of the ridiculousness of all the discussions on the nuclear war, because it is something terrible. Surrounded by radioactivity, that is a terrible environment for normal people. Also, our system was not ready.

Before Chernobyl, could you imagine such a nuclear accident?
-I had never worked with this type of energy before. Although in some way he was prepared, because he had already worked on the study of the consequences of a world nuclear war, especially on the effects of the so-called nuclear winter and on radioactive contamination. I was more or less prepared and, due to my profession, I was not afraid because I had the possibility to judge for myself what doses were adequate.

Was the Soviet system to blame for the accident?
-The importance of the Chernobyl problem was increased by the transition process that took place in the former Soviet Union.

However, Russian science seems to continue to have serious problems. Trafficking in plutonium, an extremely dangerous material, is one of the examples …
-The problem of plutonium is neither a problem exclusively of science nor a problem exclusively of Russia. There is not enough evidence to establish the origin of the plutonium trade.

But it is true that there has been a loss of the ability to control security in the Russian laboratories …
-Before the control was stricter. I think this is not a Russian problem, but an international problem. It is necessary to establish some international decision to control such a dangerous material. What I can assure you is that laboratories like those of the Kurchatov Institute, which investigate radioactive materials, work perfectly, with absolute safety conditions.

You have spent most of your life working on nuclear fusion, which is said to be the energy of the future. Why?
-Fusion is an energy that is not limited by resources, which is very important. Now it is limited by knowledge, as we don’t know enough to be able to use it commercially yet. It needs further scientific breakthroughs, but it has good potential and, of course, its main advantage is that it is clean energy.

But environmentalists say that the merger is not as clean as you claim …
-Unclear; they prefer to receive the energy, I don’t know, from the walls … People need energy at all times. The one we use today has different origins – coal, gasoline, solar, wind, hydro, nuclear … – and in the future I believe that, to satisfy people’s demands, it will continue to be the same, only fusion will also exist.

When will we have energy produced by fusion reactors in our homes?
-It is difficult to make forecasts, but I believe that its implementation will take place in about fifty years. But for this we need to demonstrate the fusion, we need to have experiences of the production. For now, ITER has only demonstrated the technology. Next, we will need an experimental plant. I believe that the commercialization will begin in the year 2030. At least, there is a possibility that this will be the case, because that is the moment when natural gas reserves will begin to decline. But this depends on what happens with natural gas and with humanity in general.

Oscar Menendez

This interview was published in December 1995, in issue 175 of VERY Interesting


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