“Living with a clear conscience”: Boris Paton and his work at the Chernobyl NPP
“Living with a clear conscience”: Boris Paton and his work at the Chernobyl NPP

On August 19, 2020, at the age of 101, Boris Evgenievich Paton passed away. For history, he will forever remain the Hero of Ukraine. And for steel workers, he will be the father of automatic welding of armored steel and welding in space. Boris Paton is an outstanding academician, chairman of NASU, an inventor in the second generation, the head of the Electric Welding Institute, and Doctor of Technical Sciences. However, not many people know that the fate of this outstanding person is closely connected with the ChNPP.

There was a period when the approval of the project for the construction of the second stage of the ChNPP greatly delayed in the 1970s. People whispered in Moscow that it lacked the signature of one member of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR. As it turned out later, it was Boris Paton. He was the only academician who did not sign the project. He proved this by the close location of the ChNPP to Kiev and the high level of danger of the nuclear power plant as a whole. Unfortunately, his refusal to sign the project did not affect the final decision of the country’s leadership. The scientist argued for his decision by the fact that “the choice of a site for the construction of the second stage of the Chernobyl NPP cannot be considered justified.”

Paton pointed out the failure to comply with a number of special requirements regarding the design and construction of promising nuclear power plants. In addition, Paton warned even at the beginning of the construction of the ChNPP that by violating these requirements, Ukraine would doom itself to “serious consequences”. The main scourge is the radioactive contamination of the Dnieper basin. It might lead to a deterioration of the ecological situation throughout Ukraine in the case of an accident.

The scientist argued that the result of a sharp increase in the capacity of nuclear power will lead to an increase in the concentration of AES waste in the biosphere. This waste will have to be neutralized and disposed of somewhere. However, such a nuclear repository is unsafe. Paton also focused on the location of the Chernobyl NPP in the fracture zone of the Ukrainian Crystalline Shield. This ancient geological structure is overlain by sedimentary rocks, which have a high penetrating power.

Radioactive waste storage facility near Kiev is a time bomb

The ChNPP liquid waste storage facility had to be located in the Pripyat River valley. Boris Paton warned that a serious accident could lead to a leak of liquid radiation waste. In the event of a such leak, the radioactive waste went through the unprotected soil layer into the aquifers of the Dnieper basin. So, such a development of events was a time bomb not only for Kiev, but also for most of Ukraine.

Shcherbitsky took Paton’s criticism seriously and immediately contacted the USSR Academy of Sciences. He expressed the warnings of the Ukrainian scientist to Aleksandrov, an academician. Aleksandrov was outraged. He grabbed his phone and began to call Paton. “Soviet reactors are so safe that they can be installed even on Red Square”, he said loudly into the telephone receiver. “Well, build them there!”, Boris Evgenievich answered politely. The Ukrainian scientist’s equanimity surprised Aleksandrov. But he didn’t listen to Paton’s opinion. And only after the Chernobyl accident, Aleksandrov admitted that Paton was right and apologized to the scientist.

What Boris Paton had warned about happened. The Chernobyl accident left no choice. All forces took part to eliminate it. On May 1, 1986, Paton and Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, Malinovsky, discussed the situation in the accident zone. As a result, scientists came to the conclusion that it was necessary to create commissions of reputable scientists and “get down to business”. On May 3, by order of the Academy, a scientific commission took place to combat the consequences of the accident. It included scientists who were responsible for the main areas of research. Boris Evgenievich, together with a group of scientists, worked at an industrial site during the liquidation period. His group was collecting samples of soil, air and water. The technical commission carried out complex tasks:

  • Aerial shots of the destroyed reactor and the surrounding area.
  • Measurements of radiation around the Chernobyl NPP and in the destroyed power unit.
  • Development of a powerful cutter for cutting metal structures.
  • Welding of cracks in the valves of pipelines in the 1-st, 2-nd and 3-rd power units, prepared for post-emergency start-up.
  • Providing Kiev residents with water from the Desna River.
  • Preventing the penetration of radiation through the soil into the waters of Dnieper.

Outdated equipment, evacuation of children and welding “on the move”

Outdated equipment didn’t allow measurements of gamma radiation above 500 R / hour. The Institute for Nuclear Research and the Institute of Electrodynamics of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR had developed more modern equipment. The range of its measurements was up to 10,000 R / h. Moreover, it was fed from the on-board electrical network of the armored personnel carrier. The Glushkov Institute of Cybernetics created a system for measuring water and soil pollution. It was based on radiological reconnaissance cartograms.

Scientists organized information processing to clarify the current situation, predict risks, the degree of soil and groundwater pollution. What Paton warned about in his time came to the fore in the struggle of scientists. They monitored the state of water in the Dnieper and Dnieper basin on an hourly basis, especially considering the consequences of spring floods.

Scientists had developed forecasts for the migration of radionuclides in aerosols in the direction of Kiev and methods for limiting the movement of aerosols. Unfortunately, forests and green spaces were still contaminated. Moreover, the radiation situation in Kiev was tense. Scientists used their counter arguments. So, they decided to monitor the pollution of the city.

The result, obtained from 15 location points collected in all districts of the capital, left no choice. So, there was a decision to collect and bury several hundred thousand tons of foliage. But it was colossal amount of work. Also, a reasonable evidence of scientists under the leadership of B. Paton became the argument for the evacuation of 500,000 children from Kiev.

So, when time came for the post-accident start-ups of the surviving power units of the ChNPP, work went directly by the Electric Welding Institute. The employees of the Institute, headed by Boris Evgenievich, joined preparations for the start-up of the power units. They had to develop and implement new welding methods on the move. It was discovered during the test run of the 1st power unit that the valve was faulty in one of the pipelines. Hot radioactive steam whistled out of the pipeline to the outside. Inspection showed large cracks in the valve, and in some other places.

Paton and the ChNPP: cooperation until the last breath

Chairman of the Government Commission Shcherbina appealed to Boris Paton for urgent help. The Institute’s specialists came to the conclusion that the valves need urgent repair. In the shortest possible time, special electrodes were produced on the experimental equipment of the Electric Welding Institute. And the ChNPP power units were ready to resume operation two days later.

Also, the specialists of the Paton Institute had improved dosimeters. The main thing was that European rules and dosimetry tools had become a basis since their invention. This made it possible to introduce high-quality dosimetric control of food products in the areas near the Chernobyl NPP.

In the 1990s, cooperation between the national Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the Electric Welding Institute continued. The Interdisciplinary Scientific and Technical Center Shelter started working. It included researchers, doctors and candidates of sciences. Research was actively carried out to limit the consequences of the accident within the framework of republican programs. So, there were several main objectives of the research:

  • improving the scientific foundations for optimizing the life of people suffered an accident;
  • scientific justification for the rehabilitation of contaminated areas and conducting of environmental protection activities in conditions of radioactive contamination;
  • study of fundamental issues of ecosystem sustainability to technogenic accidents;
  • ensuring nuclear and radiation safety of the Shelter;
  • localization and disposal of radioactive waste, development of practical recommendations for reducing the dose load of the population.

Boris Paton took part in the construction of the confinement

In the 2000s, the Electric Welding Institute collaborated with the ChNPP as an expert in metal structures. Academician Paton supervised the work on the implementation of welds for the new ventilation pipe and safe confinement. Moreover, he was the main consultant to colleagues regarding the construction of a new “dry” spent nuclear fuel storage facility (ISF-2).

Paton and the Chernobyl NPP are an unprecedented amount of work, the speed of introduction of new technologies during the “hot period” of liquidation of the consequences of the accident. Academician Paton, together with other scientists, played an important role in the establishment of the Institute for the Safety of Nuclear Power Plants.

Boris Paton admitted that he never aspired to awards. Much more important to him was what people call “living with a clear conscience”. Looking back at the positive results of the work, he once said: “The Academy can look our people into the eyes!” And this time, as always, he was right…