The Nuclear Arctic

PHOTO by Sergei Belyavy / TASS
The story behind Russia’s northernmost nuclear power station

Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant is the northernmost nuclear power plant in Russia. During the Soviet era, it provided local people with relatively inexpensive energy. But why was a nuclear power plant constructed so far north in the first place? What challenges did the engineers have to deal with? And what is the future of this ambitious project?

Let’s start off with some geography. The Bilibio district, part of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, is located in the basin of Kolyma River. According to surviving historical documents, this is the location of one of the first encounters between Russian explorers and the local Chukchi people. These lands remained undeveloped and little-known for a long time, although Russian and local traders met here to exchange goods from time to time.

This status quo was shattered in 1941, when gold was discovered in Maly Anyuy River and following by even greater discovery at the Karalvaam River in 1955. The gold rush led to the region’s rapid infrastructural development: a highway connecting previously remote areas was soon followed by an airfield servicing AN-2 biplanes. A camp with tents and living quarters for local workers arrived at roughly the same time.

Having appeared practically overnight, the new settlement was named in 1956 after Soviet geologist Yuri Bilibin: a key figure in the country’s gold surveying effort in the Arctic. Bilibino’s population grew until became a district centre in 1961, giving its name to the entire region.

Power Centre

By the mid-1960s, the district was becoming home to more specialists and workers as the regional gold industry ramped its work. Supporting production along with residential services required a lot of energy. Chukotka is a vast and desolate region, and Bilibino is remote even by Chukotka standards. Shipping fuel to local power plants was an expensive ordeal.

This situation led the Soviet government to authorise the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The decree, signed January 14, 1965, envisioned the creation of the world’s first Arctic power station. While the plant also required fuel shipments, its efficiency far outstripped traditional power stations: requiring 40 metric tons of radioactive material versus 200 thousand metric tons of coal per year.

This was not only the first remote nuclear power plant, but it was the first to be exposed to the harsh Arctic climate. Already strict regulations were re-examined for the project. Designers wanted to simplify the build to ensure the project could be easily constructed and to minimise the risk of something going wrong. All parts of the facility were designed to be contained under a single roof to facilitate easy thermal regulation.

Leonid Gurevich, the project’s chief engineer, later recalled that “not a single member of the design team visited Bilibino, and there was a bunch of wild rumors about the place.” While specialists who went to the future site did not find anything out of the ordinary, they did encounter a number of understandable challenges. “First of all, we spent a lot of time finding the perfect spot for the plant – the mountainous terrain had a lack of flat areas. Finally, we found it just three kilometers away from Bilibino,” Gurevich said.

Tass 2731825 2000
A view of the Bilibino nuclear power plant during the polar night, 1974.

Komsomol Determination

The project was given a priority status in 1966, and the Soviet Union’s most motivated workers were encouraged to apply their fervor there. Soon, members of the Communist Party’s youth wing, the Komsomol, had flocked to Bilibino. A whole city block was evenutally created to house the young workers.

The construction’s most intensive phase started in 1967, when erection of the main building and auxiliary facilities began. The student workforce, who came to Bilibino from all over the Soviet Union, helped not only to build the plant, but to improve the town and its infrustructure as well.

Assembly work at the power plant began in 1969, with the job finally being finished in 1971. The era’s cutting edge technology was used. It was only then when the work on the actual power generator began with fitting of radiator cooling units and supporting facilities.

Qualified staff from across the Communist world took part in this undertaking. Hungary provided cooling units, while Czechoslovakia shipped turbogenerators. Following a two year stretch of non-stop work, the first power unit finally began operation, with power first flowing from the plant to Bilibino and its adjacent villages in 1974. A new energy unit went online each year, until the fourth and final unit was launched in 1976.

The Bilibino plant not only produced electricity, but was the only heating source in the area. Previously a job for several boiler plants, it was now provided via a unified heat-power grid.

Tass 6846863 2000
Young constructors of the Bilibino nuclear power plant, 1973.

The Final Stretch

Although operating the Bilibino station is significantly more expensive than other nuclear power plants, it still remains a reliable power source for Chukotka. In the last 25 years, its output has gone largely with many regional enterprises closing and gold mining operations suspended. In mid 1980s the plant was producing 350 million kWh; by 2015 that figure had dropped to 215,9 kWh. At one point, in the mid-2000s, the Bilibino plant was producing only 160 million kWh a year.

Now, the power plant is entering its final years. Between 2019-2021 it will be decommissioned and replaced by world's first floating nuclear power plant, with maximum output of 70 megawatts produced by its two reactors. It will be deployed at the docks of Pevel city. It will produce enough electricity to power the whole of Chukotka, replacing not only the Bilibino plant, but Chaunskaya Thermal Power Plant as well.

Yet, this is not a purely happy ending. The vast majority of the town’s population are employed at the plant and people will lose their jobs. Some workers are expected to transfer to the mining industry, with the Chukotka government planning to renew copper and gold production in the near future. The power plant which built a city, could also herald its end.