Atomic Reactors Serve Peace: A Soviet-Era Czech Guide to Nuclear Power

June 29, 2017

Atomic Reactors Serve Peace: A Soviet-Era Czech Guide to Nuclear Power

For many people nuclear energy conjures horrific images - barrels of radioactive waste that can't be safely stored, or the hulking sarcophagus of Chernobyl. But during the 1950s nuclear power had very different connotations. For the men and women who lived through the Second World War, the atomic bombing of Japan, and the rise of the Cold War, nuclear energy for civilian use represented the hope for a better future, one that would be powered by almost unlimited supplies of clean, inexpensive power. It would be "Atoms for Peace" instead of war, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it in a speech to the UN in 1953. The Soviet Union and its satellites, too, felt the pull of this remarkable new technology, and in 1954 the world's first nuclear power plant opened in Obninsk, from where it supplied small amounts of power to the Moscow electrical grid.

Just a few years later, in 1956, an agreement was reached between the Soviet Union and its client state Czechoslovakia for the construction of a nuclear power plant at Jaslovské Bohunice in western Slovakia. It would be powered by a KS 150 heavy water reactor running on locally-mined, unenriched uranium. This wonderful new acquisition, Atomová Energie. Základy technikého využiti (Atomic Energy. Technical Fundamentals. If you speak Czech and see a translation mistake please let me know) by Jan Tůma, was published in Prague in 1957, possibly in anticipation of the power plant's construction. 

The book, which is printed in both Czech and a second language that is probably Slovak, was probably designed for schools, libraries, and other educational institutions. It begins with chapters on the atom, the discovery of atomic energy, and the history of nuclear reactors, followed by sections titled “From Heavy Water to the Reactor of Tomorrow” and “Atomic Reactors Serve Peace”. The chapters that follow describe different types of reactor (graphite, “uranium and heavy water”, “common water”, and “fast” reactors) and safety precautions. The image below is a slightly fanciful diagram of "the world's first reactor" - the nuclear pile built by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago as a proof of concept.

The text is heavily illustrated, with all the images only loosely inserted and numbered on the backs to correspond to the text so that they can easily be put back into place. There are photos of reactor employees at work, as well as buildings, technology, and equipment such as radiation-proof suits and Geiger counters:

This photo depicts a reactor core:

Many of the diagrams show cut-aways of reactors, and energy and particle flows.


One of the most interesting illustrations is a delightful montage depicting what the Brussels Atomium (then under construction) might look like when it was completed.

Also included is “The first photograph of atoms”, an image of rhenium atoms taken by Dr. Erwin Müller of Pennsylvania State, who was the first scientist to directly observe individual atoms, using the field ion microscope he invented.

This is a stylish and fascinating record of the very early, hopeful promotion of nuclear energy in the Soviet sphere. It's also rare - a worldwide library catalogue search locates no copies of any edition of this text, although there are some other educational works on nuclear energy by the same author, Jan Tůma. Nuclear energy has suffered a substantial drop in popularity in the wake of disasters and political controversies, and the energies of the future are now predicted to be environmentally friendly renewables, but Atomová Energie remains a fantastic relic of the Atomic Age.