A day in the life of the Kola PMU

30 June 1998

Steve Watson, from NNC Ltd, was head of the PMU from March 1996 to April 1998. He gives this personal recollection from a day in the winter of 1997.

I am normally woken at 06:30 by the sound of someone galloping down the steps of the 5-storey apartment block in which I live in the power station town of Polyarnie Zori. If the sound of his boots doesn’t wake me, his slamming of the communal doors which are right next to my bedroom most certainly will.

Assuming conditions in the ionosphere are favourable, I will listen to the BBC World Service for half an hour of news and comment before leaping out of bed for another day in the frozen North. My first movements are towards the electronic device in the corner which indicates how cold it is “out there” and determines my selections from the wardrobe.

When I first moved into this apartment, when it was new at the start of last winter, my thermometric friend reassuringly confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my own sensing systems. It really was only 9°C in the room. This year, things are better – it would appear that it takes a complete heating season to warm the building and its 1 metre thick solid walls.

At around 08:00 protected by hat, coat, boots and gloves, it’s out to the car parked just by my bedroom window.

Last year, after the car had been vandalised by a drunken, love-sick, xenophobic youth, I rented a garage but this turned out to be something of a nightmare. It would take around 15 minutes of slipping and sliding to get across the town, in the cold and dark, and then with frost-bitten digits another 5 minutes struggle with the frozen lock and hinges to gain access to the garage. Inside it was actually warmer than my apartment. That was the easy part. Being at the end of a row, my neighbours all moved their snow my way and with nowhere else for it to go I was forced to pile it up like a stockade. Eventually, with the build-up of snow and ice it became impossible to get the car to the garage so I gave up the fight. I think there could be a whole book on “garage life” here in Polyarnie Zori.

Starting the car is not usually a problem unless the temperature is below minus 20°C when the diesel starts to freeze in the fuel lines. At any temperature below around minus 15°C however, it is always a bit of a shock getting into the car because the seats are solid! After they have warmed up a bit, through the acquisition of heat from one’s nether regions, they gradually become a little softer again.

There are usually two or three members of the team to pick up around the town before setting off for the plant about 15 km away. If it is very cold and dark as we drive out of town, one cannot help noticing the weird effect above some of the street lights. Although they provide down-lighting the higher wattage units also create something like an anti-aircraft searchlight, beaming vertically into the ink black sky. Perhaps there is the basis for a post-graduate thesis.

The obvious difficulties of driving in arctic conditions are alleviated somewhat by the low volume of traffic. Survival and arrival, however, require the driver to eschew any tendency to complacency just because we have ABS and studded tyres. A new fall of snow can have you off the road or stuck up to the axles surprisingly quickly. Being marooned at the roadside in winter is not recommended as a way to spend the evening.

The roads are covered with snow and ice from October to April, but within a couple of days of a snow fall it has bedded down and poses no real problem, apart that is, from the “dust effect”. If you cannot see very far in front of you, as you travel North to Murmansk, or wherever, it probably means that there is a 40 tonne truck, encrusted with snow and ice just ahead. Tearing along, oblivious of all who follow, it throws up a smoke screen of powdered snow which merges with the sky, the road and the surroundings to create a “white-out”. You know the truck is there but you cannot quite be sure where.

Driving to the plant we pass along the edge of the frozen Lake Imandra, one of Europe’s largest lakes and may notice (even in winter) a motor cycle/sidecar combination or two parked at the lakeside. These machines bear a remarkable similarity to the BMW units of World War 2 (I’ve seen them in the movies), but can you imagine spending eight hours in temperatures around minus 25°C fishing through a hole in the ice, and then climbing onto one, to ride home for a fish supper?

On arrival at the administration building we must first wait for a “minder” to accompany us to the PMU office. This is where the working days and perhaps our problems start. Has the minder arrived? Can we get in? Will the soldiers want to check everything we are carrying against the list of items we are allowed to take to and fro? We can usually be in within 15 minutes of arriving.

Even in the middle of winter the first thing to do on entering the office is to open the windows. This seems to be the only form of central heating control available and its practice is widespread if not a little wasteful.

Since we are dealing with suppliers around the world there will usually be a bundle of warm faxes sitting on the machine waiting for attention. The senders have probably just left for home at the end of their working day, several thousand kilometres to our west (and south).

Northern Lights

The winters here are long, cold and dark and for around six weeks or so even at midday it is barely light outside the office. There is just an eerie grey glow. However, in late February and March crowds have been noted gathering on the main staircase near the PMU office, to view the Northern Lights. I do not pretend to understand the effect but it bears some similarity to that produced when oil and water are mixed, lit from an oblique angle and viewed from below.

Over the years I have recognised that project management in its various forms is about managing change. For years the buzz words have been “time and cost” but latterly, dare I say it, “added value’” has joined the fray.

Things however, are quite different at a nuclear power plant in the Kola Peninsula. The commercial world we have learned to love doesn’t exist here and this is reflected in almost all my daily “doings”.

For most of the working day, I must forget about my own personal contribution to production which would normally be an essential, bearing in mind the very small team. For this PMU to make any progress, my job is to create an environment (in terms of facilities and resources) in which the other members of the team can work effectively and with the minimum of disturbance.

Around 18:00, members of our little band start to drift into the office, a sure indication that they are ready to leave. Most of the other folk at the plant left an hour or so beforehand but they have loved ones to return to.

Generally we are all ready to go by 18:30, with any packages ready for dispatch to suppliers by the next vehicle travelling to Murmansk, or to be carried by a team member travelling further afield.

As we leave the administration building, a PMU “tradition” which has developed over the last couple of years, is enacted most winter evenings; guessing the outside temperature before we get an accurate indication from the instrument in the car. If it is below minus 12°C the hairs in my nose freeze within a couple of seconds and that is generally the basis of my wager.

Arriving back at the communal entrance to my apartment block I am immediately aware of a smell reminiscent of a dry-pit closet in the tropics. And it is not just the smell. Entering the building with partial snow blindness you might be convinced that your sight has now failed totally, that is until you realise that someone has stolen the bulb from the stairwell again.

Most evenings I am back in my apartment by around 19:15 and facing the problem faced the world over by returning workers: what to make for the evening meal and should I have a “little drink” before deciding? Fortunately, my fridge and cupboards are relatively well stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and a few other goodies brought out monthly from Tesco in the UK. The thought of trudging through the snow in the dark to buy a few shrivelled carrots from the tented market area (yes tents), holds little or no appeal.

A drink of red wine as the meal is prepared starts to make it all seem worthwhile and helps mellow one a little in anticipation of another call from head office. I have lost count of the number of meals spoilt as a result of an extended telephone discussion of the day’s affairs.

By the time the evening meal is over a couple of hours remain to complete those tasks which should have been done in the office or to attend to personal papers, and then perhaps read or listen to the BBC World Service again.

And so to bed, early perhaps, in readiness for a long day’s drive through the arctic wastes to Kirkenes in Norway to renew the PMU car’s temporary importation visa. Should I check out the GPS and satellite phone? No leave it until tomorrow.

Tomorrow is another day......

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