Russia begins building world’s most powerful icebreaker

Russia's nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika, touted as the strongest of its kind, pictured in Saint Petersburg on 14 December 2019 after a two-day test run. Credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s Zvezda shipyard has begun construction of the first ‘Leader’-class nuclear icebreaker named Russia, one of the first of a fleet that Russia plans to build by 2035 in a bid to improve ship safety in the Arctic. The Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom said the vessel is slated to become operational in 2027 to escort merchant vessels on the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

The new ‘Leader’-class icebreakers will be able to cut through a 4.3 m-thick ice sheet and stay at sea for eight months without entering a port. With a 120 MW power plant, the icebreaker will become the world’s most powerful.

By 2035, Rosatom plans to build five LK-60 nuclear icebreakers, three ‘Leader’-class nuclear icebreakers, four icebreakers on liquefied natural gas, 59 tankers, 21 bulkers, and 15 liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, the company said.

All tankers, bulkers, and carriers are planned to have an enhanced ice class, which means they would be able to navigate in the Arctic during summer months without the assistance of icebreakers.

By 2024, the Russian government also plans to expand the research and rescue fleet on the NSR with two multifunctional vessels with an 18 MW power plant, three with 7 MW, one with 4 MW, and 10 firefighting tugs. Rosatom announced plans in March 2020 to build three research and rescue centres in the Arctic in addition to the five existing ones.

Implementing these plans, Rosatom would ensure year-round safe navigation on the NSR, said Alexey Likhachev, general director of Rosatom, during a meeting at Rosatom’s Public Council on 16 July.

Plans might be revised

However, plans to add to Russia’s NSR fleet may be premature as ecological concerns mean that there may be less ship traffic in the region.

From 2024, all ships on the NSR, except for research and rescue fleets, would have to use only low-sulphur fuel, Maxim Kulinko, deputy director of Rosatom, said during the meeting. The Russian Transport Ministry has prepared a relevant draft law aiming to protect the environment in the region, Kulinko added.

Meanwhile, shipping companies have promised not to use the NSR over the ecological concerns.

In 2019, French container shipping company CMA CGM – the world’s fourth largest – became the first major operator to stay away from transiting the NSR. The company cited environmental concerns of operating “in the region’s challenging and vulnerable waters” as a primary impetus for its decision.

Since that time, several other companies followed suit, including Hapag-Lloyd and Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Yury Trutnev, the Russian president’s representative in the Far East, has recently admitted that the cargo flow on the NSR may fall short of the 80 million tonnes expected in 2024. In 2019, this figure climbed to 31.5 million tonnes – the highest figure ever – but further growth might be jeopardised by a cocktail of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental concerns.

According to Trutnev, the main reason for less traffic on the NSR is due to reduced output by the Russian coal company Vostokugol and oil company Novatek.

Warming up

The recent findings of scientists at the Russian Hydrometeorological Centre show that the Arctic is getting safer for ships; as average temperatures are going up, the ice thickness on transport routes is reducing.

In July, the Hydrometeorological Centre said the sea-ice formations in the Arctic had hit an all-time low in the history of observations.

The Arctic sea ice extent was at an all-time low in July, noted Roman Vilfand, head of research at the Hydrometeorological Centre.

He also said the NSR had become completely ice-free a month earlier than normal because of this phenomenon. This usually happens in late August and September, but the route became ice-free in July, he noted. This is likely to drive further melting of the Arctic cap in the coming years.

However, melting or thinner sea-ice formations is not necessarily safe for ships. In an article in the September 2020 issue of SAS, research scientists at the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center said that “even where ice substantially retreats in the Arctic, and areas are considered ‘ice-free’, there could still be floes of ice – thicker remnants that aren’t easily detectable in imagery but that could still pose a significant navigation hazard”.

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