Reactor to Russian nuclear icebreaker Arktika stopped, signaling dusk on a golden age of Soviet technology

MURMANSK – The reactor a symbol of Soviet glory, the Arktika nuclear icebreaker, which sailed to the north pole and set a record by spending a year at sea without putting into port, was shut down Friday, bringing the 33-year-old vessel’s days of exploration to a close.Scientific experiments will be conducted at the base of the ship over the next few years.

The construction of the Arktika – which between 1982 and 1986 was dubbed the Leonid Brezhnev – ushered in the age of the wide use of the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet, and it was the lead boat in a class of five other long-running ice breakers – the Sibir, the Rossiya, the Sovietsky Soyuz, and the Yamal.

Construction of the Arktika began in the berths of the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg on July 3rd 1971, and was put into service in the far north in 1975.

The Arktika’s hour of triumph came with it’s voyage to the north pole – a moment considered to be the pride of Russia nuclear icebreaker fleet. Fleet aficionados are quick to point out other moments of glory.

In 2000, the Arktika spent exactly one year at sea without putting into port. In 2005, the ship reached one million nautical miles on it’s odometer. And this year, on the even of its last voyage, the ship set its own sort of record – one not exactly electing the excitement of the environmental community, but lauded by the ship’s builders:  it reached 175,000 hours of use on its reactor, which was only designed to operate for 100,000.

The nuclear icebreaker fleet

Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet has seen better days. Work orders for the vessels have fallen, the boats are getting older and require dangerous extensions of their engineered resource lives or have to be taken out of service, and the prestige of serving in the icebreaker fleet has fallen to a minimum.  

The icebreaker fleet currently consists of nine vessels. Two of them the Lenin and the Arktika have been taken out of service. Two have not yet reached the end of their engineered resource lifespan, The 50 Years Victory and the Yamal.

The remaining ships have reached their engineered resource limits, but have received controversial extensions to continue working. Nevertheless, the inevitable decommissioning of the bulk of the fleet is quickly approaching – and there is no money to do even that.

At one point a law was passed indicating that funds to cover the decommissioning of nuclear icebreakers be established. However, this fund for nuclear icebreakers never came into existence.

The future of the Arktika
According to Mustafa Kashka, the chief engineer of Atomflot, which sees after the upkeep of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers, Atomflot will soon develop a conversion programme and a dismantlement strategy for nuclear icebreakers. The main task behind working out these documents is including dismantlement work on the Artkika in a Federal Target Programme, or extra-budgetary allocation, that would cover such projects. The federal target programme is called “Nuclear and Radiation Safety for the years 2008 through 2012.”

Until these loose fiscal ends are drawn together, however, the Arktika will remain docked at Atomflot for research work, which will consist largely of experiments developed to determine how to extend the engineered resource life of other nuclear icebreakers.

“The lifespan of the Arktika was extended for eight years,” a spokesman for Atomflot said. “Scientists first ordered a resource extension on the vessel’s reactor to 150,000 hours, which was taken into account during the resource lifespan extensions on other nuclear icebreakers.”

According to Bellona Murmansk’s coordinator for nuclear and radiation safety projects, Andrei Ponomarkeno, the fate of the nuclear icebreaker fleet is understandable.

“By the example of the Sibir, it is apparent that keeping vessels at anchor for long periods of time, paying the crew minimally, and saving money on repairs is an untenable situation,” he said.   

“Otherwise, this leads to the aging of equipment, a reduction of the usable capacity because of a lack of prophylactic work, and the theft of non-ferrous metals as well, of which there are many aboard an icebreaker,” said Ponomarenko, who served aboard the Sibir for two years.

“In all likelihood, the current owner of the nuclear fleet, the (Russian state nuclear corporation) Rosatom isn’t interested in quick dismantlement ‘of half the radioactive heaps of metal’ particularly those that have served out their terms as icebreakers,” Ponomarenko said.

Ponomarenko said that Rosatom has more important installations – such as the Lepse and Lotta floating technical bases, which are floating nuclear waste storage facilities – that demand its dismantling efforts, especially as they are envisioned in the “Nuclear and Radiation Safety” federal target programme. The dismantlement of nuclear icebreakers is therefore unlikely to fall high on the federal target programme’s priority list.