Russia taking on Northern Sea Route as Bellona raises alarm over Norwegian vessels under escort of nuclear icebreakers

MURMANSK – The Russian news agency RIA Novosti earlier this month hosted a roundtable discussion on developing the Arctic Northern Sea Route, the possibilities of exploiting cargo transport through it, the future of the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet, and legislation needed to effect these plans.

Notably, legal instruments concerning icebreaker escort through the Northern Sea Route and amendments to Russia maritime law were the target of much of the discussion.

The theme of the roundtable had particular resonance in Norway, as the scandal surrounding the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50-Let-Pobedy (50-Years-Victory) that set sail two years ago to to clear ice for the Norwegian owned MV Nordic Barents vessel as it travelled the route to China has been the focus of a recent Norwegian media scandal.

The MV Nordic Barents was hired by a Danish shipping company by the Norway-based Tchudi Shipping Company, owned by Norwegian billionaire Felix Tchudi.

Scandal over Northern Sea Route shipments in Norway

Last month it was revealed by Norwgiain daily Dagbladet that Tchudi has received expedited grants – including a grant that was approved four days after it was applied for – from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Tchudi’s close friend and Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.  

According to the paper, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008 granted NOK 6 million to the establishment of the Centre for High North Logistics (CHNL). The application for the 5-year project, which is stipulated to end in 2013, had been made by billionaire Tschudi, and Tschudi is also chairman of the board.

“We are strongly critical of Norwegian companies using nuclear icebreakers and that public money from foundations that Tchudi oversees have gone to such a project,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s managing director and nuclear physicist.

“It is very unfortunate because there have been several serious accidents involving nuclear powered icebreakers, including fires. A nuclear accident far out in the ice can cause catastrophic damage in the Arctic’s sensitive ecosystem,” he said, adding, “During a serious accident far from shore, accompanied by a meltdown of an icebreaker’s reactor, it is such a long distance to land that it is almost impossible to mount a rescue mission – it would take too long to arrive and would be too late.”

Defining the area considered to be the Northern Sea Route, Bellona Murmansk director Andrei Zolotkov said, “we can figuratively say that the Northern Sea Route begins at the Kola Peninsula.”

Industrial and nuclear waste concerns in Russia

Zolotkov’s concerns lie with the massive industrial build-up certain to follow on more shipping through the area.

It is precisely along the western side of the Kola Gulf that enormous build-outs in the area of the coal and oil industry, such as terminals, refineries, are planned – meaning tens of thousands of tons more cargo, said Zolotkov.

“One can assume that the [Russian Naval] Northern Fleet will start building up their own number of vessels and submarines,” said Zolotkov.

Zolotkov noted that neither Murmansk nor Severomorsk – another important port city on the Kola Gulf – have the means to clean oil spills.

“The Kola Gulf has already been seriously polluted by petroleum products, industrial waste and sewage. This is all visible to the naked eye. But for all of these problems, the concerns and consensus about these developments for local residents remains invisible,” said Zolotkov. “We better be careful, Gazprom, Rosatom, and the Ministry of Defense, before we kill off Kola Bay, turning it into a lifeless basin.”

Traffic flow the Northern Sea Route

Using the Northern Sea Route has a variety of advantages, including swift delivery of cargoes to Asia from Europe and he West and the lack of piracy to which Asia bound cargoes are prone as they pass through the Suez Canal off the coast of Africa.

But there are also complexities to using it as a cargo highway, primarily difficult ice and weather conditions and the subsequent unpredictability of cargo delivery times. There are also dangers to the ships and crews and the environment.

According to Andrei Smirnov, deputy general director of Atomflot, the port that houses Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet in Murmansk, using the northern sea route for deliveries to China shaves some 3,000 to 4,000 nautical miles off the standard route.

“In 2010, four trips through the Northern Sea Route were completed and 110,000 tons of cargo delivered,” said Smirnov. “In 2011, more than 800,000 tons of cargo were delivered despite the fact that our capacity and icebreakers make it possible to deliver somewhere in the field of 8 million tons a year.”

In Norway, Bøhmer zeroed in on Tschudi’s apparent plans for exploiting the Northern Sea Route for new trade routes to between Russia, China and Norway. 

“I think it worthy of criticism that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supporting a project that endorses the use of nuclear icebreakers to such a degree,” he said. “When supporting a project that requires the use of nuclear ice breaker, the government is involved in increasing, not reducing, the risk of accidents and radioactive pollution.”

New legislation governing the Northern Sea Route

Current legal bases regulating Northern Sea Route rely on an order from the Russian Ministry of Marine Affairs that allows for navigation along the route. The order defines safety and anti-pollution measures – and it came under fire at the round table discussion from other quarters of the government.

“This order is already 20 years old – today we live in a different country, and now the time has come to consider navigation regulations taking into account new technologies and a contemporary normative base,” said Vitaly Klyuev, deputy director of the department of government policy in the area of sea and river transport of the Russian Ministry of Transportation. 

He said the Duma had approved in first reading a bill prepared by the Transport Ministry that will introduce amendments in a number of pieces of legislation, specifically ones regarding navigation on the Northern Sea Route.

“We expect the bill will be come a law in the near future,” Klyuev said. The bill must pass three readings to be adopted as law.

The bill details a so-called Administration of the Northern Sea Route, which will become a federal structure. Its functions will include the organization and administrative implementation of shipments along the route.

This law is also expected to regulate civil law issues of relations among marine traffic participants, including the terms and conditions of providing icebreaker assistance, pilotage services, and assistance in navigation or communication.

Mikhail Suslin, chief inspector with Sovkomflot, the Russian state petroleum and liquefied natural gas shipping giant, said that in order for the application of the future to be practical,

it will be necessary to define the authority and responsibility of the Administration of the Northern Sea Route as an organ implementing state regulation of the route’s navigation with the goal of guaranteeing its safety and general accessibility.

Some semantics must also be nailed down, such as the meaning of “vessels escort,” “ice escort,” “ice pilotage escort,” and “headquarters of sea operations.”

“In order to assure the safety of vessels and crews that do not have experience in ice conditions, its crucial to create an institute of ice condition advisors comprised of [ship] captains, and fortify their legal status and make provisions for simplified customs clearance procedures for them,” Suslin said.

How to define the Northwest Sea Route

As the draft law was being prepared, the issue of what precisely ought to be codified as the basin of the Northern Sea Route was under hot debate.

“Here we must conform to the conditions of the international UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which Russia is an adherent of,” said Klyuev. “The convention establishes that the principle of free maritime traffic is applicable to all seas, including territorial seas, exclusive economic zones in the sea, and moreover, the open sea where no one has jurisdiction.”

Navigation rules must be established if only out of consideration for the environmental concerns linked to pollution from ships, and only in those seas where ice is present for more than half the year. Such icy water bodies themselves constitute the Northern Sea Route.

“Last year’s experience with cargoes through the Northern Sea Route shows that oil an petroleum products can be transported through it,” said Klyuev. “This places more obligations on Russia to prevent oil spills in icy conditions, as oil spills in such circumstances are significantly more difficult to clean up than they are in the open ocean.”

Because of this, an agreement was signed last year under the aegis of the Arctic Council –  a high level intergovernmental forum addressing issues faced by Arctic governments and indigenous peoples –  establishing mutual responsibility among the Arctic rim countries for aiding people harmed by potential accidents.

New icebreaker fleet

According to Klyuev, Russia is turning serious attention to financing navigation projects in the Northern Sea Route. Russia has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, but icebreakers age. Therefore suggestions are aloft that the icebreaker fleet undergo an update. 

This year has seen a decision to build four diesel-electric powered icebreakers and a first new nuclear-powered one to replace the old nuclear icebreakers that are due for decommissioning.

“All shipbuilding will be funded by the state budget, and the use of the icebreakers will be funded by government and private funds – that is , they will be financed from the federal budget and non-federal budget sources based on agreements with customers reqiring the services of icebreakers,” said Klyuev. “This is also envisioned in the legislation.”

He said that by “2016 to 2018, when full-scale gas condensate extraction begin in the Gulf of Ob, and plans to increase the cargo traffic by 20 million tons annually are implemented, we will need a new generation of icebreaker,” said Atomflot deputy general director Smirnov, who added that all of Russia’s current icebreakers, with the exception of the Rossiya, can remain in service until 2022.