Atomflot floats possibility of building yet more newline icebreakers

Chukchi_Sea ice Researchers aboard an icebreaker studying ice in the Chukchi Sea. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, is reportedly in talks with government ministries in an effort to secure two more multibillion dollar icebreakers to add to the three it’s already expecting, according to media reports.

The new drive for yet more icebreakers of the LK-60 line follows on new draft legislation that would give Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom total control over developing Russia’s fabled Northern Sea Route.

According to the business daily Kommersant, Atomflot is in talks with Russia’s state Unified Shipbuilding Corporation, the security counsel and the presidential administration to get the green light for the additional icebreakers.

Atomflot chief Vyacheslav Ruksha seemed to confirm the new aspirations at a conference on Arctic development last week. According to the paper, he told the gathering the only thing needed for swelling natural gas development “is an increase in the number of icebreakers.”

The new icebreakers already under construction are part of Russia’s development scheme for the liquefied natural gas bonanza brewing on the Yamal Peninsula, which juts like finger north from Western Siberia into the icy Kara Sea. The multinational, $20 billion project run by Russia’s Novatek, reached operational capacity early this month.

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. (Photo: Murmansky Vestnik)

Immediately after that, Novatek announced expansion plans called “Arctic LNG-2,” under which the corporation will develop a second gas field on the peninsula. At the Arctic conference, Ruksha strongly hinted he would be asking for two more icebreakers likely to cost about $1.8 billion each to lead convoys from the new field.

Executives from the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation confirmed to the newspaper that talks of a fourth and fifth newline nuclear icebreaker were underway, but suggested that the design for the newer ones would be fundamentally different from the LK-60 line.

Yet another source, anonymously identified by the newspaper as a highly placed official in the domestic shipbuilding industry, went further than that, saying that at least five LK-60 icebreakers, plus three of a new design, would be needed to keep the Northern Sea Route open year round.

For its part, Rosatom has refused to comment on potential new icebreaker development. But many experts see the corporation’s victorious campaign to wrestle control of the Northern Sea Route from Russia’s Ministry of Transport as a clear path to new icebreaker construction.

icebreaker-lider3oaoosk A mock-up of the bow of the Lider, as pictured in the Unified Shipbuilding Company's magazine. (Source: oaoosk.ru)

The most discussed new icebreaker is the fabled Lider, a sleek vessel whose sci-fi design first appeared in the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation’s trade magazine. The Lider was widely regarded as a nuclear industry fever dream until the Kremlin gave the nod to Rosatom’s new legislation.

Before it gets there, the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation is still building three so called multipurpose nuclear icebreakers. The hulls of the first two, the Artkika and the Sibir – both named for the older icebreakers they will replace – have been floated at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg. The third, called the Ural, is slated to take to the water in 2021.

The new vessels are larger than their predecessors, but with a shallower draught that allows them to navigate both the open sea as well as river tributaries to the Russian Arctic.

But all of the new ships are running late thanks Russia’s ongoing hostilities with Ukraine. Orders for critical turbine components initially contracted by Rosatom to Ukraine have been canceled, and European Union companies that can produce them aren’t allowed to sell them to Moscow. Russian companies have been slow to take up the slack.

Meanwhile, there remain questions about how long it would take to develop a second gas field in Yamal. The initial Yamal LNG project was itself hit by Western sanctions. It took a $12 billion bailout from China, Yamal’s primary intended customer, to keep the years long project from going under.

It’s unclear yet as to whether China would grant a second cash infusion to circumvent sanctions yet again.

Without this second gas field, it’s unclear whether the icebreakers at Atomflot would have enough to do. Even as the opening of the first Yamal field was eminent, the port retired one of its older icebreakers because it had too little work to justify the cost of keeping it afloat.

 

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no