Russia launches new nuclear icebreaker in bid for Arctic dominance

The launch of the Ural nuclear icebreaker in St Petersburg
The launch of the Ural nuclear icebreaker in St Petersburg
Baltic Shipyard

Publish date: May 28, 2019

Russia launched a nuclear icebreaker on Saturday as part of an ambitious program to renew and expand its fleet of ice-class vessels in order to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential.

Russia launched a nuclear icebreaker on Saturday as part of an ambitious program to renew and expand its fleet of ice-class vessels in order to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential.

The new ship, dubbed the Ural, which was floated at the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg, is one of a line of three new icebreakers that Russia says will be the most powerful in the world.

The vessels are the centerpiece of Moscow’s massive Arctic ambitions – which now account for one-tenth of all of its economic investments. The Ural will be handed over to Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, in 2022, after the two other icebreakers in the same line, the Arktika and the Sibir, have entered service.

Each icebreaker is 173 meters long and powered by two RITM-200 nuclear reactors capable of propelling them through ice up to three meters thick to keep shipping routes clear. Together they will be responsible for keeping the Northern Sea Route – the 6,000-kilometer Arctic sea passage running along Russia’s northern coast – open to commercial navigation year round, rather than just a few months out of the year.

Yet more icebreakers are to come. Vycheslav Ruksha, who heads up Rosatom’s Northern Sea Route directorate, promised that more, from the as-yet-to-be-built Leader, would take to the seas by 2027. The new vessels will replace the aging icebreakers Atomflot, the nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, currently has on hand. The elder Arktika and Sibir icebreakers – for which the new ones are named – were both launched in the 1970s, and have been decommissioned.

For a cost of about $500 million to $1.5 billion a piece, Moscow expects to have nine new nuclear icebreakers by 2035.

“Without a modern nuclear icebreaking fleet, it is impossible to imagine the development of the Northern Sea Route,” Ruksha said. “ We are awaiting the start of construction of the Leader nuclear-powered icebreakers. With their appearance in the Arctic, it will be possible to talk about year-round navigation along the Northern Sea Route.”

The shipbuilding bustle follows a demand from Vladimir Putin that cargo traffic through the Arctic reach 80 million tons a year by 2024 – a fourfold increase over current levels. Much of that traffic, Moscow hopes, will be accounted for by natural gas from the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Siberia.

The Yamal LNG project, which went into production earlier this year, expects to ship 15.5 million tons of natural gas a year. The Yamal LNG II project, expected to open in 2023, will add another 19.8 billion tons.

Yet more traffic will be accounted for by oil – much of it from pipelines funneled from Central Siberia to Arctic seaports specifically to fulfill Putin’s increased cargo demands.

But it’s not just traffic from fossil fuel industries that Moscow is banking on. Earlier this year, Russian Parliament adopted legislation giving Rosatom a monopoly over managing access to the Northern Sea Route through its icebreakers, which will chaperone foreign traffic.

The Russian government’s claim that shippers need Moscow’s permission to pass through the route has irked some. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the Kremlin’s intentions to run the Northern Sea Route like a toll road “illegal.”

But others, like China, are keen to play by Moscow’s rules – in exchange for part of the profits. Beijing, which is the largest foreign investor in Russia’s Yamal LNG project, is developing an Arctic trade strategy that has dubbed “The Polar Silk Road.” Shippers in South Korea and Denmark have conducted pilot voyages through the Northern Sea Route as well.

Moscow has meanwhile backed up its claims as the Arctic’s traffic cop with military might. Ten disused Arctic military airfields have been reopened, and 13 more are being built. The bases cover almost the entire coastline and are, if required, ready to protect or disrupt any traffic along the North Sea Route.

All of this is part of a bigger bet Russia is making on climate change. According to data from NASA, Arctic ice has shrunk by 12.8 percent a year on average since 1979. Last year’s ice cover was 42 percent lower than 1980. By some estimates, the entire Polar Region could be largely ice-free by 2050.

While most nations with access to the Arctic have been shy about commercializing the pristine polar environment, Putin has not. The Kremlin strategy suggests that by the time climate change helps make the Northern Sea Route navigable all year, Russia will have full control of any traffic on the route, and will be actively exploiting it for its own commodity exports, shortening their path to Asia.

How that approach will affect the rest of the world, however, is not in dispute. According to a study published by the science journal Nature, Russia’s current climate policies would push up global temperatures by more than 5 degrees Celsius — at least 3 degrees higher than the limit climate scientists are aiming for.