Russia’s embattled new icebreakers may lag behind climate change

The Arktika nuclear icebreaker.
The Arktika nuclear icebreaker.

Publish date: October 28, 2020

Atomflot, Russia’s Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker base, was steeped in ceremony last week to mark the arrival of its newest vessel, the Arktika, billed as the most powerful of its type anywhere in the world, and seen as a key piece of Moscow’s polar development strategy.

Atomflot, Russia’s Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker base, was steeped in ceremony last week to mark the arrival of its newest vessel, the Arktika, billed as the most powerful of its type anywhere in the world, and seen as a key piece of Moscow’s polar development strategy.

Missing from the speeches, however, was any mention of the fact that the vessel had arrived four years late, had failed to complete one of its critical ice trials and had come into port on only partial steam, thanks to a broken electric propulsion engine on its starboard side.

For the past several years, the Kremlin has made construction of new generation nuclear icebreakers the centerpiece of its expansive Arctic strategy, which aims to open the Northern Sea Route – an often ice-bound 6,000-kilometer shipping artery from Europe to Asia that Moscow hopes will one day rival the Suez Canal.

The Arktika, which is named after the retired Soviet-era nuclear icebreaker that first reached the North Pole, has been touted as the crown jewel of this effort. Its stated mission is to help keep the Northern Sea Route open for navigation on a year-round basis.

In September, the Arktika set out on its maiden voyage from the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg with the aim of testing its icebreaking capabilities near the North Pole before it put into Murmansk on October 12. According to the official Tass newswire, the vessel traversed 4,900 nautical miles, some 1,050 of those through ice cover.

But according to Oleg Shchapin, who heads the Arktika’s delivery team, the ice the crew found was too thin to test the vessel’s full capabilities.

“The ice tests are still ahead, probably, this year because now the ice trials did not work with an ice of 1.1 to 1.2 meters thick,” Tass quoted him as saying. “It was thin and loose and the icebreaker did not get any resistance. We tried to find an ice floe three meters thick but to no avail.”

As the lead ship in Russia’s new LK-60 icebreaker line, the Arktika is 173 meters long and stands as tall as a 15-storey building. Its twin RITM-200 reactors deliver a combined 175 megawatts of power – enough, say its designers, to propel it through ice as thick as three meters.

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has said five other vessels in the class will take to the seas by the middle of this decade. The hulls of two – the Ural and the Sibir – have been launched at the Baltic Shipyard.

But the unprecedented heatwave that hit the Arctic region over the summer has left little ice for the Arktika and its younger brothers to break. The northern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk in June reported the hottest-ever temperature recorded above the Arctic Circle – topping the thermometer at 38 degrees Celsius. That’s in keeping with a trend that has seen Arctic temperatures rising at 2.5 times the speed of temperatures elsewhere in the world.

The thaw is having consequences on land as well. This summer saw an oil spill into Arctic rivers when the permafrost foundation of a diesel fuel storage tank gave way with the melt, marking Russia’s first major industrial disaster due to climate change.

Meanwhile, NASA reports that 2020 sea ice levels in the Arctic have shrunk to the second lowest level since recordkeeping began. The sea ice minimum recorded in September, fell to 3.74 million square kilometers. And new ice is slow to develop. According to reports in the Guardian, the protracted warm spell in the Arctic has meant that the usual October freeze on the Lapatev Sea has yet to arrive.

All of which might be good news for the Arktika in its current condition. Its damaged starboard engine reduces its power output by some 10 percent and eliminates the use of one of its three propellers, impacting its ability to plow through thicker ice.

Instead of replacing the 300-ton the engine prior to its deliver to Atomflot, however, officials deemed the ship worthy of “experimental usage” until repairs can be made. Atomflot has nonetheless filed three lawsuits against the Baltic Shipyard for failing to deliver the ship fully ready for duty and on schedule.

According to some Russian news outlets, these difficulties are just part of a larger problem facing the development of the new icebreaker line, on which the Kremlin has pinned so much of its economic hope. Various reports indicate that Rosatom’s timeline for the delivery of the other icebreakers in the LK-60 line are too optimistic, suggesting as much as another decade may be required to finish them.

As such, climate change-driven heatwave that boiled the Arctic this summer may be the most important trend working in favor of the Kremlin’s polar dominance strategy

At a high level meeting on September 23, experts told President Vladimir Putin to press ahead with Arctic development even before the new generation icebreakers are ready, given how quickly polar temperatures are rising.



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