Russia retires trailblazing icebreaker, with regret

IcebreakerSovetskiiSoyus The Sovietsky Soyuz Icebreaker. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Nilsen and the Barents Observer)

Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet is decommissioning one of its Cold War behemoths, the Sovietsky Soyuz, amid mixed reports that it was simply too expensive to keep the vessel in operation and in the shadow of questions over how necessary huge ships of its ilk really are.

The retirement of the 30-year-old vessel – which had been laid up at the Atomflot icebreaker port in Murmansk for the last 11 years ­­– marks a crossroads for Russia’s icebreaker ambitions.

While Moscow insists more icebreakers are needed to support Arctic gas and oil drilling efforts as well as to develop the little-traveled Northern Sea Route between Europe and Asia, western sanctions targeting huge oil deals are leaving the older icebreakers with less and less to do.

Russia launched the dual reactor Sovietsky Soyuz in 1989 and the ship became a last gasp of seafaring Communist glory in the dusk of the Soviet age. This week, Russian media carried gushing obituaries for the vessel lamenting the luxury of its accommodations: 150 cabins, a swimming pool, two saunas, a movie theater, a library, and just in case, a full fledged hospital wing.

The vessel was the fourth icebreaker in the Arktika class – which included the Sibir, the Rossiya, the Arktika, and the Yamal – begun under the rule of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev.  Its two reactors were designed to propel all 22,920 tons of it through ice up to five meters thick.

Chukchi_Sea ice Researchers aboard an icebreaker studying ice in the Chukchi Sea. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Icebreakers in its class quickly set records. The Arktika, which put to sea in 1975, made the first voyage of a nuclear icebreaker to the geographic North Pole, and later spent an entire year at sea without putting into port. The Sovietsky Soyuz followed in those northbound footsteps and bore tourists on the first pleasure cruise to the North Pole in 1990.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the prestige of the icebreaker fleet has dwindled and its fortunes have risen and fallen with budgetary crises and dashed oil hopes.

Arktika_icebr The Arktika nuclear icebreaker, which is soon slated for dismantlement. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1998, the Sovietsky Soyuz became mired in ice near Chukotka on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It broke free, but ten years later, in 2008, Atomflot decided to lay the boat up at dock. While there, it was often unceremoniously mined for spare parts to repair the other icebreakers in its class.

Still, several efforts to wring more use out of it were proposed by Moscow, and talk of extending the run time of its reactor to 150,000 hours made the rounds.

Soon, the vessel was seen as vital to oil exploration efforts in the Arctic. The Russian military had designs on it as well, and suggested turning the ship into a mobile floating command post for the Northern Fleet.

Last Friday, however, it became clear neither one of these new leases on the Sovietsky Soyuz’s life would come to pass. Vycheslav Ruksha, the long-time general director of Atomflot, issued a statement to the Bellona that was tinged with elegiac regret.

“Of course its sad to say farewell to a distinguished icebreaker, but questions of economic viability decided its fate,” he wrote.

Nuclear icebreaker The Russian nuclear icebreaker Yamal. Photo: Andreas Kokkvoll Tveit - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The vessel was initially sidelined at Atomlot as demand for leading cargo ships through the Arctic’s icy waters fell. While Moscow has bet that ice melt resulting from climate change would turn the Northern Sea Route into an East-West nautical superhighway, the route has failed to peel even a fraction of traffic away from its competitor, the Suez Canal. Potential customers  aren’t warming the expense of nuclear icebreaker escorts in exchange for negligible improvements on shipment time.

In 2014, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom floated plans to refurbish the Sovietsky Soyuz so it could be put to use in and anticipated oil gold rush to the Arctic. At the time, such a notion wasn’t a mere pipe dream. In 2011, ExxonMobil and Russian state oil giant Rosneft negotiated a breathtaking $500 billion Arctic oil drilling deal. Work for the Sovietsky Soyuz seemed assured.

But the oil deal was torpedoed later in 2014 when the US and the EU targeted Russia with sanctions for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and stirring up a proxy war in the country’s east.

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

Ruksha in his remarks to RIA Novosti noted the corrosive effects of the sanctions on the Sovietsky Soyuz’s future, and said they left the vessel “without work.”

With that news, the Sovietsky Soyuz joins its two older brothers, the Artkika and the Sibir, in line to the scrap metal heap. Decommissioning work on those two vessels is expected to take place at the Nerpa shipyard, north of Murmansk.

The Yamal and the 50-Let-Pobedy continue to sail and lead occasional customers through the Northern Sea Route, but they, too, are expected to retire to make way for yet newer icebreakers that are boasted to be even bigger.

One of those icebreakers, also called the Arktika, which is the lead ship in the LK-60 line, is already late getting onto the water. Originally scheduled to take to the seas in 2017, its launch date has been moved back to 2019 amid grumblings over other sanctions that have made getting critical parts of the ship’s machinery from Ukraine and Great Britain.  The Ural and the new Sibir icebreaker of the new line are also running behind their original schedules.

But that hasn’t stopped a proud trumpeting of the new icebreakers that has been equal to the boasts that attended their Soviet predecessors.

According to the Russian official press, the new ships will sail on 60 megawatts of nuclear power, weigh some 33,500 tons and be able to navigate both the depths of the Arctic as well as the shallows of its river tributaries.