Rosatom’s Northern Sea Route legislation ignites arguments

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. Credit: Still from Obama Administration White House video

Disagreements are erupting about which agency will control what after Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, began seeking nearly exclusive control over the development of the Northern Sea Route, the storied passage from Europe to Asia that runs through the Russian Arctic.

Speaking after a meeting of the Federal Agency for Maritime and River Transport, or Rosmorrechflot, Viktor Olersky, Russia’s deputy Transport minister, said his agency should be the one responsible for issuing permits to vessels to travel through the route, the business daily Kommersant reported.

Rosatom has argued that it should be the one issuing permits, as it oversees Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port, whose vessels are responsible for blazing trails for commercial freight vessels through the Arctic’s icy waters.

In November, it was revealed that Rosatom had drafted sweeping legislation granting itself control over nearly every aspect of navigation and port oversight along the Northern Sea Route. The bill has yet to go to a vote in Russia’s Parliament, but Kommersant has reported the legislation is favored by President Vladimir Putin.

But the bill also leaves several things unresolved, including which part of the government would be responsible for issuing permits to commercial freighters wishing to traverse the 6,000 kilometer East-West passage. Rosmorrechflot has been arguing that power should remain in its hands ever since the legislation was revealed.

Russia has long viewed the Northern Sea Route as the hinge on which the country’s economic future hangs. Northern Siberian oil and gas ventures line its shores, and Moscow is investing billions of dollars in new nuclear icebreakers to accompany what it insists will be a bonanza of sea traffic between European and Asian ports.

But there is little evidence to suggest such long cargo hauls will be drawn away from the cheaper and more established Suez Canal. Nevertheless, as liquefied natural gas projects on the Yamal Peninsula have spurred a traffic uptick between Central Siberia and ports in South Korea and China.

But climate change has made even those journeys easier. Last summer, the Christophe de Margerie gas tanker made the entire journey through the route from Hammerfest, Norway to Boryeong in South Korea in 19 days without the aid of Atomflot’s nuclear icebreakers.

Still, Rosatom legislation would doubtless see more icebreakers, as well as the fulfillment of some of the nuclear sector’s more extravagant dreams.

But the transfer of power to Rosatom is not coming off without a hitch. Olerksy told Kommersant that, while he has no quibble with Rosatom owning the Northern Sea Route’s port infrastructure, it should leave the regulatory and permitting work to his agency.

In his view, that decision should be left up to shipping companies doing business along the shipping route, Kommersant reported.