Reactor extensions for Russian nuclear icebreaker gets mixed environmental reviews

vaygach_rosatomflot icebreaker The Vaigach. (Photo: Rosatomflot).

The Russian nuclear icebreaker Vaigach has received a 200,000-hour engineered lifespan extension on its reactor, meaning the vessel could continue running until 2023 as the country builds its next generation of nuclear icebreaking vessels, RIA Novosti reported.

Russia has long imposed icebreakers as necessary escorts for other vessels through the Northern Sea Route, which the government implies is more attractive to long distance freight shippers in the current conditions of ice-melt and climate change. Russia also says the nuclear ships are necessary for building up the scant infrastructure along the way.

But Arctic climate change doesn’t mean the icecap is being reduced to manageable little ice cubes. Instead, enormous sheets of ice are fractured off the cap to become monolithic icebergs in far more tumultuous and unpredictable weather conditions, Sigurd Enge, Bellona’s adviser on shipping, maritime affairs and the Arctic has said.

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

Likewise, the Northern Sea Route offers few advantages on its only competitor, the Suez Canal, and traffic along Russia’s arctic coast has been falling year by year due to the necessity of hiring Russia’s icebreakers as escorts for freight convoys and toll prices that are far higher than those for the Suez.

The Northern Sea Route saw its heyday in 2013 when 1.3 million tons of cargo were hauled through it. That dropped off a cliff the next year to a mere 274,000 tons, according to the Northern Sea Route Information Office.

In the same period, tonnage through the Suez Canal grew from 754.4 million tons in 2013 to 822.3 tons in 2014.

The Northern Sea Route also shaves days, not weeks, off traditional shipping routes from Rotterderdam to East Asia, which makes Russia’s billion dollar investments in its new icebreaker fleet a gamble.

Likewise Russia’s ambitions to use icebreakers to clear way for oil exploration along its Arctic shelf have been dampened by sluggish technological innovations, upwardly spiraling expenses, and the example Shell’s recent pullout from Norwegian side drilling in the Barents Sea.

How dangerous is the Vaigach reactor extension?

Reactor extensions in Russia are always a hotly disputed topic between Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom and environmentalists. Ecologists were recently devastated by a series of operational prolongations at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, which successfully pushed through extended reactor run times for up to sixty years.

kola nuclear power plant The Kola Nuclear Power Plant in the Kola Peninsula town of Polyarny Zory. (Photo: RIA Novosti/Roman Denisov)

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist said he was concerned about such extensions on icebreakers “because their reactor technology is generally quite old.”

And because the icebreakers operate far out of reach of land-based rescue teams, he said, “any accidents on them are very hard to address.”

In May 2011, the icebreaker Taymyr suffered a reactor coolant leak at sea above western Siberia and radiation levels spiked. When repairs could not be conducted onboard, the Taymyr had to be escorted back to Murmansk by two other icebreakers, the Yamal and the Rossiya, in a rescue operation that took over a week.

Bøhmer was more worried about potential fires aboard icebreakers, which is not unfounded: In 2011, a fire swept through the crew quarters of the Vaigach itself, killing two. Though the reactor remained unharmed, Bøhmer warned that any fire aboard a nuclear vessel is reason for pause.

ingressimage_taimyr.jpg The Taymyr nuclear icebreaker, which suffered a reactor coolant leak in 2011. (Photo: Murmansk Shipping Company) Photo: MSC

“There seemed to be an evident problem with an outdated fire suppression system in this case,” said Bøhmer. “It’s hoped that these systems will be improved on the newer line of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers.”

Andrei Zolotkov, a Bellona adviser in Murmansk who worked for decades in the Soviet icebreaker fleet, said there are comparatively few hazards involved with extending these maritime reactors, which he said was a practice that’s been widely applied to the fleet with no disastrous results.

The Vaygach was commissioned in 1990 and its reactor was designed to run until 2017. Zolotkov said by email he didn’t foresee any special difficulties in running it until 2023.

Two older vessel,  one called the Arktika and the other the Rossiya for instance, received a 175,000-hour extension and a 150,000 on their reactors respectively – though extensive overhauls preceded the green-lighting of the reactor’s new leases on life. The Rossiya has since been taken out of service.

Zolotkov did concede that any extension is accompanied by unknown elements.

“In any circumstances, such decisions are an experiment,” he wrote. “[These extensions] are facilitated by a host of additional safety measures and, usually, more sparing use of the reactor.”

On balance, extending the lifespan of an icebreaker reactor costs about 20 percent of what building a new icebreaker does, Zolotkov noted.

Bigger environmental worries than nuclear mishaps

arktika-bow The 75 ton bow of the Arktika new generation icebreaker is fitted into place at St. Petersburg's Baltic Shipyard. (Photo: Baltic Shipyard)

The extended lifespan of the Vaygach, which is a shallow draught vessel, foreshadows the use of Russia’s newer icebreakers that are now under construction, the Independent Barents Observer reported.

The new Arktika, which is a huge vessel by comparison to its older cousins, is the prototype for the new generation, which will be capable of navigating both the ocean as well as northern Siberian river tributaries, like the Vaygach, to accompany oil tankers.

This highlights other environmental worries beyond possible nuclear mishaps.

One of the ambitions for the new line icebreakers is to escort oil and gas tankers along frozen rivers from Russia’s northerly oil and gas fields. This hardly squares with the goals arrived at by 190 nations – including Russia – at the Paris Climate Summit in December.

“Expensive deliveries of oil and gas from Russia’s far north aren’t doing the climate any good – they’re just adding to oil demands that everyone agrees must be curbed,” said Bøhmer.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no