Putin slated to announce construction of enormous sci-fi nuclear icebreaker

An artists rendition of the Lider Icebreaker.
An artists rendition of the Lider Icebreaker.

Publish date: August 7, 2018

An advanced nuclear icebreaker more befitting a science fiction movie than the high seas will be built in Vladivostok, Russia’s Far Eastern port city, Russian government sources have told the Kommersant business daily.

An advanced nuclear icebreaker more befitting a science fiction movie than the high seas will be built in Vladivostok, Russia’s Far Eastern port city, Russian government sources have told the Kommersant business daily.

The icebreaker, called the Lider, or Leader in English, a sleek, imposing nuclear powered vessel that looks more like a high-end yacht or a space ship has long existed as rumor and whimsy. But according to highly placed officials at last week’s International Maritime Trade Show on Russia’s Pacific Coast, Vladimir Putin will announce start of its construction next month on a planned trip to Vladivostok’s annual economic forum, the paper said.

Specifically, the newspaper reported that the contract for the  $1.6 billion vessel will go to the Zvezda Shipyard near Vladivostok, a former military stronghold, which, most recently, had a hand in decommissioning Soviet  nuclear submarines in the late 1990s and early 2000s under disarmament agreements with the West.

lider icebreaker cutting ice The Leader icebreaker, in this Rosatom animation, churning through Arctic ice. Credit: Rosatom

But the yard has since flailed under semi-private ownership, provoking grumblings from the Kremlin that it might soon be given over to Gazprom or Rosneft, the two state fossil fuel monopolies, to run.

With the coming construction of the Leader, that indeed may come to pass. According to Kommersant, Rosneft and Gazprom, both headed by political allies of Putin, will take a stake in the yard and operate it with the United Shipbuilding Corporation, its present owner.

The end result will be the production of three behemoth Leader-class icebreakers, measuring 205 meters long, weighing 55,000 tons and cutting 50-meter-wde swathes through the thickest arctic ice while riding new-model RITM-400 reactors that kick out 120 megawatts of power. The delivery date is set for 2027, Kommersant reported.

The hat-tip to the Zveda Shipyard would seem to end debate on where the fanciful Leader will be built. Past names emerging in the rumor mill include the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, which has forged most of Russia’s nuclear icebreaking steel for half a century. Other less likely candidates, like the Zaliv Shipyard, on the newly-annexed Crimean Black Sea coast, also tried to get in on the action.

But Leonid Rogozin, Russia’s flamboyant deputy prime minister in charge of military affairs and the Leader’s biggest booster, has championed the notion of retooling old military shipyard’s just like Zvezda, and he is, according to Kommersant, behind the shipyard’s newfound good fortune.

icebreaker lider The Leader icebreaker as envisaged on the cover of the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation's trade magazine. Credit: Unified Shipbuilding Corporation

The Leader project first emerged as an artist’s fever dream on the cover the Unified Shipbuilding Corporation’s trade magazine three years ago. The vessel was shown churning through puffy islands of ice, its aerodynamic lines viewed from the vantage point of a helicopter about to alight on its deck. Far from the image of a powerful Arctic draught horse, the vessel seemed more like a bauble for one of Putin’s nautically inclined billionaire cronies.

The project lay dormant until recently, when Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, wrote legislation giving itself total control over the Northern Sea Route, the 6,000-kilometer long West to East stretch uniting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic.

Suddenly, the Leader was no longer just a pinup swooned over by wishful industry insiders.

According to reports in Russia’s shipbuilding trade press, the Leader vessels will come equipped with materials capable of “self-diagnosing” metal corrosion, and will further be able to “self-heal” when damage is detected. And the superlatives don’t end with that. Many in Russia’s official press have championed the Leader as nothing less than the engine of the country’s economic turnaround.

In that sense, the Leader doesn’t differ much from the justifications the Russian government offers for the three other monster icebreakers it’s currently building — the Arktika, the Sibir and the Ural, the hulls for two of which have already been floated at the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg.

Each of these, too, have been touted as the answer to Russia’s economic prayers, and together they are expected to shepherd convoys of liquid natural gas from the Yamal Peninsula to ports in Asia and Europe, and keep the the Northern Sea Route open for traffic year round. In essence, the very same resume presented by the Leader.

But while funding has been committed to these other icebreakers, the financing for the Leader is still hazy. When the question where the money to build the Leader would come from was put to Rogozin in February, he suggested the budget would be determined by a specially-designed “financial algorithm” — perhaps unintentionally lending further novelty to the extravagant project.

Sources at the International Maritime Trade Show weren’t able to offer Kommersant anything less foggy. According to them, Rogozin’s “algorithm” might boil down to getting half the funding directly from state coffers, and financing the other half from dividends on Rosneft stock owned by the government — which, to many observers, would suggest the whole project will be bankrolled by the government.

Other ideas included getting Novatek, the mostly state controlled company spearheading the Yamal LNG project, to kick in. But the paper said that Novatek — whose tanker convoy’s of liquefied natural gas would arguably benefit most from the Leader’s icebreaking prowess — wasn’t interested.

But doubtful as the sources of the Leader’s financing may be, the ship itself began on equally doubtful terms – and now its construction is slated to be one of the central announcements of Vladivostok’s annual economic Forum. If only to please Putin, the money will surely come from somewhere, whether Rogozin’s algorithm works or not.