Russia’s official press touts Rosatom’s eventual control of the Arctic

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

A bill granting Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, full control over the storied Northern Sea Route has yet to pass its final two readings in Russia’s parliament,  but judging by recent coverage in the country’s state media, the company has little reason to entertain any doubts.

The bill, which surfaced in November, would hand Rosatom a portfolio for developing what Moscow considers as nothing less than the economic future of the nation. If passed Rosatom would emerge with authority to regulate shipping through the 6,000-kilometer West to East passage from Europe to Asia, as well as oversight of port development throughout the Arctic route.

Rosatom will also have say-so over what ships are allowed to sail through the passage, which Moscow has long sought to operate as a kind of toll road paved by nuclear icebreakers, and envisions as stiff competition to the Suez Canal.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the bill would give Rosatom authority over the federal budget for the Northern Sea Route and for determining how that money gets spent — something that experts say virtually assures the future of Arctic transport will be built on the back of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet, with numerous nuclear powered ports of call along the way.

In this spirit, Rosatom has named Vyacheslav Ruksha, who for years has headed Atomflot, Russia’s nuclear icebreaker port in Murmansk, to oversee its yet-to-be-formed Northern Sea Route directorate.

According to the official Tass newswire, the upcoming two votes in the Parliament on whether Rosatom will be granted this sweeping mandate won’t hold very much suspense.

Citing Rosatom’s trade magazine, Strana Rosatom, Tass reported that the nuclear corporation expected the law to be passed by the end of this year, and that by the first quarter of 2019, the issues of Northern Sea Route property management would be the corporation’s responsibility.

In some circumstances, a vote by representatives of Russia’s people might be seen as too early to call – but President Vladimir Putin has long made his wishes on the matter clear.

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

When news of the bill’s existence emerged last winter, the business daily Kommersant was quick to point out that Putin endorsed the legislation, which assured its smooth passage. Then, in May, shortly after his fourth inauguration, Putin decreed that cargo traffic along the passage would – not should – reach a towering 80 million tons a year, a figure that outstrips even the most ambitious projections offered by his ministers. Current traffic stands at about 10 million tons annually.

And last week, Kommersant provided another scoop, reporting that Putin would next month announce that a shipyard in Vladivostok would get the contract to build the Leader – a multi-billon-dollar space-age nuclear icebreaker model capable of keeping the Northern Sea Route open for traffic all year old. The blueprints for the sleek vessel have long been swooned over by industry insiders, and until the Rosatom legislation emerged, were considered little more than a costly dream.

Quibbles over the vast authority and budgetary control set to land in Rosatom’s lap have been raised by Russia’s Ministry of Transport, which previous to now has been the Northern Sea Route’s gatekeeper.

In May, Viktor Olersky, the Ministry’s deputy minister, complained that his agency should maintain responsibility for issuing permits to vessels looking to traverse the Northern Sea Route.

However, according to a recent report in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s main newspaper mouthpiece, that argument has been smoothed over by giving the ministry power to approve Rosatom’s infrastructure plans – though the text of the article strongly suggested such a process will count on the ministry to be agreeable.

Other agencies have raised muted objections as well. Later in May,
the Accounts Chamber – the Parliament’s independent financial oversight body – challenged Rosatom’s proposed budget for taking control of the Northern Sea Route, saying state funding would not equal its projections for another two years. But those arguments have apparently been submerged by momentum.

As for Ruksha, he refused requests by Bellona to comment on his new appointment, citing that the Rosatom legislation has yet to clear the hurdle of the last two Parliamentary  votes.

But when speaking with Tass, he was more effervescent, saying that the main goal of his new directorate is to boost Northern Sea Route traffic to the 80 million tons Putin decreed in May.

The momentum, vote or not, is, apparently, irresistible to Ruksha as well.