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Breaking the Ice: Russian Nuclear-Powered Ice-Breakers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Russia’s rapidly expanding nuclear industry has set it sights on the freezing waters of Arctic basin with an ambitious goal to build the world’s largest “universal” nuclear icebreaker.

Russia’s dream to dominate the Arctic will soon get a boost with a nuclear-powered icebreaker designed to navigate both shallow rivers and the freezing depths of the Northern Sea. Last month Rosatomflot, Russia’s atomic fleet, inked a deal to begin construction of a massive new vessel 170 meters long and 34 meters wide. That is 14 meters longer and four meters wider than any of Russia’s other nuclear vessels.

Powered by two “RITM-200” compact pressurized water reactors generating 60MWe, the new model is designed to blast through ice more than 4 meters thick and tow tankers of up to 70,000 tons displacement through Arctic ice fields. Rosatomflot says the vessel would have liquid ballasts allowing it to alter its draught (the depth of the loaded vessel in the water) between 8.5 to 10.8 meters, allowing it to access both Siberian rivers that reach deep into Russia as well as the Northern Sea.

Why the effort and cost? “Climate change is a pivotal factor in accelerating Russia’s interest in icebreakers,” says Charles Ebinger, a Brookings Institute energy expert who has advised over 50 governments on restructuring their state-owned energy sectors. “With climate change we are seeing a major change in the Northern Sea Route, which is a transport route along Russia’s northern coast from Europe to Asia. Just in the last few years, with less and less permanent sea ice, maritime traffic across the Russian Arctic has risen exponentially.”

The expectation is that the melt will continue, but there are still sections of route that would require icebreakers to keep it open year round. The icebreakers are also crucial for collecting data on Russia’s continental shelf borders, needed to stake a claim to exclusive economic rights along vast tracts of the Arctic and fend off other claimants like the US, Canada, Norway, and Denmark and Iceland.

Russia argues that an undersea formation called the “Lomonsov Ridge” is an extension of Siberia’s shelf, and therefore belongs to Russia exclusively. A few years ago Russia upped the ante by sending submersibles to the seabed floor, planting a specially designed rust-proof titanium Russian flag at a 13,980 foot depth; a Russian think tank has offered an even more straightforward solution to the Arctic dispute, suggesting re-naming the Arctic Ocean the “Russian Ocean.”

Russia is the only country in the world currently building nuclear icebreakers, and has a fleet of about half a dozen in operation, along with a larger fleet of less powerful, diesel-powered icebreakers. While Russia’s new-generation nuclear icebreaker is budgeted at 1.1 billion dollars, the US this year has been relying on a Russian diesel icebreaker to deliver supplies to its main base in Antarctica due to our own shrinking fleet of the cold-water, diesel-fueled vessels, reports Stars and Stripes.

A model of Russia's floating nuclear power station on display at the Russian "ATOMEXPO" held in June in Moscow. The floating station and the "universal" icebreaker are based on similar designs and will likely run on compact, RITM-200 reactors. Photo by James Hill.

A model of Russia's floating nuclear power station on display at the Russian "ATOMEXPO" held in June in Moscow. The floating station and the "universal" icebreaker are based on similar designs and will likely run on compact, RITM-200 reactors. Photo by James Hill.

Meanwhile, Russia is pouring federal money into a vast nuclear expansion plan that includes other jaw-dropping technologies like a floating nuclear power plant–based on the icebreaker design that can handle three meters of ice bearing down on reactors. “No atomic stations but ours can survive that,” says Vladimir Galushin a scientist and international coordinator of the OKBM Afrikantov bureau who spoke with this reporter at a recent exhibit of Russian nuclear technology in Moscow this summer. His company designed the RITM-200 pressurized water reactors that will be used in both the floating plants and the new icebreaker, and would run on uranium enriched up to 20%, going up to seven years without refueling. “We are ahead, already years ahead with icebreakers” he proudly underscored.

Igor Kudrik, a researcher for the international environmental NGO Bellona is less excited. He points to multiple concerns including the “generation of radioactive waste, generation of spent nuclear fuel, which is reprocessed in Russia and as a result more radioactive waste is generated. [There is] a possibility of serious accidents like there was with the first icebreaker “Lenin.” There were two major accidents on-board in the 1960s and 1970s. Lenin’s spent nuclear fuel and reactors were cut out and dumped in the Kara sea.”

Transparency remains an issue. One of Bellona’s contributors in the past, a Russian naval captain who wrote of radioactive contamination in the Northern Fleet, was jailed for ten months and spent three years in trials. But for the Russia the rewards of Arctic exploration are irresistible, from exploiting the warming Arctic’s offshore petroleum reserves to opening up new trade routes between Europe and Asia. Plus, unlike other shipping routes in warmer waters, there are – so far – no pirates.

Eve Conant traveled to Russia on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Eve Conant About the Author: Eve Conant lived and worked in Russia from 1995-2003 and in 2006, also covering the conflicts in Kosovo, Israel and Afghanistan before joining Newsweek’s staff in Washington. Her previous projects have included the rise of hate groups, drug trafficking on the southwest border, and multiple features on the legacy of the Soviet Union’s weapons programs. She has also written features for magazines including The New York Times Magazine, Discover, Archaeology, and Vogue as well as book reviews and op-eds for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Bob_CA 4:27 pm 09/8/2012

    With the increasing importance of the Arctic, not to mention our needs in the Antarctic, the US should also have an effective fleet of icebreakers, with at least a couple being nuclear-powered. The idea that we have to rely on Russia, who will be a (hopefully-friendly) competitor in the inevitable development of the Arctic, is crazy. I wonder how many Americans are aware that our Navy has exactly zero icebreakers? Even our Coast Guard, which has operated all of the remaining icebreakers in the US fleet, now has only a very limited icebreaking capability with the USCGC Healy (4.5 feet thick continuously at 3 kts). The Russian vessel mentioned in the article is designed for ice 4 METERS thick. With the changes currently underway in the polar regions, our thinking must change, and change now.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 5:13 pm 09/8/2012

    “compact pressurized water reactors” “is designed to blast through ice more than 4 meters thick”, sadly that may not be a figure of speech.

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  3. 3. kienhua68 9:40 pm 09/8/2012

    Ah the Russians, years ahead in ice breakers as the planet warms.

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  4. 4. dbtinc 9:06 am 09/9/2012

    What ice needs breaking? Guess there must be warming-deny-ers in Russia as well!

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  5. 5. Qev55 10:32 am 09/9/2012

    I suppose icebreakers being built for the purposes of increasing commerce is better than icebreakers being built for the purposes of escorting an increasing number of ballistic missile boats underneath the ice cap.

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  6. 6. sethdiyal 11:17 am 09/9/2012

    Another example of Obama’s antinuke lunacy that will eventually make the US a third world welfare state.

    The half wit spent $80B on his 30 to 80 cents a kwh green energy nonsense and $200M on next gen nukes while China Russia and India all have Generation 4 reactors in service this year and next running at less than a cent a kwh.

    The worst part is the US invented the tech for the Gen IV’s , but another Dem Clinton was paid off by Big Oil to shut it down.

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  7. 7. singing flea 2:47 pm 09/9/2012


    “Another example of Obama’s antinuke lunacy that will eventually make the US a third world welfare state.”

    The House of Representatives controls the purse strings of America. Do you know who the Speaker of the House is and why? Republicans have controlled the house since 2010.

    “…while China Russia and India all have Generation 4 reactors in service this year and next running at less than a cent a kwh.”

    Links please. Last I heard the technology isn’t even developed yet, much less in use. When nuclear reactors finally become safe and practical, if ever, you can bet the big oil, gas and coal industries will send their lobbyists to the House and Senate to vote for their puppets to outsource all the manufacturing to China and Russia and India anyway. That way, the fat cats can still have their overseas tax free bank accounts and someone like Obama in power to blame it all on.

    But politics aside, people like you who think nuclear energy is a solution instead of conservation and green power need to open your thick scull up a little and research the massive nuclear waste pollution problem the world (especially Russia) already has.

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  8. 8. mikecimerian 1:34 am 09/10/2012

    While Russia’s analysis may be astute, doesn’t breaking pack ice accelerate it’s disappearance.

    It does sound like: -the wild fire is going to burn our house but we’ll collect on insurance.

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  9. 9. VivaLaEvolucion 3:51 pm 09/13/2012

    at least it’s not fossil fuel powered.

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  10. 10. sethdayal 2:19 pm 09/15/2012


    Actually Obama controls the budget. the Repugs only approve it. The Repugs tell us they love nuke power so Obama makes sure there is not a dime in the budget for them to approve.

    Here’s a link fur ya – I find nonukers to be the laziest of commenters unwilling to look anything up at all.

    Since the nukes are by orders of magnitude the safest and cheapest form of energy there is, cheaper today even than fossils, safe and practical already applies. You can’t get any more practical than a nuke powered icebreaker impossible to run with diesels.

    Soviet military excesses have nothing at all to do with nuke power. All the worlds nuke waste always perfectly contained would fit on a football field. Compare that the thousands of cubic miles of deadly toxic forever coal ash that accumulates every year the antinuclear Warming Denier movement can defer the coal to nuclear conversion.

    Nobody has a clue of what to do with the tens of cubic miles of deadly toxic forever end of life solar waste that will soon be polluting our landfills.

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