Russia recently commissioned the building of the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker in an effort to increase traffic in the Northern Sea Route and better compete for resources in the Arctic. Global warming (anthropogenic or not) has made use of the Northern Sea Route a viable possibility in the past few years and the Barents Observer is reporting that a record amount of cargo may transit the route this year. The current record is 820,789 tons of cargo and 749,706 tons have already made their way through the shipping lane in 2012. Russia hopes to increase trade at its northern ports as the Northern Sea Route stays open longer and longer each season and through the artificial extension of the shipping season via use of its yet to be named icebreaker.
The new icebreaker will be 558 feet long and 102 feet wide, making the vessel 46 feet longer and 12 feet wider than any other icebreaker in Russia’s fleet. The ship’s enormous size will enable it to break up thicker sheets of ice than other ships. In addition to being vastly larger than anything currently in the Russian icebreaking fleet, the ship will have on-board ballast tanks allowing it to raise and lower its draft from 28 to 35 feet. Thus the ship will be able to sail up previously inaccessible Siberian rivers. Powering the icebreaker will be dual nuclear reactors producing 60 megawatts of power which make it capable of towing ships displacing up to 70,000 tons through Arctic waters. While the selection of nuclear reactors as a power source for civilian ships may seem strange, Russia’s first nuclear powered icebreaker, Lenin, first sailed in 1959 and the country currently operates around a dozen nuclear powered icebreakers. As a sidenote, the US experimented with nuclear powered civilian vessels beginning with the launch of the NS Savannah in 1959, but ceased operating her in 1972 due to cost inefficiencies.
While the icebreaker is chiefly intended for improving the commercial flow of goods in the Arctic, the ship’s strategic value can not be ignored. Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the US have all laid claim to parts of the region in order to secure access to the oil and gas believed to be located beneath the seabed. Just as China views its deep water oil rigs as “strategic weapons,” Russia’s possession of the most capable icebreaker in the world will have serious implications in who exercises control of the region.