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New icebreaker bolsters Russian supremacy in Arctic

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
AFP/Interpress/Alexander Drozdov

Russia oversees the world's largest fleet of nuclear icebreakers, and it will soon add the largest one yet to its tally. Rosatom, which currently manages Russia's fleet of new icebreakers through its subsidiary, Atomflot, has just signed a contract with the St. Petersburg-based shipbuilding company Baltisky Zavod to construct a 556-foot-long behemoth -- about 42 feet longer than the next biggest ship. It is so big that it does not fit in any existing docks, so a new one will need to be constructed.

The new icebreaker is budgeted to cost about $1.2 billion. Once it is ready in 2017, the ship will grant Russia extra capability to ensure safe shipping along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which it is working strenuously to develop into a major transportation corridor. Although the ice is melting, each ship transiting through the NSR will still need to be escorted by an icebreaker in the short to medium term, so having an adequate number of icebreakers is crucial.

The Russian fleet currently stands at six nuclear icebreakers. Four of the icebreakers are powerful enough to break ice in the open ocean, while two are designed for ramming through the more shallow icy waters of frozen rivers. The new, seventh icebreaker will reportedly be able to cut through ice up to twelve feet thick. In addition, since it is a dual-draft ship, it will be able to operate in both the ocean and in rivers.

The massive icebreaker will be able to navigate through the often ice-bound Ob and Yenisei Rivers, which spill out into the Arctic Ocean. Scientific American has the details on the specs behind the ship.

Russia is not stopping with the addition of one nuclear icebreaker. President Vladimir Putin has said that he wants Russia to have three new nuclear icebreakers by 2020. Canada surely envies these plans. Its new icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, slated for delivery in 2017, will only be able to break through 7-1/2 feet of ice.

It will be replacing the 42-year-old CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, too, meaning that Canada will still only have one icebreaker – and not even a nuclear one at that. Granted, the Northwest Passage has much poorer prospects for turning into a global trade link due to its shallower, narrower passages and greater amount of ice. Therefore, since the most promising route in the Arctic hugs Russia's coast, it is up to the Kremlin to meet the challenge of bringing it within world-class standards.

The volume of cargo shipped along the NSR should hit a record high this year, besting last year's total of 34 ships and 820,000 tons of cargo, so long as the shipping season endures as long as last year's did (through November). So far, Russia is showing political and economic commitment to development of the Arctic unmatched by any other seafaring Arctic nation.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.