The northern region is seen not only as a rich resource base and a potential transport artery but also as a promising research and tourism destination. Although climate change and melting ice have made some previously hard- to-reach areas more accessible, navigation along the Arctic shores still requires special technologies. The future of the Arctic economy, logistics and exploitation activities depends on the physical accessibility of the territories and mineral deposits. Icebreakers have always been ‘keys to the Arctic’, providing safe waterways for other vessels in drifting and land-fast ice.
Regular shipping along the Arctic is one of the outstanding technological achievements of the 20th century. It became possible due to development of the icebreaker fleet. Prototypes of icebreakers were created back in the 19th century with the first ice-breaker, “Yermak”, capable of cracking arctic ice, but the history of the modern icebreaker fleet is related to the Arctic territorial development of the Soviet Union. Soviet icebreakers used to ensure the navigation along the Northeast passage and secure the Arctic convoys during World War II. Although the Soviet Union was not the only country to build icebreakers for polar navigation, and by the 1950s several northern countries already had powerful icebreakers, the Soviet Union significantly shaped the further development of the Arctic by creating the first nuclear icebreaker, “Lenin”, which was built in 1957. It went into service in 1959, securing navigation along the Northern Sea Route till 1989. It made the so-called “Northern Deliveries” with the necessary cargo for enterprises and settlements in the Arctic as well as scientific expeditions to the polar regions and technical support for the development of polar deposits. In 1989 “Lenin” was officially decommissioned and converted into a museum, permanently based in Murmansk.
Since then, the global icebreaker fleet has grown significantly and become one of the most important drivers for the development of the North. Amid the latest trends in global politics, we observe increasing interest in the Arctic region in several dimensions, so the demand for ice-breakers and ice-class vessels is on the rise. Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and the US are the countries with the biggest icebreaker fleets. In June 2020 US President Donald Trump issued a special memorandum on “safeguarding the US national interests in the Arctic and Antarctic regions”, according to which the US will build at least three new heavy icebreakers by 2029. Non-Arctic states also are trying to catch up by building new vessels for the Arctic. Recently China launched its 11th Arctic research expedition which for the first time utilised a home-built icebreaker, Xue Long II (Snow Dragon 2). The vessel was commissioned in 2019. Not only Arctic states have operating icebreaking fleets. Experts say the model is simple. China’s icebreaker is equipped with a diesel-electric propulsion system and is capable of breaking 1.5-meter ice. The duration of autonomous navigation is 60 days. Moreover, China built a modern icebreaker in just three years, without any delays, traditional competencies or historical tradition. The next Chinese project Xue Long III is a nuclear icebreaker with a displacement of about 30,000 tons, capable of breaking through 3-meter ice. These developments could spark competition with Russia and trigger geopolitical tensions, significantly shaping the context of the Northern Sea Route. At the same time, Russia remains the leader in the field, having not only the largest icebreaker fleet – more than 40 vessels – but also operating the only nuclear icebreakers.
As for now, Russia operates four nuclear icebreakers: two 75 thousand horsepower twin- reactor (the Yamal and the 50 Let Pobedy), and two 50 thousand horsepower single-reactor (the Taymyr, and the Vaygach). On top of that, Rosatomflot’s fleet includes the ice-breaking nuclear container ship ‘Sevmorput’, as well as 9 non-nuclear service ships.
The future of the Arctic economy, logistics and exploitation activities depends on the physical accessibility of the territories and deposits. The development of the Polar world has always been one of Russia’s strategic priorities, implemented under a series federal programmes and initiatives. In 2019 the Russian government adopted a Plan for the infrastructure development of the Northern Sea Route up to 2035. This is by far the most comprehensive strategic document defining one of the dimensions of Russia’s policy in the Arctic. The Plan includes 11 key aspects, including ecological safety and modernization of the icebreaker fleet. To this end, Rosatom plans to build eight new nuclear icebreakers - five of “Arktika” type (each equipped with two RITM-200 nuclear reactors), and three of “Leader” type (each equipped with two RITM- 400 nuclear reactors) - by 2035 in order to respond to growing transportation needs and to secure navigation along the Northern Sea Route.
Rosatom is preparing to transform the Arctic logistics system. The company is not only building up its nuclear icebreaker fleet but also integrating the existing Northern Sea Route with the global logistics system that connects it with the major international sea hubs both in Europe and in Asia. At the same time, climate change and increased global awareness of the Arctic’s fragile environment and vulnerable indigenous peoples requires new rules for global markets. Low-carbon shipping and ecosystem-based management for exploitative and construction projects in the Arctic will require new technologies and governance solutions to ensure sustainable growth and public acceptance.
The safety and cost-efficiency of nuclear icebreakers are sometimes questioned. Building a new nuclear icebreaker costs about $2 billion and operations require special skills, technologies and regulation to prevent and/or tackle accidents and emergencies. Nevertheless, nuclear icebreakers remain one of the most sustainable transport solutions for the Arctic. Modern technology allows the safe and reliable deployment of the nuclear fleet and, what is more important, it has a zero-carbon footprint and there is no risk of fuel leakage, and so complies with the recent restrictions of the IMO.
Given the Arctic’s special importance for the Russian and global economies, the development of the icebreaker fleet is an important tool for promoting the sustainable growth of the Arctic territories and integrating them into the global logistics ecosystem. Despite climate change and melting ice, the icebreaker fleet is still needed to provide navigation in the Polar region. Its development could have multiple effects on the Arctic future in terms of not only maritime logistics but also infrastructure and energy efficiency for Russia’s Arctic territories.