Monday, November 5, 2018

As Northern Sea Route Freight Tonnages Grow so Russia Expands its Nuclear Icebreaker Fleet

America Has Lost the Battle to Police the Arctic Regions
Shipping News Feature
RUSSIA – US – Climate change is much in the headlines this week following publication of a draft of the latest National Climate Assessment, developed by the Trump administration yet dismissed by the President, identifying humans as the cause of the phenomenon. The latest findings from the Argo Float programme, the worldwide system of sensors which measure hydrographic temperature and associated data, also indicate that the oceans are not absorbing heat as well as anticipated, meaning a forthcoming faster rise in global temperatures than was thought likely previously.

Whilst the news may be bad for many it seems the Northern Sea Route has seen freight, and indeed tourist, traffic grow, causing changes both to investment and administration of the waterway. The Northern Sea Route from the Kara Gate to the Providence Bay is about 5,600 kilometres. The distance between Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok along the Northern Sea Route is more than 14,000 kilometres but the distance vessels cover shipping via the Suez Canal exceeds 23,000 kilometres.

The rise in traffic, mainly due to the changing ice conditions, is quite spectacular. The Russian icebreaking fleet from Rosatom, the nuclear power corporation, accompanied 195 vessels along the route in 2015 with a combined capacity of some 2 million tonnes. The following year that rose to 410 ships capable of carrying 5.3 million tonnes. The latest figures we have indicate already this year 13 million tonnes have traversed the route and Rosatom predict the route may soon see as many as 35 million tonnes annually as ships halve journey times by avoiding the Suez and Panama Canals. Russian Ministry of Transport forecasts are even more optimistic foretelling totals as high as 65 million tonnes by 2020.

Major energy projects have largely fuelled the demand to travel via the route which crosses four of the Arctic Ocean seas (Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukotka) as well as the Pacific’s Bering Sea. Now it seems more changes will ensure that traffic levels rise with the decision to re-categorise the ice conditions for seven major areas of the NSR which will allow ‘vessels with weak ice class’ to travel in extended periods where the ice is only present in low concentrations.

Already many of the ships carrying supplies of LNG from the Russian fields to countries like China do not need icebreaker escorts, being constructed with polar conditions in mind. Steel reinforcement of the hull mean these $320 million, 300 metre long ships can cut through ice more than 2 metres thick at a steady 8 knots.

The changes to the regulations by the NSR Administration will allow the nuclear icebreakers to work more extensively in areas where ice is at its thickest. And what vessels these are! At last count Russia had 41 of these behemoths with 8 more on order (the US has 2 non-nuclear). The new Russian boats take the class to a new level, construction of the hitherto unheard of LK-120 class is to be at Zvezda Shipbuilding Complex in the Primorsky Krai under direct instructions from President Putin.

When speaking of the LK-120, if not actually a new project, it is likely to actually refer to the Lider LK-110Ya (Project 10510) which is currently being developed. These ‘Leader’ class vessels are said to have an engine capacity between 110 – 120 megawatts from twin nuclear reactors. At 56,000 tonnes and 200 metres long these are the giants of the icebreaking world with their 40 metre beam cutting a swathe through ice up to 4.5 metres thick, levels rarely reached in the NSR regions. The new ships will follow the three LK-60Ya-class, the first of which Arktika is due to commence operations in 2019. The Leader class will have twice the power of the LK-60Ya’s.

Meanwhile in the US lobbying continues for funding for anything like a worthwhile icebreaker fleet. The 40 year old Polar Star, the only heavy vessel of the type which the US possesses, apparently struggled to complete her last mission having exceeded her initial decommissioning date by over a decade. She seems to be static in Seattle since arriving back for a maintenance period last year after a trip her captain described as ‘living in an earthquake’ with engineers cannibalising parts to keep her running.

Photo: A model of the new Leader class nuclear icebreaker.