Monday, March 4, 2019

Russia Confirms its Primacy in Northern Waters as Icebreaking Behemoth Planned

US Fades from the Scene as Largest Nuclear Ice Class Breaker to Go Ahead
Shipping News Feature
RUSSIA – US – Much is being made this week of the news coming from Moscow that work is to go ahead developing the 200+ metre long Lider class nuclear powered icebreaker, something we predicted over a year ago. Although the statement confirming the 71,000 tonne vessel's construction is at this stage unofficial, as we stated in November 2018 this is a dream of President Vladimir Putin, and a move which will confirm Russia as firmly in control of commercial traffic on the waters she patrols.

The size of the new ship is simply staggering for one of this class, far greater than the three currently under construction which already are bigger than any seen before. The news came in a release to the Tass news agency when Deputy Prime Minister for Defence and Space Industry, Yuri Berisov said an official order for the ship would be made by the Kremlin within a month, after he visited the Zvezda shipyard on February 25.

The LIder (Leader) class will be the jewel in the crown of Russia’s near 50 icebreakers and building her will require the refinancing of the Zvezda facility near Vladivostock at one end of the Northern Sea route, billions of dollars the government is apparently willing to invest in the ailing naval yard, whose order books are said to have increased with a variety of orders of late, particularly from Rosneft and a tanker design deal with Samsung Heavy Industries.

The latest move is one that pushes the Russian programme of Arctic energy exploration forward as Rosneft, the world's largest publicly traded petroleum company, seeks to expand operations there. With icebreaker management in the hands of Rosatomflot the 14,000 mile nautical route running to St. Petersburg has grown steadily busier as the ice reduces in both size and duration as the years pass. In 2018 the fleet of FSUE Atomflot’s nuclear icebreakers accompanied 331 ships of a total gross capacity 12.7 million tonnes in these waters, up by 5 million tonnes as against 2017.

The battle to control the sea passages through the northern ice is one in which the US has seemingly capitulated. Only one ship in the American fleet is capable of breaking heavy ice sufficiently for example to reach the US Antarctic base at McMurdo Sound and that is the ill-fated Polar Star.

Since we mentioned her travails in our last piece things have only got worse for Polar Star, a fire last month in her garbage disposal facility took two hours to defeat. Earlier last year she lost one of her three gas turbines, then continued on two engines until a shaft seal failed and flooded the engine room. Only the efforts of the crew yet again managed to repair her sufficiently to complete her mission. Parts from the defunct sister ship Polar Sea have effectively run out and a $75 million maintenance refit has been described as ‘unrealistic’ by the Government Accountability Office.

After pleas from the Polar Star’s Captain and others to prepare a vessel to substitute if the 42 year old ship has any more serious issues, it seems there are now plans in the pipeline to beef up the US fleet. The same day that Mr Berisov visited the Zvezda shipyard came news that new US vessels are now to be constructed and funds made available.

After a Coast Guard report in 2013 stated the country needed at least three heavy and three medium class icebreakers, the go ahead for the first vessel, under a law passed in August 2018 which states, ‘the Coast Guard should maintain an inventory of not fewer than six polar-class icebreaker vessels beginning not later than fiscal year 2029’ received confirmation that the Department of Homeland Security's budget for 2019 is to provide $750 million for the first vessel.

The act states, the Coast Guard should ‘award a contract for the first new icebreaker no later than 2019, deliver the first vessel no later than 2023 and start construction on the second through the sixth new ship at a rate of one vessel per year in 2022 through 2026’. The first vessel is to be a ‘heavy’, breaker, there is no mention however of a nuclear power plant, making the ships nowhere near as effective as the Russian fleet.

Meanwhile the talk is of at least three of the Lider class vessels being constructed with the Zvezda yard being made ready to start work in 2020.

Photo: Artists impression of a Lider at work.