Russia, Nuclear Icebreakers, & the Race for Arctic Oil-Gas

^ Oil-Gas Race in the Cold Arctic (Source:

Project 22220 LK-60
Since the days of Peter the Great, Russian rulers have cast their covetous eyes on perennial, all-season ports in neighboring lands. This quest has caused many a historical conflict. For despite being the country with the largest land area, Russia’s exposure to sea continues to be limited. Except of course for the frigid north. It is hardly a surprise therefore that the largest icebreaker of the present day, 50 Years of Victory, is Russian. And so will be the largest icebreaker of the near future, The Arctic. The Arctic is the first vessel of Project 22220 LK-60 that is building the world’s largest and most powerful icebreakers. And, these will be nuclear powered.

Baltic Shipyard Shipbuilding is building the vessel for Atomflot. The yard will also build two more such vessels based on The Arctic. Atomflot is the world’s only company to maintain a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. Atomflot’s parent company, Rosatom is the only provider of all products and services for the nuclear industry.

Estimated investment into The Arctic is $660million or RUR 37billion while the other two icebreakers will cost about $1.5billion or RUR 84.4billion. The Arctic may be launched by November 2015 and delivered by late 2017.

These figures might sound extravagant but are nothing considering that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic to hold 30% of world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15% oil. Plus, these icebreakers can operate in both, Arctic waters and mouths of polar rivers.

Design & Rationale of Nuclear Icebreakers

Most of the 200 something nuclear reactors that power marine vessels at present are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs). They use the nuclear fission process to heat water in the primary circuit to 3150C (6000F), which in turn converts water in a secondary circuit to steam. The steam powers a steam turbine.

Control rods of boron and cadmium fall and shut down the fission process during power failures and other emergencies in order to prevent reactor meltdown or other dreaded nuclear catastrophes.

Fission or splitting up of one atom of uranium-235 generates 3.24 x 10-11 joules (J) while the fission of one kilogram of uranium-235 generates 83.14tetra-joules (TJ = 1012 J) energy. This is about twice a million times the typical energy densities of distillate marine fuels (42.6MJ/kg), natural gas (55.5MJ/kg), and LPG (46.4MJ/kg).

This is precisely why nuclear powered ships can go years without refueling. Nuclear fuel is the only viable source of power for icebreakers as they guzzle fuel in enormous quantities. A diesel powered icebreaker would have the range of a few miles only.

60 Years of Victory: Largest Icebreaker at Present (Source:

60 Years of Victory: Largest Icebreaker at Present

Unlike conventional ships with pointed bows, icebreakers have smooth hulls shaped like the back of a spoon. On hitting ice, the smooth bow lifts the ship to ride over the ice. The weight of the ship then breaks the ice. Icebreaker hulls are reinforced to deal with the immense stresses and coated with low-friction solution for easier gliding over ice.

Technical & Other Details

Powered by nuclear reactors, The Arctic can go without refueling for seven years over their life span of 40 years. It is capable breaking ice up to 2.8m thick. Its:

  • primary mission is to assist vessels transporting hydrocarbons from deposits on the continental shelf of the Kara Sea as well as the Gydan and Yamal peninsulas to markets along the Atlantic and the Pacific
  • secondary objectives include offshore and onshore exploration, cargo transport, and fishing

Dual draft design makes the vessel capable of operating in both, Arctic waters and the mouths of polar rivers. During winter, the vessel will operate in the western Arctic region viz. Pechora, Barents, and Kara Seas; Ob Bay, and Yenisei Rivers. In summer, it will shift its service area to the eastern Arctic.

Technical Data

Kemplon - JpegTwo RITM-200 pressurized water nuclear reactors of 175MW thermal capacity each will use 20% Uranium-235 as fuel to produce 60MW and drive a three shaft electric propeller arrangement. Integrated steam turbine plant includes two main turbo generators with 36MW capacity each.

Other electric propulsion equipment aboard the vessel includes:

  • 3 x 20MW each propulsion motors controlled by frequency convertors
  • 10kV switchgear
  • associated transformers


Thorium appears to be the fuel for future nuclear powered ships because it does not melt down reactors. And it is eco-friendly i.e. easily recycled, available as a by-product of rare-earth mining, and is radioactive only for decades – not for centuries as with other nuclear fuels.

Plus, it is cheaper and available more reliably than uranium. Thorium generates more energy than uranium, does not require enrichment or conversion, and can fuel existing reactors.

For a latest roundup on the latest record breaker vessels, visit our blog. And it you want to actually get ships built or repaired, contact Kemplon Engineering for sterling marine fabrication services, marine pipe fitting, and large scale custom metal fabrication.