Russia's return to the Arctic North, enabled by Nuclear Power

Drawing of the DeLong Islands in the East Siberian Sea, pencil and Copic markers, by the author.

With Russia’s program to provide barge-like floating nuclear power plants—the first being the Academician Lomonosov—in the news recently, it’s fitting to look back to the actual origins of this novel solution to power provision and the need for such a solution in the first place. The concept of these mobile nuclear plants—which will be two reactors strong and towable to any seaport in the Russian Federation—comes out of the of nuclear icebreakers that Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has maintained since the late 1950s. Despite several notable accidents with these icebreakers (mainly their first icebreaker, the Lenin, which had two separate accidents with her reactors in 1965 and 1967) and also with its nuclear sub fleet, Russia can probably claim the greatest wealth of overall experience working with nuclear propulsion in the Arctic and having good results.

Moreover, and more crucial to the current power plant project, Russia has maintained a socioeconomic climate where nuclear-power for ships is considered viable and logical outside of the military realm to which it has been limited in the United States. Part of this is without any doubt due to the heavy use of nuclear icebreakers by the USSR and also the obvious need for a means to clear sea lanes in the Arctic—a need that only nuclear power can meet in the most economical and effective of manners and also a need that if hindered would greatly impede trade. There are remote locations within the scope of the northern reaches of Siberia where large and bulky goods can only arrive via ship, down rivers from the Arctic and without this avenue of trade, these cities and townships would be cut off from vital supplies. For years, the MV Sevmorput was the only civil cargo ship in the world to be nuclear-powered and also had icebreaker capacities, which were necessary for its regular route of serving these far-flung Russian port cities. This ship has been slated for decommissioning and is headed to the scrap-yard, alas, but the emphasis on northern sea route-enabled trade is becoming greater than ever in Russia.

Russia has recently made clear to the world its intention of bringing its operations in the Arctic region to a level of activity on all levels—military, commercial, and research-oriented—unseen since the early days of the Soviet Union. Under the tsars and later the USSR, the Arctic was for many decades considered a key domain for both the exploration and clearing of maritime trade routes and also for the exploration of mineral and petroleum deposits that could be turned to economic production sites. From 1932 to 1964, the USSR had their Glavsevmorput, or Chief Directorate of the Northern Sea Route, which was responsible for research and marine navigational matters in the Arctic and also had oversight of Aviaarktika, the airline of the Soviet far north. Up to the 1950s, Glavsevmorput was one of the most politically powerful of Soviet ministries and some historians claim that indeed the dissolution of the Directorate was as much a political measure as a necessary or logical economic or scientific one and furthermore, based on examination of Soviet archives, clearly the research efforts of divisions of Glavsevmorput continued under the auspices of other departments well into the 1980s.

It was after the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia turned its back on the Arctic and for the 1990s and most of the 2000s all but ceased the type of comprehensive research and expansion of northern sea route trade it had established in Soviet times. Once-crucial strategic ports such as Logashkino, which had been established by Glavsevmorput in 1933 as one of its first major trade infrastructure forays into the East Siberian Sea, were cut off from trade and left to become more or less ghost towns. After about two decades of neglect, however, President Vladimir Putin’s administration has vowed renewed interest in this region and in providing the type of dependable, year-round, trade that is essential to prolonged mineral and oil exploration operations in this harsh environment. 

The Academician Lomonosov and other barges in its class will, when they arrive into service around 2016, provide a capacity hitherto lacking in Russia’s toolbox for Arctic operations: a means of providing large-scale nuclear power at a given site but then, if needed, to relocate that power supply elsewhere. Clearly, mining and oil exploration and production operations would seem to be ideal customers for such a power provision platform. To fully appreciate the utility of these barges, which will contain two KTL-40 naval reactors modified for power provision (at the capacity of 70 MW of electricity or 300 MW of heat) plus on-board desalination facilities for the production of potable water, one must understand just how harsh and difficult a world the far north of Russia is and also how mineral-rich a region. My friend Anton works for ALROSA, the Russian diamond mining giant (with the second-largest diamond production capacity in the world and also the world’s largest untapped reserves of industrial-grade diamonds). From their headquarters in Mirny, a remote Siberian city itself, ALROSA overseas numerous diamond and other mineral production operations at far-flung Siberian locations. Going as far back as Stalin-era Glavsevmorput explorations of the area around Nordvik on the Laptev Sea, the Russians learned just how difficult industrial operations so far north would be in terms of technical and logistical challenges alike. Anton’s told me stories that have been passed down by generations of geologists and engineers, and clearly, the two biggest obstacles to industry are the sustained provision of local power and the means to get large amounts of equipment and materials in and out of remote sites. For inland sites, ALROSA even formed its own airline (Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise) to move its people and supplies around and for these locations there is really no other alternative, but the nuclear icebreakers make sea ports open to ship-based trade which also opens up many more options for oil or raw mineral extraction operations. The Lomonosov-class barges will now provide a power option that will far surpass extant options that were based upon cumbersome generators and difficult provision of fuel for those generators. Nuclear power, more than anything else, will open up areas for exploration that would not be viable otherwise. 

I am excited to watch the further development of the Academician Lomonosov class of barges and also how Russia fares in revisiting the great northern maritime routes that were once one of the central sources of pride in Soviet exploration and scientific progress. 


Further information on Rosatom Flot, the government-owned Russian company in charge of the icebreaker fleet and its current northern sea route operations is available in English on their website here:

Former USN naval reactors engineer Will Davis has a good blog entry here regarding the Soviet-era nuclear icebreaker fleet:

For more information on the history of the Soviet northern sea route, I highly recommend the following book, The Northern Sea Route: Soviet Exploration of the North East Passage, by Terence Armstrong and available here from Amazon:

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