A Look At Russian Nuclear Icebreakers

October 13th, 2014
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Given that Russian territorial waters include large areas of the far north, it’s no surprise that Russia has some of the world’s largest and most capable icebreakers.  A few of these are of the nuclear-powered variety.

Nuclear power is ideally suited to icebreakers, because it provides nearly limitless energy for propulsion and on board needs like heating and electricity.   Icebreakers tend to consume a lot of fuel, both because of their need for heat and because of the resistance posed by the ice, which requires large and powerful engines.  Nuclear power assures the ships will never be stranded in ice with low fuel and gives them the ability to run at full power without concern for fuel burned.

Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers are the most capable ice-breaking ships in the world.  The icebreaker Artika was the first non-submarine to make it all the way to the North Pole, something few other ships could do.

In recent years, the icebreakers have been used in antarctic and arctic cruises, bringing passengers places few other ships could.  It’s not entirely clear if the contract for cruises on these ships will be renewed in future years, but at present, for the price of about nineteen thousand Euro, you can visit the antarctic from the comfort of a huge nuclear icebreaker.  Accommodations  on board are extremely comfortable, but because these ships were not built to be cruise liners, there’s only room for about one hundred guests.

A look inside really illustrates just what can be done with nuclear energy.  When you have limitless power at your disposal, anything is possible, including providing the creature comforts of home in an extremely harsh environment, with subzero temperatures while easily breaking through the toughest pack ice.

And yes, that is a swimming pool.  A small one, but a swimming pool none the less.  Why did they decide to put a pool on an icebreaker?  My guess is just to show off the fact that these icebreakers are such engineering masterpieces that nothing, not even swimming, needs to be omitted in the arctic and antarctic.   There are also saunas, libraries, gym areas and small theaters on the icebreakers.

Such recreational facilities also provide the crews of such icebreakers with much needed rest and relaxation during deployments in that can last several months.  For an escape from the dark and cold of the poles, they also have conservatory-like rooms with plants bathed in artificial sunlight.

The comforts, however, should not detract from appreciating the extreme capabilities of these ships.  They can cruise at more than twenty knots and break through some of the thickest ice in the world.  Their twin nuclear reactors are capable of delivering more than 350 megawatts of thermal power and providing 75,000 or more horsepower to the ship’s propellors.

These photos are not all of the same icebreaker

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The US Coast Guard operates a fleet of large icebreakers.  They’re very capable by any standard, but they are nothing compared to these nuclear-powered ships.  Like most of the world’s icebreakers, the Coast Guard uses conventional oil-fired propulsion.

One can only imagine the possibilities if nuclear power of this type were more widely embraced and deployed for marine propulsion.  Building a large number would undoubtedly bring the cost down, due to economics of scale.

Sources of Photos:

Natural Habitat
Eformable Nuclear NewsMoby Nova
English Russia
Poseidon Expiditions
Arctic Centre On Flicr


This entry was posted on Monday, October 13th, 2014 at 11:51 am and is filed under Good Science, History, Misc, Nuclear. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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6 Responses to “A Look At Russian Nuclear Icebreakers”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    One other country with a huge expanse of High Arctic littoral waters, is Canada, and there is constant handwriting in Ottawa over the need to assert dominion up there, yet the one clear tool that would accomplish this – a small fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers – seems to be the last thing they will look at.

    It’s not as if this country doesn’t have the technical background in nuclear energy. There was a joint project at one point between (then) AECL the military to develop a marine reactor based on the SLOWPOKE III that didn’t get past the design stage, but I suspect that even if we did not chose to use an indigenous reactor, we could have bought one from the Americans or the British without much problem.

    Now, with the Northwest Passage saying open longer each year, patrolling this zone will be of greater importance and if we don’t have the means to do so, we risk losing a certain measure of sovereignty in that area.


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  2. 2
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Now, with the Northwest Passage saying open longer each year, patrolling this zone will be of greater importance and if we don’t have the means to do so, we risk losing a certain measure of sovereignty in that area.

    If it’s staying reasonably ice free then fossil fuels could probably do the job well enough combined with maritime patrol aircraft.


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  3. 3
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    If it’s staying reasonably ice free then fossil fuels could probably do the job well enough combined with maritime patrol aircraft.

    While the southern portions are remaining open, the same is not true throughout the archipelago and increased traffic in the area means that there will be a need to be a greater presence in the whole area. Most that think that Arctic patrol can be carried out by aircraft in any effective way (and there are plenty of Canadians that do) simply have no concept of the bloody vastness of the area. The numbers required manpower, equipment and frequency to be effective is staggering, and even then you are left with the problem of effectively intervening once a problem is found. Ships with helicopters can carry out long-range, long-duration patrols, and if necessary, project might to enforce sovereignty, or serve as a platform for SAR activities. More importantly they can do this far more cost-effectively than fixed wing aircraft can alone.


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  4. 4
    Anon Says:

    The vastness of the area is part of why aircraft are going to be needed, ships simply don’t have the speed or the sightlines, of course aircraft are somewhat limited in what they could do once they find something (can they do anything other than fire a missile?) so ships are still going to be needed (of course that means you’d have to spread the ships around the area so they could follow up on anything the aircraft spot).

    Question is, would the cost to patrol that area even in the most efficient way possible be something the public is willing to pay? You might also have to accept likelihood of it taking a few days before a bogey is intercepted or even found.

    What about airships for ocean patrol in that region? Would blimps (possibly unmanned) be a workable option?


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  5. 5
    DV82XL Says:

    It has been well established that helicopter-equipped ships are far better in this service. Over-the-horizon radar makes limited optical sight lines irelivent and finally ships can continue to operate and stay on station in conditions that would ground aircraft. Satellites can provide everything and more than patrol aircraft (and do.) It is interdiction, or at least the capability of interdiction, that is the weak link and for that one has to be able to project might, and a big floating platform does that best up there.

    As for the willingness of Canadians to pay, that is a political question that is gaining some attention – not enough in my opinion – but it is starting to be given consideration. If we can’t or won’t. then we best negotiate some agreement with the U.S. or face potential encroachment into territorial waters,


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  6. 6
    PsihoKekec Says:

            Anon said:

    What about airships for ocean patrol in that region? Would blimps (possibly unmanned) be a workable option?

    They have their use, especially due to their endurance, but are much more vulnerable to strong winds than conventional aircraft and the way I hear it this would impede their effectivness quite a bit. Having a ship out there, possibly with helicopter is the best solution, especially when it comes to emergencies.


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