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Nuclear Icebreakers: Russia’s Atomic Fleet of Arctic Ice Busters

In the frozen wilderness of the Arctic Circle, a slow rhythmic crunching can be heard. The ice, often between 2 to 3 meters (6 to 9 ft) in thickness, covers the landscape as far as the eye can see – well, almost. A long line of water of open water has appeared stretching back to the horizon, at its head, and the source of the crunching is a ship with a fearsome industrial quality to it, pushing slowly through the ice. This is the Artika – the newest of Russia’s nuclear icebreakers. 

No other nations operate such ships – they are uniquely Russian. There are 6 of these giant powerhouses currently operating in the Russian fleet. Their role, well, apart from the exceedingly obvious, is to clear shipping routes along the Northern Sea Route which runs along the north coast of Russia as well as accommodating the occasional tourist venture to the frozen north.  

With our climate continuing to warm at unprecedented rates, the Arctic region will likely open up like never before and Russia intends to not only take a leading role in this new landscape and the possibilities that might come of it but also to fiercely defend its stake in the region. These giant icebreakers may serve a very practical role, but they also act as an image of might and prestige.  

Arctic Region

The Arctic region is a harsh place to live, but 4 million people do just that. Half of those are Russian, which emphasises the importance of the ice breakers. Towns and even cities rely heavily upon ships to bring in essentials during the winter months. If the heating oil runs out in a place like Murmansk, which sits almost above Scandinavia, has a population of 287,847 and a record winter low of 39.4c (38.9F), you’re going to have some serious issues. 

Russia’s Far North, as it’s known in the country, comprises an area measuring some 5,500,000 square kilometres (2,100,000 sq mi) – that’s a third of the whole of Russia. In fact, if it was its own country, it would be the 7th largest nation in the world. It is also an area rich in mineral and natural resources but must be a truly difficult place to live. No surprise that many of the Gulags which appeared during the Soviet era were situated here. Those living in this region even receive a “northern bonus” as an extra salary payment, along with extra holidays, extra disability benefits and earlier retirement as a way of compensating the polar conditions.       

Early Ice Breakers

While the nuclear variety only emerged in the 1950s, ice breakers have been around for nearly a thousand years. The first, that we know of at least, came in the 11th Century with a group known as the Pomors who were an ethnic mix of Karelians and the Russians living in North-Russia. They used simple sailboats called Kochi to break through the ice of the White Sea. The boat’s hull was protected by a belt of ice-flow resistant flush skin-planking (usually made of oak or larking) along with a false keel for on-ice portage – which is when you quite literally have to pick the boat up and move it. The rounded lines below the water-line meant that the boat could be eased up onto the ice without damage and then moved by hand.  

It took a few centuries but eventually, things turned to steam power and the first of what we would consider modern icebreakers was the Russia ship Yermak which appeared in 1889, a ship that famously sailed through heavy ice conditions for more than 1000 days between 1889 and 1911. 

Steam was eventually replaced with diesel as the size of the icebreakers increased dramatically with the mammoth 120-metre (390 ft) long Candian ship, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, entering service in 1969. But by that point, we’d already gone nuclear. 

NS Lenin

Icebreaker Lenin commissioned in 1957 by Godot13 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When the NS Lenin launched in 1957, it became both the world’s first nuclear icebreaker and also the first nuclear-powered vessel in civilian hands. Measuring 134 metres (440ft) in length it had a displacement of 16,000 tons – big, but not exactly enormous. The ship was initially powered by 3 OK-150 nuclear reactors, each supplying 90 Megawatts of power but from 1970 two additional OK-900 reactors were added, producing 171 Megawatts each. To give you an idea of that kind of power, 100 megawatts, in theory, could supply energy for roughly 100,000 homes.  

The NS Lenin suffered to small scale nuclear accidents – sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me – which occurred in 1965 and 1967. The first was considered a loss-of-coolant accident which occurs when the coolant designed to regulate the reactor is reduced or completely lost. In this case, the coolant was removed before the spent fuel causing the fuel elements to melt and deform the inside of the reactor. 

The second accident, which occurred in 1967, was a cooling system leak that became apparent after refuelling. In a slightly comical turn of events, the concrete and metal biological shield which protected the reactors was smashed down using sledgehammers. This led to the discovery of the leak, but now they were faced with the destruction of the shield, which could not be repaired. As a result, all three reactors were temporarily removed from the ship.

The NS Lenin was retired in 1989, not necessarily because it was outdated, but because its hull had worn too thin from all the ice friction. If that’s not the mark of a job well done I don’t know what is.    

Artika Class

From 1975 onwards a new breed of icebreakers emerged, known as the Artika Class. I should add as a side note here. Artika is the name of a class of ship but was also used for the first ship in its class which operated between 1975-2008. To confuse matters, the newest addition, which I mentioned at the start of the video is also called the Artika. 

OK, with that bit of confusion out of the way. Six ships have fallen under the Artika class since the mid-’70s. They were Sibir, Rossiya, Sovetskiy Soyuz, Yamal and 50 Let Pobedy as well as the original Artika of course. All but the Yamal and 50 Let Pobedy have been retired. 

Nuclear i/b '50 let Pobedy' (Russia) on North 88°
Nuclear i/b ‘50 let Pobedy’ (Russia) on North 88° by Kiselev d is licensed under CC-BY-SA

While the design of the ships altered slightly over the years, the general layout and statistics remained roughly the same. The Articka Class ships come with a double hull, the outer of which measures 4.8cm (1.8 inches) in the areas needed to break the ice and 2.5 cm (0.9 inches) elsewhere. The newest Artika class ships also come with a polymer coating designed to reduce friction with the ice and the ship’s path through the frozen land is aided by an air bubbling system which fires out water from jets 9 metres (30ft) below the waterline. The jets can pump out 24 cubic metres of water per second (847 cubic ft per second). 

They are between 148 m to 159 m (485ft to 521ft) in length – which is almost as tall as the Washington Monument – with a water displacement of between 23,000 to 25,000 tons. Not surprising considering the environment that it typically operates in, these ships don’t exactly fly along and have a maximum speed of 20 knots (37 km/h – 23mph).   

The ships come with twin nuclear OK-900A nuclear reactors capable of producing 171 megawatts each, but typically the icebreakers will only use one of their reactors at any one time with the other kept in a standby mode in case of emergency. 

They can remain at sea for seven and half months and come with a host of amenities that must make inching through the ice for months a little more bearable. These include a swimming pool, a sauna, a cinema, a bar, a library and gym – one even has a volleyball court apparently – while the size of crews has varied considerably from 130 to over 200 on the newest ships.   

Taymyr Class

Sandwiched between the old Artika and the new Artika were the two Taymyr Class icebreakers, the Taymyr and the Vaygach which launched in 1989 and 1990 respectively and are both currently still in service. 

Nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr passing at close range somewhere in the Kara Sea
Nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr passing at close range somewhere in the Kara Sea by Tuomas Romu is licensed under CC-BY-SA

They are both slightly smaller than the Artika Class icebreakers but share many similarities. The one exception being that they both have a winter garden that produces the ship’s own vegetables. 

The Taymyr has twice suffered from a minor release of radiation in the ships reactor ventilation system, the second of which came in 2011 and forced the ship back to port under diesel power. By the time it arrived back in Murmansk some 6,000 litres (1,585 gallons) of coolant had leaked from its nuclear reactor. 

Support Vessels

While the icebreakers do most of the hard work, they are supported by a variety of ships used for refuelling and the storage of spent nuclear waste material. Between 1963 and 1984 nuclear waste was habitually dumped in the Barents and Kara Seas, located north-west of Russia, but this came to an end because of an incident that occurred involving a ship named the Lepse thirty-five years ago. 

Offshore support vessels in Leith Docks
Offshore support vessels in Leith Docks by John Lord is licensed under CC-BY

While dumping its hazardous waste in rough seas, nuclear fuel was inadvertently sprayed over the cargo compartment of the Lepse. The contamination was so bad that the ship immediately turned for home with the majority of the nuclear waste still on board. Upon arrival in Atomflot harbour in Murmansk, the ship was considered too contaminated to even attempt to cleanse and the decision was taken to scrap the vessel entirely but it remained dumped in the harbour, with the waste still on board, for an astonishing 15 years. It was only in 2012 that it was removed and safely disposed of.      

Project 22220 

Project 22220
Project 22220 by Отдел коммуникаций Росатомфлота is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As I mentioned at the start of the video, Russia is looking to greatly expand its presence in the Arctic circle in the coming future. President has stated that by 2035 the Russian fleet would have at least 9 nuclear-powered icebreakers. Kicking off this building drive is Project 22220 which will initially include three new vessels.   

Construction began on the new breed of icebreakers in 2012 and the new Artika was scheduled to launch in 2017, but delays because of the Ukrainian crisis meant that it didn’t appear until late 2019. 

Two further ships that fall under this class are scheduled to be completed by 2022 and they will be the Sibir and the Ural. The cost of the Artika was thought to be 36.959 billion rubles (about $1.1 billion) and it’s safe to assume the following two will be in the same region. Not exactly cheap, but compared to the $13 billion that the U.S spent on their new aircraft carrier the USS Gerald Ford, it doesn’t seem quite so much.  

The Artika is easily the largest icebreaker the world has ever seen measuring 173.3 metres (569 ft) in length and displacing a hefty 33,000 tons – which is three times that of the U.S Arleigh-Burke Class destroyers currently in operation. It has a beam of 34 metres (112ft) and a total height of 51.25 metres (112ft). It is a huge vessel, but does a fine job of doing what it was designed to do, and is capable of breaking 2.8 metres (9 ft) thick level ice while travelling at 1.5–2 knots (2.8–3.7 km/h – 1.7–2.3 mph) at full power. 

The ship comes with two RITM-200 nuclear reactors producing 175 megawatts thermal each which do not need to be refuelled for seven years. 

The Artika has had a rocky start to life. After its three year delay, it almost immediately suffered short circuit damage to one of its motors and is currently on sea trials operating at a reduced propulsion capacity because of this. It’s not immediately clear when it will be running at full power.  

A Changing World

In August 2017 a ship passed through the Northern Sea Route without the aid of icebreakers for the first time. An area of the world that has been typically treacherous for cargo vessels to venture into alone is changing – and changing quickly. NASA has stated that Arctic sea ice is declining by 12.85% per decade with estimates suggesting we might have an ice-free summer by 2050. 

This will have far-reaching effects around the world with water levels rising substantially but before that, it’s likely that we are going to see a large increase in traffic, both cargo and tourist, through the Arctic regions. With more and more opening up we will probably see many more icebreakers emerging, both conventional and nuclear. 

There is something that remains both fascinating and foreboding at what lies at our poles. The frozen lands of the Arctic and Antarctic have enthralled and beckoned explorers now for hundreds of years – some of which never returned. These are the most inhospitable and most difficult places to travel on our planet but with these monsters of Russian engineering, and their powerful nuclear reactors, cracks are beginning to open up like never before. Earth is changing rapidly, and at the forefront of this new polar world will be the imposing shape of a Russian nuclear icebreaker pushing imperiously – effortlessly – through the frozen landscape. 

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