The Arctic and Russia’s Nuclear-Powered Icebreakers

Russian transpolar territories are a strategic maritime artery connecting Europe and Asia, a vital route to the northern cities, and a reservoir of treasures both already discovered and only predicted by geologists.


It is a front ready to counter strategic bombers flying across the Pole or missiles launched from the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Large industrial enterprises operate beyond the Arctic Circle, the Norilsk Nickel mining company alone making for 2% of the country's total GDP. All factors, history, economics, geography, and politics, call for Russia’s permanent presence in the waters of the Arctic Ocean.


Lenin vs. Stalin

Russia’s icebreaker fleet has a century-long history. The key milestone in its development was the emergence of nuclear marine propulsion technology. The ‘Lenin’ nuclear-powered icebreaker was four times more powerful than the then strongest Soviet icebreaker, ‘Joseph Stalin’. Thanks to the ‘Lenin’ icebreaker, the navigation time in the western region of the Arctic (between Murmansk and the Yenisey River) has been increased from three to eleven months.

The Soviet Union went on to build six large Arktika class nuclear-powered icebreakers; the last of which, ‘50 Let Pobedy’ (50 Years of Victory), was commissioned in this century. Two more icebreakers were a joint project between the USSR and Finland.

The third millennium started with the implementation of major oil and gas production projects in the Yamal Peninsula, the Gulf of Ob, and in adjacent territories. Currently, Russia is planning to develop the Arctic Ocean shelf. In the meantime, service life of the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreakers is running out. They are being replaced by the next generation icebreakers: Project 22220 LK-60Ya (60 MW icebreakers with a nuclear propulsion plant).

Nuclear civilian ships (including Russia’s “Sevmorput” LASH carrier) and their support vessels are managed by the Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FSUE) Atomflot. FSUE is part of State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom with its headquarters located in Murmansk; along with berthing facilities there are floating docks for icebreakers repair. The National Guard Naval Service Corps (a branch of the National Guard of Russia Rosgvardia) is in charge of the home base security.

Nuclear-powered icebreakers of the new generation are being built in St. Petersburg, at the Baltic Shipyard, part of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC).

The State of Atomflot Vessels

Only two icebreakers of the Soviet Project 10521 are still operational; the aforementioned ‘50 Let Pobedy’ and ‘Yamal’. Despite the fact that the icebreakers belong to one project, they have different icebreaking capabilities due to peculiarities of hull design.

Yamal Icebreaker

  • Laid down at the Baltic Shipyard in 1986

  • Launched on October 4, 1989

  • Commissioned on October 27, 1992


  • Full displacement 23,460 tons

  • Length 148 meters

  • Width 30 meters

  • Draft 11 meters

  • Power 55 MW

  • Capable of breaking through ice up to 2.25 meters


50 Let Pobedy Icebreaker

  • Laid down at the Baltic Shipyard in 1989

  • Launched on December 29, 1993

  • Commissioned on March 23, 2007


  • Full displacement 25,840 tons

  • Length 160 meters

  • Width 30 meters

  • Draft 11 meters

  • Power 55 MW


In the 1990s, the building process of the icebreaker was suspended due to economic disturbances at that time. In 2003 construction was recommenced. The design of the bow of the ‘50 Let Pobedy’ was modified, hence it has got better icebreaking capability than that of ‘Yamal’.

Atomflot’s fleet also includes two icebreakers built in Finland and additionally equipped at the Baltic Shipyard. Theseare Project 10580 vessels, ‘Taymyr’ and ‘Vaygach’. In the 1980s, the Baltic Shipyard was building not only nuclear-powered icebreakers, but also nuclear-powered combat vessels. At that time, it was decided to build two icebreakers in Finland, but perform all processes related to nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union.


Taymyr and Vaygach


  • Displacement 20,000 tons

  • Length 152 meters

  • Width 30 meters

  • Draft 8 meters

  • Power 35 MW

  • Capable of breaking 1.77-meters-thick ice

The small draft allows the icebreaker to operate in estuaries of Siberian rivers. Atomflot intends to keep the ‘Yamal’, ‘50 Let Pobedy’, ‘Taymyr’, and ‘Vaygach’ vessels in service as long as possible.


State-of-the-art Russian Icebreakers

Universal nuclear-powered icebreakers of Project 22220 with innovative equipment have an icebreaking capability of 2.9 – 3 meters at a speed of approximately two knots.

Currently, four icebreakers of this project are under construction, two of them are being finalized afloat. The mainicebreaker, ‘Arktika’, is already being used for convoy transportation.


Project 22220 Icebreakers


  • Full displacement 33,500 tons

  • Length 173 meters

  • Width 34 meters

  • Power 60 MW

  • Capable of breaking 2.8-meter-thick ice

The vessels have variable draft from 8.5 to 10.5 meters. This feature enables their entry in river estuaries. The cost of such an icebreaker is estimated at about 50 billion rubles. General data on Project 22220 Icebreakers are given in Table 1.

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In 2014, construction of ‘Arktika’ was suspended: Turboatom Plant of Kharkov (Ukraine) discontinued supplies of turbine generators. Production had to be arranged at Kirov Energomash plant in Saint Petersburg, which had not been manufacturing turbine generators of the required power for over a quarter of a century. The plant underwent a major modernization; however, the delivery date of the vessel moved from 2017 to 2020. Nevertheless, on October 3, 2020, the ‘Arktika’ icebreaker successfully reached the North Pole. The trip was the final stage of State trials, and on October 21, 2020, the flag was raised on the icebreaker.

Unfortunately, Project 22220 icebreakers are incapable of ensuring year-round operation along the Northern Sea Route. Therefore, Russia is developing an even more powerful icebreaker of Project 10510, also known as icebreaker ‘Leader’.


Heavy-Duty Icebreakers

Russia is building a high-performance shipyard – the Shipbuilding Complex Zvezda. The facility is located in the city of Bolshoy Kamen in the Far East. The contract for building of the main heavy-duty icebreaker was signed on April 23, 2020, the customer being the Atomflot, and the contractor, Zvezda. Steel cutting for the vessel started on July 6,2020. The official launch was scheduled for September 28, but it did not take place. The company’s management is allegedly expecting a visit from some high state officials or waiting for the Unified Ship-Laying Day.

The estimated construction cost is 127 billion rubles. The delivery of the ship, which has not yet been laid down, is planned for 2027. In 2023, two more such icebreakers are expected to be laid down.


Project 10510 Icebreaker


  • Displacement almost 70,000 tons

  • Length 209 meters

  • Width 47.7 meters

  • Draft 11.5 meters

  • Power 120 mw

  • Capable of breaking 4-meter thick ice

  • Speed on open water 22 knots


A Project 10510 icebreaker has no counterparts. It has outstanding technical specifications. The nuclear vessel will be able to make a channel up to 50 meters wide, which will enable year-round navigation for vessels from 50 thousand tons of displacement, including the transit of large-tonnage gas carriers.



Atomflot Prospects

After 2030, Russia intends to continue reinforcing its nuclear icebreaker fleet. Probably, four more icebreakers will be ordered – Projects 22220 and 10510, two of each project.

Atomflot is now involved in a range of infrastructural and economic initiatives related to industrial companies and transport. Current and planned projects include Yamal LNG (liquefied natural gas plant), Arctic LNG-2, ‘Arctic Gate’, ‘Zerno Sibiri’, and development of new ports and terminals – Kharasavey Port, Yenisey Port, Chaika Terminal, Bukhta Sever Port, Krugliy Port, Dudinka Port, and others. All the aforementioned are joint projects with major industrial companies – Gazprom Neft, Rosneft, Novatek, Nornickel, and VostokUgol. 


Atomflot is running the following contracts for icebreaker support:

  • With JSC Yamal LNG until 2040, to ensure export of 17.4 million tons of liquefied natural gas per year;

  • With PJSC Gazprom Neft until 2025, for transporting 8.5 million tons of crude oil per year;

  • With PJSC MMC Norilsk Nickel until 2027, for transporting 1.3 million tons of non-ferrous and noble metals, as well as support cargoes per year.


Russia plans to increase the total cargo traffic up to 130 million tons per year. In 2020, nearly 33 million tons of cargo was delivered via the Northern Sea Route. The next steps are to reduce transit time down to 10 days and ensure year-round navigation, including the eastern part of the Arctic. Russia intends to make the Northern Sea Route an alternative to the Suez Canal.


Nowadays, only Russia has the technology for constructing large icebreakers, including nuclear ones. The country is vitally interested in developing these expensive ships to support its economic and military operations in the transpolar regions and waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Other Arctic countries (including the US and Canada) are yet incapable of producing comparable vessels. This means that so far Russia retains the leadership in the development of the region.


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