Russia’s Nuclear Powered Fleet: A New Element

By Dmitry Boltenkov

The northern Russian territories, including coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, are rich in natural resources, first of all, in oil and gas, as well as coal and non-ferrous metals. Nature presented a unique traffic lane to Russia between the semi-spheres – the Northern Sea Route.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union began exploration and development of its polar possessions. Towns and settlements began to be built in Siberia and in the Far East that could be supplied only via the Northern Sea Route (NSR). This is how the so-called “Severny Zavoz” (supply of goods to northern Russia) appeared. The NSR is used for the transport of mined natural resources. However, the climatic and navigation conditions did not allow for year-round use of this route, but only certain summer months of navigation.


In order to increase the periods of navigation, the Soviet Union began to build a fleet of icebreakers. The Iceberg Central Design Bureau was established in 1947 in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) to develop designs for domestic icebreakers. The emergence of nuclear reactors led almost immediately to their use as propulsion systems for ships and submarines. In the early 1950s, the Council of Ministers of Text by Dmitry Boltenkov the Soviet Union adopted a decision on the development of nuclear-powered ship power plants. In 1953, the Soviet Union took a decision to build a nuclear-powered icebreaker. Construction of the first nuclear-powered submarine, K-3, had been launched a bit earlier. The first nuclearpowered submarine and the first nuclearpowered icebreaker were completed nearly simultaneously.

The flag of the Soviet Union was hoisted over the icebreaker Lenin on December 3, 1959, the birthday of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaking fleet. The icebreaker Lenin was four times more powerful than the most powerful Soviet icebreaker of the day, the Iosif Stalin. The Lenin became the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. The navigation period in the western Arctic (from Murmansk to the Yenisei river) increased from three to 11 months because of the Lenin. In 1989 the Lenin was put into storage. Since 2009, the first Soviet nuclearpowered icebreaker has been a museum in the port of Murmansk, and is a national site of cultural and technical heritage.


The need to expand the periods of Arctic navigation demanded the construction of more powerful icebreakers. In 1964, the designing of the second-generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers was begun. Between 1971 and 1977, two icebreakers, the Arktika and the Sibir, Project 10520, were built. These icebreakers are 1.7 times more powerful than the Lenin. On August 17, 1977 at 4 a.m. Moscow time, the icebreaker Arktika became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole.

Over the period of its service, the Arktika covered more than million nautical miles. The navigation period has grown with the Arktika and the Sibir to 8–9 months a year, and in the western sector of the NSR it has become practically year-round.

In 2011, the Arktika was mothballed and slated to be scrapped, possibly between 2018 and 2020. However, some consider it necessary to preserve the ship as a memorial. The Sibir is presently being scrapped at the Nerpa plant in Snezhnogorsk.

At the end of the 1970s, the government of the USSR made the decision to build three more Arktika class icebreakers, two shallow-draught nuclear-powered icebreakers for operation in the mouths of the Arctic rivers, and develop the design of the lead icebreaker with power exceeding 150,000 horsepower (110 МW).

The project produced the icebreakers Rossiya, Sovetsky Soyuz, and Yamal in the 1980s. Between 1989 and 1990, the icebreakers Taimyr and Vaigach were built with the participation of Finland. A peculiarity of these icebreakers was their draught of 8 meters, making it possible to be operated in the mouths of the Ob and Yenisei rivers, which Artika class icebreakers were unable to enter.

In the 1980s, CDB Iceberg, Project 10560, was designed, featuring a power plant of 150,000 thousand horsepower and displacement of 56,000 tons. This icebreaker would have been named the Ural, however, it was not built because of the economic difficulties of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

The icebreakers Rossiya and Sovetsky Soyuz by this time reached the end of their service, and were mothballed and slated to be scrapped after 2018. The Yamal was commissioned after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and in 1996 it became the first ship to reach the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility. The Yamal is expected to be in service until 2027–2028.

In 2016–2017, the service life of the icebreakers Taimyr and Vaigach was extended by five years. These ships will serve until at least 2023, and possibly until 2026.

In 1988, one more icebreaker of Project 10520 was ordered. The emerging economic difficulties of the 1990s hindered the construction of the ship, and the flag was hoisted on the icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy only in 2007.

In the 1970s, lighter-carrier ships became popular the world around. The USSR did not avoid this trend, and built a fleet of such ships. It was decided to build nuclear-powered lighter-carrier ships. In 1988, the lighter-carrier ship Sevmorput was built in Kerch at the Zaliv plant. The construction of a second ship of this class was cancelled. The lighter-carrier ship operated for some time on the Vladivostok – Vietnam line. Beginning in 1993, it was moved to the Murmansk – Dudinka line. At the end of 2013, the ship, which had already been decommissioned and mothballed, was returned into operation. Since May 2016 the Sevmorput has been transporting cargo in the Northern Sea Route line.


In Soviet times, nuclear-powered icebreakers were incorporated into a state organization, the Murmansk Shipping Company. A special base was established in Murmansk for nuclear-powered ships, where they were repaired and their nuclear reactors were recharged.

In 1993, the Murmansk Shipping Company was reincorporated as a jointstock company. According to Russian law, nuclear-powered icebreakers and the facilities for their maintenance cannot be privately owned. Subsequently, the state delegated to Murmansk Shipping Company the management of these nuclear facilities.

Rosatom, the State Atomic Energy Corporation, was founded on December 18, 2007. The corporation combines assets in the field of nuclear power engineering, the design and construction of nuclear power plants, and the power engineering industry. According to a presidential decree of March 20, 2008, the Federal State Unitary Enterprise (FSUE) Rosatomflot was established as part of Rosatom, which included the nuclear-powered icebreakers and nuclear maintenance ships.

Rosatomflot has been charged with the following main tasks:

– icebreaker support of ships pilotage along the lines of the Northern Sea Route;

– marine transportation on the nuclearpowered lighter-carrier ship Sevmorput;

– provision of field, research and rescue operations in the Arctic Ocean;

– conducting tourist cruises to the North Pole;

– maintenance and repair for the nuclear-powered fleet;

– providing operations for the Ministry of Defense of Russia.

As of 2017, Rosatomflot comprises four nuclear-powered icebreakers – the Yamal, the 50 Let Pobedy, the Taimyr, and the Vaigach; and the nuclear-powered lightercarrier ship Sevmorput. There are also four maintenance ships. The following icebreakers are in storage and reserve: the Rossiya, the Sovetsky Soyuz, and the Arktika. The icebreaker Lenin is a museum.

Rosatomflot is based in Murmansk. The FSUE coastal base and icebreakers are secured by ad hoc formations of the Federal National Guard Troops Service.

In 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced plans to build a structure within Rosatom Corporation that would provide public services in the field of maritime activity and manage the state property within the NSR and adjacent territories. Rosatomflot is expected to be reorganized into a new, more powerful structure, which most probably will be named Sevmorput State Corporation. Further, it will be possible to include ice-class cargo ships into this new Corporation.

After the construction of major terminals, including a possible liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub in Kamchatka, Russia will obtain a national transportation system for the delivery of hydrocarbons and other gases to the world markets via the Northern Sea Route.

According to governmental plans, Rosatomflot after 2020 will be the only organization in Russia that handles the recharging of nuclear reactors, both in combat ships and submarines of the Russian Navy, and in its own fleet.


In the early 2000s, Russia began to develop new natural gas and oil fields in its Arctic territories. One such field is the Yuzhno-Tambeiskoe gas field on the Yamal peninsula. Its natural gas reserves are estimated at 1.3 trillion m2 .

This field development, the Yamal LNG project, includes construction of facilities for natural-gas liquefaction. The plant’s full capacity is estimated at 16.5 million tons of LNG per year. A sea port has been built in Sabetta village.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin stated that “the revival of the Northern Sea Route begins in Sabetta.” A series of Arctic LNG carriers of “Christophe de Margerie” class is being built in South Korea. The first LNG loading to the tanker “Christophe de Margerie” began on December 8, 2017 in the port of Sabetta, President Putin in attendance. Investment in the project is estimated at $27 billion. Arktika-LNG, a new project for gas recovery from the Gyda deposit located on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Ob, is being established.

The launching of the Yamal LNG project to a new capacity will help increase the volume of gas export by more than 10% and increase Russia’s share of the world LNG market between 8 and 9%. The establishment of a liquefied natural gas production facility and the construction of a LNG carrier fleet will bring Russia to new gas markets. Russia will be able to supply gas to new clients in Asia, China, and Korea. Russia may also be able to enter new European markets, for example, France, where there is no Gazprom gas pipeline. This fact reduces the dependence of Russia on gas export to European countries, considering the current state of gas export via the gas transmission network of Ukraine, and the uncertainty of the status of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline construction. In the future, Russia may also enter LNG markets on the level of Qatar.

The other current and promising projects are the Novy Port oil deposit in the Gulf of Ob (the drilling platform Prirazlomnoe), coal recovery in Taimyr, recovery of the Messoyakha deposits oil from the Gyda peninsula. Nornikel Ore Mining and Smelting Works, which provides up to 1% of the country’s gross domestic product, also remains an important customer of the nuclear-powered icebreaking pilotage.

Plans are in place to make Sabetta a multifunctional port in the future to effect export of not only gas and oil from Yamal, but also grain from Siberia, metals from the Urals, coal from the Kuzbass, and oil products from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan via the NSR.

In 2016, according to Rosatom Corporation data, 400 ships with a volume capacity of 5.3 million tons were piloted by Atomflot. In all, the total cargo traffic in the Northern Sea Route amounted to 7.27 million tons. The cargo traffic of the Ministry of Defense amounted to 700 thousand tons.

In September 2017, the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources of the Russian Federation published a forecast of volumes of raw materials transportation from the aquatic area until 2030. The main cargo traffic will be related to the transportation of LNG, oil and coal. According to the basic scenario (of already approved projects), cargo traffic will reach 25 million tons per year, while taking into account the license obligations and plans of the companies, it will attain 40 million tons by 2020 via the NSR. In 2025, the forecasted cargo traffic will amount to 37 million and 67 million tons respectively, while in 2030, it will equal 41 million and 72 million tons, respectively.

In the future, Russia plans to carry out wide-scale prospecting and the exploration of oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean shelf.

It is impossible to implement these projects without Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaking fleet.

Thus, Atomflot is becoming an important tool of the Russian economy growth.

Russia also actively offers the use of the NSR route for transportation of cargoes from Europe to the Far East, since the route from Rotterdam to Japan via the NSR is 10 days shorter than via the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean. So far, this offer is not in great demand among Western transportation companies, first of all because of the absence of guaranteed all-season navigation via the NSR.

Recently, Russia has boosted its military activity in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. At present, Russia is building a large network of military bases on the islands and adjacent territories of the Arctic Ocean. The Northern Fleet is regularly carrying out exercises in Arctic waters. Previously, ships of the Northern Fleet performed operations in the Kara Sea and waters east of it only during World War II. Most frequently, the current operations are being carried out accompanied by the nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. Supply support of military bases has become one of the tasks of the restored lighter-carrier ship Sevmorput.


It became clear in the early 2000s that the operational life of nuclear-powered icebreakers of Soviet build was nearing its end. The beginning of the implementation of the Yamal-SPG project became another important aspect of building new nuclearpowered icebreakers. Russia managed to save its designing staff and the CDB Iceberg developed Project 22220 (LK-60Ya) for a new icebreaker in 2009. This icebreaker was developed according to the so-called “dual-draught concept.” An icebreaker of this concept features a specific ballast pumping system, which makes it possible to adjust its draught. Filling its ballast tanks with water, the nuclear-powered ship increases its draught, and accordingly increases its icebreaking capability under difficult ice conditions. When approaching the mouths of Siberian rivers, where the draught of ships should not exceed 8.5 meters, the nuclear-powered ship can drop its ballast and float up. Such a ship design will allow its use in deep Arctic waters, and in the shallow waters of the mouths of Arctic rivers. Thus, the icebreaker will be able to operate not only in the western Arctic region: in Barents Sea, Pechora Sea and Kara Sea, but also in the shallowwater areas of the mouth of the Yenisei and in the area of the Gulf of Ob. Icebreakers of this design will be able to replace the icebreakers of the “Arktika” and “Taimyr” classes, and will be classified as Universal Nuclear-Powered Icebreakers.

Such ships will become the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world. Currently, the most powerful diesel-electric icebreaker, the Viktor Chernomyrdin, has a displacement one third smaller and the plant power of only 25 MW.

The ships feature the following characteristics: length –173.3 meters; width – 34 meters; draught – 10.5 meters/8.5 meters. The icebreaker displacement will amount to 33.5 thousand tons. The ship will have two RITM-200 reactors. It features 60 МW of power at the shafts. Speed in icefree water will be 22 knots. The icebreaker will be able to overcome ice with thickness up to 2.8 meters at the speed of 1.5–2 knots. The icebreaker service life is expected to be 40 years. The crew will comprise 75 people. Owing to their width, the new icebreakers alone will be able to pilot tankers with displacement up to 70,000 tons in the Arctic regions.

The RITM-200 nuclear reactor belongs to a new generation of nuclear reactors. The main equipment will be arranged inside of the steam-generating unit. As a result, the unit is 2 times lighter and 25 МW more powerful than KLT units used presently on nuclear-powered ships. The established service life of such a reactor is 40 years, which corresponds to the service life of the icebreaker. It is scheduled to recharge the reactor once in seven years.

In August 2012, the Rosatom Corporation and Baltiysky Zavod – Sudostroeniye LLC signed a 37 billion ruble contract to build the lead icebreaker.

The keel of the nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika was laid on November 5, 2013. The icebreaker was launched on June 16, 2016. The subsequent two icebreakers have become more expensive. In May 2014, the Rosatom Corporation ordered the second icebreaker, Sibir, and the third icebreaker, Ural, for a total cost of 84.4 billion rubles from Baltiysky Zavod – Sudostroeniye LLC. The keel of the Sibir was laid on May 26, 2005 and the ship was launched on September 22, 2017. The keel of the Ural was laid on July 25, 2016. Initially it was planned to delivery the icebreakers to Rosatom in December 2017, December 2019 and December 2020, respectively. It should be noted that the cost of building the nuclear-powered icebreaker can be commensurated with the cost of building a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

However, the rupture of industrial and technical ties with Ukraine and the countries of the European Union in the wake of the famous events of the Crimean spring of 2014, and the general degradation of expertise in the construction of such complex technical objects in the 1990s, have combined to push the delivery date back two years. The Arktika is now set to be delivered in May 2019, the Sibir in November 2020, and the Ural in November 2021.

At the same time, the rupture of some technical ties has had a positive impact on the Russian industry. If, before, the plan had been to test the steam turbines for the icebreakers at the Turbine plant in Kharkov, now a facility has been set up in Russia for the testing of steam turbines of any capacity in Saint-Petersburg at the Kirov Energomash plant. At the same time, Russia has succeeded in building its own electric motion systems for nuclearpowered ships, which previously had to be procured in Europe.

Currently, discussions are underway about ordering two more icebreakers of this series. These two icebreakers will have a somewhat different look. They will be 5 meters wider, which provides for higher speeds. The need for these two new ships is predicated by the withdrawal of three icebreakers from Rosatomflot in the period of 2023–2028, as well as with the needs of Baltiysky Zavod loading operations.

At the same time, the icebreakers of this design will not be able to provide yearround operation of the NSR. Even more powerful icebreakers will be required to solve this task.


The need for year-round operation of the NSR and the growth of dimensions of tankers and LNG carriers to 300 meters long and up to 100 thousand tons of displacement revived plans of the late 1980s to build a lead icebreaker with a capacity of 110–120 MW.

In 2015, CDB Iceberg began the development of the leading icebreaker LK110Ya of Project 10510.

This lead icebreaker will have to overcome ice with thickness up to 4.5–5 meters and feature the following dimensions: length of 209 meters; width of about 47.5 meters; draught of 13 meters. The icebreaker will provide for the pilotage of ships featuring displacement of about 100 thousand tons and hull width of about 44–50 meters along the NSR line at the speed of 10 knots. The operational life of the leader is expected to be 40 years. Plans are to install a nuclear power plant with two reactors of type RITM-400. The icebreaker’s power will equal 120 МW. This power will arrive at Azipod propulsion/ steering units located outside of the ship hull. Making use of these units the leader will allow maneuvering under complex conditions either forward, or moving aft, or broadsiding. The estimated cost is 75–80 billion rubles.

Construction of the leader ship is expected to begin in 2019–2020 and end in 2025. According to estimates of Rosatomflot management, there is a demand for three such icebreakers. It is believed that yearround use of the eastern leg of the NSR, i.е. export of LNG and oil from Yamal to China and other Asian countries, is impossible without these icebreakers.

It is necessary to pay special attention to the fact that the Navy Command of the Soviet Union and Russia has always referred to icebreakers as top-priority ships for mobilization during wartime. As such, it has been planned to deploy the artillery and electronic warfare systems on the ships of Project 10520. In November 2017, media reports appeared about the mobilization capabilities of the leading icebreaker. Thus, several standard modules can be located in its aft. The modules correspond to containers, where Kalibr and Bal missile systems can be arrayed. Other weapon systems can be installed on the ships, as well. Without a doubt, such mobilization capabilities are available with the icebreakers of Project 22220 that are currently being built. Such armed icebreakers can not only protect themselves, but also wage combat actions in the Arctic Ocean, and defend convoys along the Northern Sea Route.

The Severnaya Verf or Baltiysky Zavod – Sudostroeniye plants of Saint Petersburg will be reconstructed to provide the construction of such immense projects. A new covered berth will be built at Severnaya Verf in the nearest future. It will be used to build both nuclear-powered lead icebreakers and other large ships, including amphibious military ships. One of the largest shipbuilding plants, Zaliv in Kerch, was returned to Russia in the spring of 2014 along with the return of Crimea. As stated above, the lighter-carrier ship Sevmorput was built at this plant, and the plant possesses the biggest shipbuilding dry-dock in Russia. The shipbuilding plant Zvezda is also being built rapidly in the Russian Far East. One should expect a contest between the above-named plants for the construction of the lead icebreaker.

Another promising design of the nuclear-powered icebreaker is the so-called offshore icebreaker, featuring power of 40 МW, which has been under development by CDB Iceberg since 2015. A general concept of this design is to build a unified basic platform to provide oil and gas recovery from the territory of continental shelf of Arctic region.

Thus, by 2030, Russia could have a nuclear-powered icebreaking fleet comprising not less than eight new icebreakers, five of the “Arktika” class and three of the lead icebreakers.

The new nuclear-powered icebreakers of both the “Arktika” class and the lead icebreakers allow the possibility of solving the problem of year-round navigation throughout the Northern Sea Route.

The nuclear-powered icebreaking fleet is a national endowment of Russia, and the development of the Arctic seems impossible without it, both in economic and military respects.

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