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Icebreakers in the Arctic: the world's most powerful icebreaker fleet

Nuclear- and diesel-powered icebreakers serve the Northeast Passage and enable the development of natural resources of the Arctic

13 2020

Russian icebreaker fleet is the largest in the world. As of 2019, the fleet includes around 30 diesel-powered icebreakers. Russia is the only country in the world to boast several icebreakers powered by nuclear energy. Apart from 4 nuclear-powered icebreakers, Russian fleet also includes the 'Sevmorput' LASH carrier—the largest and currently the only nuclear-powered cargo ship.

The main task of the Russian icebreaker fleet is to ensure continuous passability of the Northeast Passage—the shortest route between Europe and Asia. The interest in cargo transportation in the polar region is growing worldwide because these routes are not congested like the Suez Canal or suffer from piracy like the Indian Ocean. The new intercontinental passage helps save the most valuable resource: time.

For instance, the distance from the port of Murmansk to the ports of Japan is around 6 thousand miles via the Northeast Passage, and over 12 thousand miles via the Suez Canal. Depending on the ice conditions, a trip across the Arctic takes approximately 18 days, and through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea—around 37 days.

Another equally important mission of Russian icebreakers is to enable the development of natural resources of the Arctic.

This task is becoming more and more relevant as oil and gas fields on the Arctic coast and shelf are being developed. Icebreakers are already paving the way for large-capacity vessels shipping raw hydrocarbons to international markets.


It's hard to imagine how polar stations, as well as geological and scientific expeditions studying Arctic flora and fauna, would operate without the icebreaker fleet. Cruise tours to western archipelagos of the Central Arctic and, of course, the North Pole are gaining popularity.

Two heavy nuclear-powered icebreakers, 'Yamal' and '50 Let Pobedy' ('50 Years of Victory') are currently in operation. They are sometimes used as cruise ships as well. Icebreakers offer a variety of facilities for tourists travelling to Franz Josef Land and the North Pole, including saunas, swimming pools, libraries, restaurants, gyms and music halls. An Arctic cruise like this can be quite costly, at around USD 26,000 to 40,000.

Read also History of the Northeast Passage: from idea to first success Paving the way through the Arctic seas proved to be harder than going to space

Servicing industrial giants such as Nornickel required a new type of icebreakers—ones that would be able to get into ice-bound river mouths. Two shallow-draught nuclear-powered icebreakers were built for that purpose: 'Taymyr' and 'Vaygach'.

Increasing levels of cargo traffic on the Northeast Passage and implementation of the Arctic hydrocarbon projects have raised the question of building new icebreakers, primarily nuclear-powered ones. The largest and the most powerful icebreaker in the world—'Arktika', named after its predecessor which was the first to reach the North Pole, has been constructed and is already at the stage of sea trials. 'Arktika' will be followed by 4 other icebreakers of the same type, all within one project.


Read more 'Arktika': the world's most powerful icebreaker 'Arktika' icebreaker is set to make shipping through the Northeast Passage faster and cheaper

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