Monday, June 21, 2010

Russia Goes the Atomic Route

It’s 1957. The Cold War is at its peak and Russia is on a roll. Sputnik 1 launched on October 4 and shortly thereafter, Russia launched the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship, the 19,000 ton icebreaker Lenin.

Built in the Admiralty Shipyards of what was then Leningrad, the Lenin was launched on December 5, 1957.But like so many early nuclear vessels on both sides, Lenin was marred by accidents and mishaps. She was the only vessel of her class.

In February 1965, while refuelling and undergoing repairs, an operator error caused major damage to the nuclear fuel assemblies. Some sources report up to thirty fatalities. A second accident just two years later resulted in irreparable damage to her two early OK-150 reactors. The then new OK-900 naval reactors subsequently replaced them after a lengthy repair. The Lenin was finally decommissioned in 1989 reportedly due to thinning of the hull from ice friction and is currently undergoing conversion to a museum ship in Murmansk.

Like all of Russia’s icebreaking fleet, their primary task is to clear shipping lanes like the 14,000 kilometre Northern Sea Route from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, and to this effect the Lenin, and the later second generation, Arktika-class vessels (the world’s largest icebreakers) performed admirably.

Six Arktika-class vessels have been constructed, with the latest; the 50 Let Pobedy launched just this year after an interrupted building schedule that began in 1989. Inspected by President Putin himself in May this year, this latest, largest and most modern vessel will probably see the majority of service as a tourist vessel either replacing or supplementing the Yamal currently operating itineraries to the North Pole.

The privately-owned Murmansk Shipping Company’s (MSCO OJSC) who operate the nuclear fleet on behalf of the Russian Federation, states, “In the Far North and the Arctic regions of Siberia, the Northern Sea Route remains an essential factor in the economic development of the Eastern regions. There is also no alternative to the nuclear powered icebreakers providing stability and reliability of navigation in the Arctic latitudes. Moreover, recent critical events showed that only on account of the icebreakers can the inhabitants of the Arctic shoreline could get the necessary supplies so vitally important for those regions.”

According to Yury Zaitsev, an academic adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences, Russia is committed to the nuclear Arctic fleet because the Northern Sea Route is a highly important factor in developing hydrocarbon deposits on Russia's Arctic shelf, which contains an estimated 62.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, nine billion metric tons of crude oil in offshore deposits and 3.5 billion metric tons of oil on shore.

“Russia must maintain its icebreaker fleet and also build special-purpose ships to transport these hydrocarbons,” said Zaitsev in a report for RIA Novosti.

The third generation of nuclear icebreakers, the Taymyr-class, was commissioned in 1988. The 151m Taymyr and Vaigach (1990) are 21,000 tons each and have 35MW of propulsive power compared to 54MW of the Arktika-class.

Did You Know?
Russia’s nuclear icebreakers must use cold arctic water for cooling and cannot operate in tropical waters. Hence, the nuclear fleet will never visit Antarctica.

Cruise Tourism in Polar Regions: Promoting Environmental and Social Sustainability?

Cruises are the primary form of tourism in the Polar Regions and cruise ship tourism in both the Arctic and Antarctic is expanding rapidly. Yet little is known about the practices, implications and challenges of tourism in remote polar seas. Climate change is dramatically altering the impact and potential for such forms of tourism. Recent incidents, such as the sinking of one cruise ship and the grounding of two other cruise vessels in the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007, highlight the need for a critical examination of the implications of polar cruise tourism.

A specific critical study of polar cruise tourism is therefore timely. The industry has moved beyond its infancy, and is now entering a maturing phase with increased numbers and types of vessels, more demanding routes, and more regular and predictable patterns of activity. A range of factors is likely to support this maturing phase, including increasing tourist demand for travel to remote places, overall popularity of cruising worldwide, more sophisticated promotional activities by tour agencies, increasing awareness at the political and community levels about the benefits and costs of cruise tourism, and changing ice regimes in the polar regions. The increase in cruise activities, and the associated risks of accidents, as well as the potential and actual impacts of the large numbers of tourists in the polar regions bring with it management challenges for sustainable use of these regions. This book discusses critically the issues around environmental and social sustainability of the cruise industry in Polar Regions. Authors from Canada, USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are experts in their respective fields and take an innovative, critical and at times controversial approach to the subject.

The North Pole Debate Still Rages

In September 1909, the American adventurer Frederick A Cook announced that he and two Eskimo companions had just returned from the North Pole after a journey of nearly two years. His bold claims were immediately met with derision by another US veteran of the ice, Robert E Peary. He claimed his own expedition was the first, reaching the Pole on 6 April 1909, conveniently overlooking his Negro manservant, Matthew Henson, who possibly reached it ahead of Peary. More than 100 years later the claims of both these egotistical self-promoters raise serious doubts despite debates supporting both efforts.

Last year, to celebrate the anniversary, British explorer Tom Avery recreated Peary's trek using replica equipment and dog sleds and actually completed the trek in less time despite a much thinner ice pack.
In truth, any claim about a journey to the North Pole during this era must be doubtful because of the elusive nature of the objective and the inherent inaccuracies of the instruments of the time.

William Mills, the late keeper of collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), author of 'Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia' and a regular polar traveller himself, noted:
"Neither Cook's nor Peary's claim has been conclusively disproved, and both have their defenders, but informed consensus is against both claims. Commander Richard Byrd's claim to have made the first aircraft flight to the Pole on 9 May 1926 is similarly controversial and recent evidence suggests that in fact he turned back about 100 miles south of the Pole, though again he too has his defenders. If Cook, Peary, nor Byrd is to be believed, the first to see the Pole were those on Roald Amundsen's airship Norge on 12 May 1926. However, it was the Soviet's 1948 aircraft landing that is generally considered to be the closest to the exact geographic goal."

Despite these other attempts, the most sensational "northing" occurred on 17 August 1977 when the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika became the first surface vessel to reach the Pole.

Today, the Arktika's sister ship, 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), makes annual sorties to the exact location of the geographic North Pole thanks to modern satellite navigation. Unlike Peary, Cook or Henson, expeditioners authenticate their achievement with a certificate and can immediately silence any dinner party detractors.

Krassin to the Rescue

The nose of the ice-encrusted airship rose dramatically in the forty knot headwind, sending the crew tumbling backwards while General Umberto Nobile struggled to keep Italia in the air against such ferocious gales. The great hydrogen filled vessel was buffeted back and forth in the worsening weather and, overwhelmed by excess ice, came crashing down on the arctic ice with such force, the gondola and engines were torn off and the airborne wreckage blown away with six men still clinging to the hull.

It was May 1928 and the age of the mighty airship. The famous Italian dirigible captain who, just two years before, was feted as a hero and promoted to General after piloting Amundsen and Ellsworth to the Pole in an airship of his own design, was about to enter the realms of history again – for all the wrong reasons.

Nobile’s drama later became the subject of the 1969 Hollywood blockbuster, The Red Tent, starring Peter Finch (as Nobile) and Sean Connery (as Roald Amundsen). Nobile died in Rome in 1978 at the ripe old age of 93.

If there was real hero to this story, it was Russia’s first proper icebreaker, the Krassin.

With the survivors of Nobile’s Italia languishing on the ice and his supposed support vessel, the Città di Milano, sitting suspiciously idle, a number of fruitless search and rescue attempts were launched by air, the most famous being the total disappearance of the legendary Roald Amundsen and five others whilst searching for the crew. The world’s media held their audiences in suspense with every report of the multinational rescue effort and soon great national pride was at stake for the successful rescuers.

So chaotic and disorganized was the rescue, that ultimately the survivors’ only chance rested with the trusty Krassin and she was hurriedly prepared in Bergen and finally sailed on June 24, a full month after Italia’s crash. Loaded with a Junkers aircraft for aerial searches, her journey to Spitsbergen with 138 souls, including media, tested the mettle and stomachs of all aboard.

Built in Britain in 1916 to a Russian design and originally named Svaytogor, she was built for rugged practicality and bore very few creature comforts. But with 10,000 horsepower, the 6,000 GRT, 100m vessel was the most powerful icebreaker in European service at the time.

After more drama amongst the ever-thickening ice, Krassin suffered propeller and rudder damage, Captain Karl Eggi was forced to a halt and launched her aircraft to complete the search. Skilfully piloted by Boris Chuckhnovsky, the red tent was eventually located and the survivors brought aboard on July 12th, delivering Russia a momentous propaganda victory.

If that weren’t enough, the brand new German tourist ship, Monte Servantes, with 1500 passengers aboard had struck ice on July 24 in an attempt to observe the Krassin in her search. Holed and taking water, she was in serious danger of sinking. Damaged as she herself was, Krassin diverted to the stricken liner and her divers repaired the hole. Upon her eventual return to Leningrad on October 5, the entire city turned out to welcome her and she was awarded the prestigious Order of the Red Banner of Labour.

Krassin continued to serve her country throughout the Second World War, where she undertook the treacherous Arctic convoy duty. She was fitted with 76mm and anti-aircraft guns for this purpose and survived this ordeal and the rest of war virtually unscathed.

She was extensively refitted after 1953 and continued to serve until 1971 when she was finally and graciously retired to Saint Petersburg where she is now a floating museum.

More info:,

Icebreakers - Pushing the Limits

When the first Arctic explorers starting venturing north, some five hundred years ago, in search of the supposed riches beyond the ice, they encountering numerous problems. Not the least of them being that their flimsy wooden ships kept sinking when they ran into the inevitable ice pack.

The pursuit of the fabled North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific brought numerous sailors undone as they pushed deeper into the frozen wilderness above what is now Canada. In fact, the most celebrated failure, that of Sir John Franklin in 1845, saw two ships and the entire complement of 129 men disappear.

Navigating the treacherous and capricious ice pack was an immensely arduous task even for the most skilled seamen. When the ice closed in around their ship, men would go out onto the ice and physically cut it away with huge saws while another party dragged the ship through the tiny passage like mules. Any progress was painfully slow and if the currents were unfavourable, the ice would carry them backwards despite their best efforts. The other great, ever-present danger was for a ship to be completely trapped by a rapidly freezing icepack. Probably the best known example is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-16 expedition, where his ship, the Endurance, was beset for 281 days in the ice before finally being crushed by the enormous lateral pressure of the frozen ocean. Despite the use of special, ice-strengthened designs, the force of nature prevailed over man’s insignificant craft. Shackleton’s Endurance, perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built, was only powered by a tiny 350hp steam engine - nowhere near enough power to force her 350 tonne hull through the thick Antarctic ice - ultimately dooming her to an icy grave.

Commerce, war and exploration fuelled the urgency for ships capable of not only withstanding the enormous forces of the shifting ice, but to actually break through it and create a channel other vessels could follow. Because each country had such vast Arctic coastlines, Russia, Canada and the USA were the driving forces behind this new maritime technology. Russia, however, can probably claim the first use of an icebreaker when the Pilot was used to maintain shipping lanes between St Petersburg and the nearby naval base at Kronstadt where she was built in 1864.

At the very end of the 19th Century, Russia introduced the world’s first true icebreaker, the Yermak. On her maiden voyage, she astounded the maritime community by immediately setting a new northernmost record for a ship when she explored to 81o 21’N on her maiden voyage to Spitsbergen in 1899. The Yermak gained hero status when she freed an icebound Russian battleship and, while on the same mission, rescued fifty stranded Finnish fisherman from an ice floe.

Convinced of their value, Russia added the Krasin, the world’s first “linear” icebreaker to her fleet. Built in Newcastle, England to Russian order in 1916, she was crucial in maintaining the Northeast Passage to the Far East along Russia’s northern coastline. She brought the icebreaker to world-wide attention again when, in 1928, she rescued General Umberto Nobile and his crew who had crashed at 82o above Spitsbergen on their failed attempt to reach the North Pole by airship. The 6,000 tonne, 100m Krasin, amazingly, is still afloat today.

Russia continued her illustrious reputation with icebreakers when she launched the world’s first nuclear-powered surface vessel in 1957, the Lenin (pic above). She was decommissioned in 1989 after a chequered career and is currently laid up in the Russian port of Murmansk where she will apparently become a museum ship.

In 1975, Russia launched the world’s most ambitious icebreaker yet, the Arktika. She was a new class of vessel and the largest and most powerful icebreaker ever constructed. Two 160 tonne nuclear reactors power steam turbines which, in turn, drive six electric generators providing an unprecedented 75,000 hp (max) to three fixed-pitch propellers. Her displacement is 23,455 tonnes. In a impressive demonstration of her superior design and performance, the Arktika became the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole when she cut a swath through the Arctic pack ice to reach 90o N on August 17, 1977. The journey took her a little over a week from her home port of Murmansk, although she could have kept going for another five years before needing to refuel. Four sister vessels were constructed over the subsequent ten years, with the last ship, the Yamal (from the Nenets language: End of the Earth) finally launched in 1992.

At the time of Yamal’s launch, the Russian icebreaker fleet was in disarray. Previously funded by the Soviet government, they now had to pay their own pay and, apart from regular transport and escort duties, soon began to carry Western adventurers to unheard-of destinations, including the North Pole. In a curious twist of fortune, the sudden availability of the world’s most capable fleet of icebreakers and ice-class vessels (including the conventionally powered Sorokin-class icebreakers) for free-market commercial use, has exploded the adventure travel market. Today, voyages to the far reaches of Antarctica, the fabled NorthWest Passage, the North Pole and elsewhere can be booked as easily as picking up the phone.

In 1991, Australian travel entrepreneur, Dennis Collaton, was one of the first to take such a voyage and thus recognise the possibilities.

“I walked out onto the deserted shore of the New Siberian Islands with some of the crew of the Sovetskiy Soyuz and there on the beach was the most enormous woolly mammoth tusk. No one could lift it. It was a struggle just to get it upright,” recalls Dennis. “It was then that I realised how incredibly special these remote destinations were and how privileged I was to be there.”

“You develop an enormous respect for the fragility and delicate balance of our environment when you visit these incredible lands,” continues Dennis, “and it makes you want to work just that much harder to preserve them.”

Since then, thousands of modern expeditioners have experienced the life-changing thrill of a voyage to the polar extremes of our fascinating planet aboard one of these extraordinary vessels.