Nuclear powered Arctic cruises

There’s a picture on Captain Lobusov Dmitriy’s Instagram of a hot air balloon over the North Pole. Reflected in the glassy melt ponds in the old sea ice, it floats above a hulking, 160-metre long icebreaker.

There is currently only one boat in the world that takes tourists to the top of the world: the Russian-owned, 160-metre long 50 Let Pobedy, or 50 Years of Victory – currently helmed by Captain Lobusov. Scrolling through his pictures gives you a fascinating taste of life on board, and it’s not all blue skies and hot air balloons. For half the year this mammoth icebreaker is used to open shipping lanes. Working in near darkness, she rams, tugs and cracks other ships out of the ice like cubes from a freezer tray.

How does she do it? On the side of 50 Years of Victory’s hull is a small drawing of an atom: she runs on nuclear power. She carries two small OK-900A nuclear reactors, which between them deliver some 74,000 horsepower.

Why do we sell this trip?

Nuclear power is the only feasible way to reach the North Pole as a tourist – for now. No non-nuclear icebreakers make the trip on a regular or reliable basis. Not only are nuclear-powered icebreakers eye-wateringly efficient at slicing through ice, they’re also very dependable. And that’s key when you’re heading to the very top of the world, where help if you need it can be a long way away.

In theory, nuclear power is less polluting than the standard heavy fuel oil, or the Marine Gas Oil (MGO) favoured by responsible operators. A reactor core lasts 13 years – food and water need to be restocked many times over before the boat needs ‘refuelling’. Leaks are very, very rare in any nuclear icebreaker, and have not affected tourists in 50 Years of Victory’s history.

Why Russia?

There are only six nuclear icebreakers in the world and they all belong to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency. It’s an organisation with a $300 billion portfolio, responsible for some 20 percent of Russia’s energy production. Rosatom have three more nuclear icebreakers in the works, and all will eventually eclipse Victory in size and power.

Russia’s polar dominance comes down to its interest in the North Sea Route, where shipping is growing apace as sea ice melts. The so-called Polar Silk Road above Russia is 30 percent quicker than going via the Suez Canal. Traffic increased 200 fold between 2010 and 2018, and reaching 30 million tonnes in 2019. It’s still got a bit of catching up to do. Suez Canal routes around 983 million tonnes.

Taking tourists to the North Pole was once useful employment for icebreakers in the summer months, when they would be sitting in Murmansk, unused. The huge increase in shipping in the NSR means that tourism is less of a priority: it accounted for only 6-7 percent of Atomflot’s revenue in 2013.

Champagne on the ice

Trips to the North Pole used to be just about sharing a bottle of champagne on the ice. But as global warming continues, many people come back from the Arctic with their eyes opened. “They come back changed people. More environmentally aware,” Simon from our specialist Arctic operator Wildfoot explains.

“In years gone by the emphasis was on celebrating going over the circle – but now it’s about the wildlife,” Simon explains. The route from Murmansk to the North Pole passes close to Franz Josef Land, an archipelago that is both a Russian military base and home to large numbers of the Arctic’s most famous inhabitant – polar bears. Pregnant females dig dens on the islands, emerging with their cubs in spring. Bear sightings spike once you reach the archipelago.

The idea of easier trips across the Arctic isn’t necessarily something to celebrate. In a few short decades, there might not be any ice to break through at all.

In the last 30 years, the Arctic has lost nearly two thirds of its ice by volume. According to NASA, much of what remains is younger, thinner ice, meaning that in 2017, a Russian tanker sailed from Norway to South Korea without needing an icebreaker.

Environmental impact

50 Years of Victory slices through the ice like a knife through butter. The video evidence is pretty awe inspiring – but what environmental impact does she have, opening the sea route like this? Ice reflects the sun’s rays, keeping the Arctic cool. Open sea has a lower reflectivity than sea ice, which would mean breaking ice is harmful. What’s more, polar bears tend to react to the presence of an icebreaker in their midst – and have been known to approach the vessel.

It’s a numbers game. There are so few North Pole journeys that these impacts are negligible. The tracks left by the icebreaker are utterly miniscule compared to the melting that naturally occurs every season.

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What does a nuclear icebreaker cruise entail?

You’ll meet your Russian icebreaker in Murmansk. On board, you’ll find yourself sleeping in officers’ cabins – a reminder that you’re sailing on a working vessel. 50 Years of Victory might be functional, rather than pretty, below deck, but she’s large enough to house everything from a small pool to the enormous bridge where the crew steer the ship.

As you leave Murmansk’s port, with its huge ships and slanting gantry cranes, the crew hose down the decks to rid them of any city grime. A thick Arctic fog might fall – or else the city will slip below the horizon, leaving only chill blue sky and bluer water. There are a few days’ cruising ahead to bring you to the pole.
Helicopters are sent from the ship to look for the best route through the ice, and you can experience the extraordinary sensation of 50 Years of Victory slicing through the ice sheet with almost frightening ease.

50 Years of Victory has a spoon-shaped bow. If you’re imagining her tapping away at the ice like the top of a boiled egg, you’re right. Icebreakers tackle ice from above, bringing the whole weight of the ship crashing down onto the sheet. In ice more than 3m thick, Victory can slowly ram her way through instead.

Soon enough, you’ll holding hands with your shipmates, standing in a circle around the chevron shaped sign, pointing downwards at a jaunty angle through the ice: the sign that marks the North Pole. And of course, you might be able to go on a balloon flight, so you really feel ‘on top of the world’.

On the way back you’ll idle in Franz Josef Land. A day or so here can radically up your tally of polar bear sightings.

Nuclear safety

Not everyone is happy with nuclear icebreakers like Victory, though they have been used to convey tourists to the pole since the early 1990s. In 1994, tourists were stopped at Tromso by Friends of the Earth Norway. The protestors cited Russia’s poor nuclear record, and argued that Western money should be spending money clearing nuclear waste, not contributing to it.

Despite early fears, there have been no nuclear incidents on North Pole cruises involving tourists. However, some people might be uneasy about travelling with Rosatom, who have a history of leaving incidents unreported. Between 1988 and 1994 there were four nuclear incidents on vessels. In 2011 icebreaker Taymyr started leaking cooling water whilst it was working off the coast of Siberia. In 2019 five scientists were killed in a nuclear accident at a military base – an incident Rosatom initially downplayed.

Russia’s first nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, launched in 1957, but its nuclear plant is now sitting at the bottom of the sea, following two separate leaks in the 1960s. It’s not alone. There are an estimated 4,750 containers of nuclear waste sunk in Tvisokla Bay, at Novaya Zemlya – an archipelago that has long been used as a nuclear testing site, but now touted as a wildlife and wilderness area. Dumping was outlawed in the 1990s, and Russian ships have since had to scour the North Sea Route for nuclear risk before allowing more shipping.

Cleaner fuels

Are there any alternatives to Russia’s nuclear icebreakers? Not if you want to go to the North Pole. But the future of zero-emissions ships in the wider Arctic is looking brighter. In 2019, a zero emissions vessel, the aptly named Energy Observer, became the first hydrogen-powered vessel of its kind anywhere in the world. It travelled from St Petersburg to Spitsbergen, crossing the Arctic Circle, before continuing on around the world. There are electric passenger ferries in the works, and some operate in Arctic waters; Brim Explorer already cruises the Lofoten Islands using hybrid electric power.

In 1991 the Swedish icebreaker Oden was the first non-nuclear vessel to reach the North Pole, but recent attempts have been thwarted. In 2019, Kronprins Haakon, the largest Norwegian icebreaker ever built, attempted to make the trip – but the new sea ice proved too thick.

Alongside Russia’s upcoming nuclear projects is a diesel-electric icebreaker. Viktor Chernomyrdin is touted to be the most powerful non nuclear icebreaker ever built. It will deliver 25 MW (comparable to Victory’s 27.6 MW) and break ice up to two metres thick, all with lower emissions and fuel consumption than a regular engine. Nuclear or no, hot air balloon in tow, or diesel-electric, Russia continues to lead the way to the Pole.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: ©Samantha Crimmin / Quark Expeditions] [Intro: ©Samantha Crimmin / Quark Expeditions] [Why do we sell this trip?: ©John Bozinov / Wildfoot Travel] [Champagne on the ice: ©John Bozinov / Wildfoot Travel] [What does a nuclear icebreaker cruise entail?: ©Filip Kulisev / Wildfoot Travel]
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