Russia’s Atomflot boasts of solid plans, yet prays for ‘global freezing’

Publish date: April 26, 2009

MURMANSK – At a recent press conference in Murmansk, Vyacheslav Ruksha, head of Russia’s nuclear icebreaker operator Atomflot, boasted of the company’s stable present, but warned of a potential rough streak ahead.

Last year, following a decree by the Russian government, the country’s entire commercial icebreaker fleet was moved from under the wings of the Murmansk Shipping Company into the hands of Atomflot. As Atomflot is part of the state nuclear corporation Rosatom, the latter can now safely be said to have concentrated under its purview all Russian nuclear power systems of civilian application, on land and at sea alike.

Altogether since 1959, Russia has built nine nuclear-powered icebreakers and one nuclear lighter-aboard ship. Five icebreakers are currently in operation. The latest new building, on which construction started in 1989, was floated in 2007.

For industry insiders, the transfer was largely seen as a painful process. Specialists working in the field voiced many concerns, including over their own future and that of the vessels under their care, and were anxiously raising the issue of whether the atomic icebreaker fleet might soon be downsized. Nine months down the line, however, Atomflot management assures the public that all is well in the nuclear icebreaker kingdom.

“We have overcome our problem spots and are moving forward,” Atomflot head Vyacheslav Ruksha told journalists at a recent press conference in Murmansk. “As an example of our stability, I could say that it was only on April 2nd that we received our first state subsidy. Which is to say that we completed the first quarter independently.”

Dependence on state subsidies, lack of contracts cloud Atomflot’s future
Atomflot relies on state subsidies to manage the maintenance of its icebreaker fleet. Where all other expenses are concerned, the company says it intends to provide for its own needs and speaks of grand plans for the summer period.

As the 50th anniversary of the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet draws near, Atomflot has set to refurbishing the building housing the company’s core offices and will then move on to modernising the boiler-house and connected power networks, as well as renovating the shops to upgrade working conditions. Longer-term plans include measures to enhance the company’s shiprepairing operations.  
“It is now safe to confess: I am setting before us a goal of becoming in the next two years the best shiprepairing enterprise in the north,” Ruksha said at the press conference.

“For one thing, we have our repair facilities for the icebreakers, and secondly, we are going to improve our dock. In a few years, it will be completely changed – strong and capable of raising icebreakers of a new generation.”

Before these plans turn to reality, however, Atomflot seems to be in for a rough ride: One of the consequences of the current global economic crisis is that Arctic cruises have been attracting fewer passengers as foreign tourists are trying to scrimp on exotic excursions. Of the regular five voyages to the North Pole, only two are planned this year.

A potentially more disturbing development for Atomflot is the decreasing number of freight contracts that would keep the company’s earnings afloat. Ever since Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading metal producer and supplier operating in Russia’s north, has started running its own fleet of ice-class cargoships, Atomflot has been forced to turn its hopeful gaze to other customers – like the Russian gas giant Gazprom, which may yet come to rescue with transport contracts related to gas production at the Bovanenkovo field on the Yamal Peninsula and the prospective drilling at the Prirazlomnoye field in the Barents Sea. Icebreakers may just come in handy, too, when freight delivery is needed for operations at the Shtokman natural gas field – a matter currently under discussion.

“In short, the next few years will be stressful ones,” Ruksha admitted. “We need to keep the remuneration of labour at the level it is now, because we understand that our technologies are rooted in highly qualified professionals. And we also need to preserve our facilities so that we could fulfil the tasks before us.”

New icebreakers and global… freezing
What Ruksha referred to as Atomflot’s “facilities” – simply said, its icebreaker fleet – are an issue of special concern. By 2020, the company’s largely aged fleet is to lose all but one of the vessels – the 2007-built 50 Years of Victory. Atomflot is waiting anxiously for construction to start on a new-generation icebreaker: Talks have it that this hope may be realised already next year.

According to experts in the nuclear shipbuilding industry, Russia needs at least three new icebreakers to sustain trade along the Northern Shipping Route for a sufficient period of time. That rings especially pertinent to industry specialists in the light of latest projections by scientists who venture that the era of global warming is over. This theory says that an increase in the past year of the Arctic ice cover by 1.2 million square kilometres is an indication that a new ice age is coming.

However, Nina Lesikhina, energy projects coordinator with Bellona’s Murmansk branch, is sceptical of the nuclear shipbuilding industry’s hopes.

In her view, a mere one-year increase of the extent of ice cover in the Arctic is little proof of any general tendency. Global warming means long-term rise in average temperatures across the globe, while temporary cooling in certain parts of the Earth could be caused by the peculiarities of atmospheric circulation in a particular region, as well as by the influence of ocean currents and other factors.

While overall on the planet the temperature of the tropospheric layer has increased by 0.7 to 0.8 degrees Celsius, said Lesikhina, the warming process in the Arctic has been twice as dramatic. For instance, as of late summer 2007, the expanse of the Arctic ice cover was only 4.4 million square kilometres, while as little as 30 years ago, it was 8 million square kilometres.

“Issues related to global warming must be seen in the global context and across a more prolonged period of time,” said Lesikhina. “All arguments made about one local and single decrease of temperature are nothing but futile attempts to deny the obvious in order to promote one’s own interests or technologies.”

She pointed out that ‘gambling with the planet’s well-being’ in this way cannot even be justified economically.

Humankind, said Lesikhina, must acknowledge that global climate change is its own fault and start acting immediately. “Russia must stop greenhouse gas emissions, not use this problem as a PR move!” Lesikhina added emphatically.

As far as Atomflot’s PR campaign goes, one of the company’s projects on the immediate agenda is sending an icebreaker on a voyage along the entire stretch of the Northern Sea Route, from Murmansk to the seas of the Pacific Ocean, to demonstrate to shipping companies that this shortest way of connecting Europe and Asia can and should be used.

Icebreaker Lenin to turn into a museum by next winter
Russia’s firstborn nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, is meanwhile expected this week to moor at one of the peers of the port of Murmansk for what is expected to be a temporary maintenance docking – one to three months at the longest. During its stay in Murmansk, specialists are to look into the particulars of the icebreaker’s future function as a museum – including, for instance, how many visitors the vessel can take at a time.

The shaping of the museum complex itself will begin at the same time, something that Atomflot specialists are now talking through with museums in Murmansk and the western maritime city of Kaliningrad.

By autumn, the icebreaker will return to Atomflot’s docks for the completion of all planned works. And in the winter, when the Lenin turns 50, it is expected to find its final place of mooring at the seaport of Murmansk. By preliminary estimates, Atomflot will have to shoulder around RUR 25 million to 30 million ($900,000) in annual technical maintenance expenses for the Lenin.

Bellona stated earlier that under certain conditions, the Lenin may theoretically become a safe site in terms of potential radiation risks. To ensure absolute safety, however, it would ideally require removing all sources of ionising radiation from the icebreaker’s central compartment. Unfortunately, this operation is an immensely costly venture – and one that has not ever been attempted anywhere in Russia.

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