On her trip to Murmansk, RETROGRAD editor Johanna Pruessing came across a rare nuclear fossil: “Lenin”, the iceabreaker. Although significantly stronger than their fuel-powered counterparts, nuclear icebreakers were a unique Soviet invention built to cross the Arctic water’s in the North of Siberia.
It was on the 20th November 1953 when the Council of Ministers of the USSR decided to build a very powerful atomic icebreaker able to cross the Arctic waters at any time of the year. The nuclear physicist Anatoly Petrovich Aleksandrov was tasked to realise the ambitious plan together with the engineer Igor Ivanovich Afrikantov, one of the key figures responsible for the construction of nuclear reactors in the USSR and, therefore, well known in the nuclear industry.
The construction of the first nuclear-powered icebreaker – named “Lenin” – started on the 17th of July 1956 at the Admiralty Shipyard in Leningrad and finished on the 3rd of December 1959. More than 500 Soviet enterprises took part in the construction process and after less than three years and three months, the “Lenin” was ready to operate the Northern Sea Route.
Its route led the “Lenin” from Murmansk over Cape Zhelanya – the Acrtic Cape – northwards of the New Siberian Islands to the De Long Strait, where it escorted cargo ships and non-nuclear vessels months before navigation in the Vilkitsky Strait and the Lapev Sea could have begun otherwise. The icebreaker also hosted several explorer and research teams as its nearly unlimited source of energy allowed to take all necessary research equipment on board.
Having its reactors replaced between 1966 and 1970, the “Lenin” resumed its mission in the Northern waters in November 1970. This new mission aimed to explore opportunities for cargo shipping to the Western parts of the Arctic Ocean even in late autumn and early winter. The reason behind this plan was the development of the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Company in the former gulag city of Norilsk that intensified the need for reliable Northern shipping routes. Moreover, equipment for prospective oil and gas exploitation in Western Siberia, including a first expedition to the Yamal peninsula, were undertaken at this time.
During the 1970’s the nuclear icebreaker programme was extended and six more ships were built (Arktika, Sibir, Rossiya, Sovetskiy Soyuz, Yamal, and the 50 Let Pobedy), based on a new technology that allowed extended usage of the nuclear core, extending a boat’s lifespan to over a million miles. Several incidents in 1983 proved the need for a strong fleet when due to extremely difficult weather conditions more than 20 transport vessels, delivering basic resources, were stuck in Western Siberia’s ice-fields. The frozen vessels could be rescued only with the help of several nuclear icebreakers.
During the “Lenin’s” long spell of service, the dangers of nuclear technology became apparent as well. Little is known about two instances that were kept secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which toxic substances leaked out of the power station’s cooling system. Nevertheless, the nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet continues it’s mission during harsh winter seasons. In 2011 and 2012, for example, Russia’s nuclear icebreakers freed up to 350 vessels and tankers from their ice-trap in the Arctic and even the Baltic Sea. The “Lenin” retired at the end of the 1980’s, having been awarded the highest Soviet order, the “Order of Lenin”, in April 1974. Years later, it was converted into a museum.
Images: Sascha Pietsch, Johanna Pruessing