Reactors for mammoth nuclear icebreaker being built near Moscow

leader lider icebreaker

The Leader nuclear icebreaker as envisioned in a promotional video.

Credit: Rosatom

In another step toward building a piece of colossal nuclear-powered hardware, Russian officials have announced that the reactor vessels for the long-promised Leader icebreaker are currently being manufactured near Moscow.

When finished, the ship’s two RITM-400 reactors will produce 120 megawatts of propeller power, twice as much as the reactors serving Russia’s current fleet of nuclear icebreakers.

According to the 2020 contract inked between Atomflot, Russia’s Murmansk-based nuclear icebreaker port, and the far eastern shipyard that will eventually build the mammoth Leader vessels, the new $1.6 billion vessel will be launched by 2027 with two more ships in the same class to follow in the early 2030s.

“The commissioning of this nuclear icebreaker will allow us to guarantee safe and regular operations in the eastern region of the Arctic Ocean, year-round navigation in the waters of the Northern Sea Route, and new possibilities for carving out high-latitude commercial routes,” Mustafa Kashka, Atomflot’s general director, said when the contract was signed.

The Leader will add to two icebreakers that Russia had launched in the past two years, which are themselves described by state media in superlative terms. The Arktika, which is currently billed as the most powerful civilian vessel on earth, was launched in 2020 – though with only two of its three propellers working. It was followed by the Sibir late last year, also feted for its power and size.

These two behemoths will be followed by three more or less identical models, including the Ural, which, like it’s older cousins, will be a product of St Petersburg’s Baltic Shipyard.

The Leader – which Russian officials say will yet bigger ­­– ­­has long existed as sort of engineering myth: More streamlined than its boxy icebreaking cousins, it would have the power to chew through ice up to four meters thick at a speed of 10 knots, clearing a 50-meter-wide swathe of navigable water for ships following in its wake.

The Kremlin has made its construction the centerpiece of its expansive Artic strategy, which aims to open the Northern Sea Route – an ice-bound 6,000-kilometer shipping artery from Europe to Asia that Moscow hopes will rival the Suez Canal. But the ambitious vessel – which more resembles an oligarch’s prize yacht than an icebreaking muscle-ship – has remained something of a mirage until recently.

Atomflot’s Kashka has emphasized that the Leader would be deployed primarily to hack at the ice from the east, clearing sea for tankers from Asia, the hungriest regional customer for the Arctic’s stores of natural gas.

This partially explains the vessel’s construction at the Zvezda shipyard near Vladivostok, an impoverished ex-military facility now owned by Rosneft, Russia’s state oil producer, whose chief executive Igor Sechin is a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.

Nearly every other nuclear icebreaker that has sailed since Soviet times has been constructed at the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg. The one exception, the Sevmorput, was built at the Zaliv Shipyard on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

Billed to be more than 200 meters long, the Leader would dwarf its forbears in Russia’s civilian nuclear fleet. Certain specifications in its hull design would also make it far more agile in the water than its older cousins.

But that’s not all. The new vessel’s space age design offers an upgrade in aesthetics over icebreakers past.

It was eight years ago that the idea for the Leader emerged on the pages of a trade magazine published by Russia’s Unified Shipbuilding Corporation. The cover of the magazine’s 24th edition featured a mock-up of the sleek vessel as it steamed through fluffy islands of ice, viewed from the point of view of a landing helicopter. It was ship that would have looked more at home on the Riviera.

The project lay dormant until 2017, when Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, wrote legislation giving itself total control over the Northern Sea Route. Suddenly, the Leader was no longer just a pinup swooned over by wishful industry insiders.

According to reports in Russia’s shipbuilding trade press, the Leader vessels will come equipped with materials capable of “self-diagnosing” metal corrosion, and will further be able to “self-heal” when damage is detected.

The high expectations don’t end there. Many in Russia’s official press have championed the Leader as nothing less than the engine of the country’s economic turnaround.

Yet, even in that light, the Leader doesn’t differ much from the justifications the Russian government offers for the other monster icebreakers it’s currently building.

Those, too, have been touted as the answer to Russia’s economic prayers, and together they are expected to shepherd convoys of liquified natural gas from northern Siberia to ports in Asia and Europe, and keep the Northern Sea Route open for traffic year-round – in essence, the very same resume presented by the Leader.


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