The Northern Sea Route as a Viable Development – Russia’s Fleet of Atomic Icebreakers

The Northern Sea Route (NSR), also known as the Northeast Passage, is the shipping lane that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  It can thus be recognized as a potential expedited transit corridor for Europe and Asia.  Vessels transitting from ports in Europe to those in Asia via the Northern Sea Route en lieu of the Suez Canal Route are able to halve transit times, reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and finally reduce the risk of piracy through the avoidance of regions prone to piracy such as those about the Horn of Africa.  The Northern Sea Route is currently overseen by the Russian authorities through the Northern Sea Route Administration (NSRA) under the Ministry of Transportation.

For a broader picture of the Arctic world and it’s navigability, read, ‘A Future of Arctic Transit – Arctic Sea Ice Record Low Extent‘.

According to Russian law, as of 2013, the Northern Sea Route will begin from the eastern coast of Novaya Zemlya (Kara Gate), and extend through to the latitude of Cape Dezhnev (the easternmost point of the Russian mainland).  Within the law, insurance requirements, shipping fees, and icebreaker assistance fees have been, to some degree, standardized.  Finally, NSR use is limited to those vessels that are of the 1A-ice class.  Many firms that would gain from NSR access do not have this requirement and new A1 class ships are being purchased as a result.

To Yield a Viable Northern Sea Route is to Outsmart the Ice

The future viability of the Northern Sea Route will be a function of several things, most important of which will be the unpredictable, unforgiving, and frozen nature of the Russian Arctic.  Russia’s ability to perform infrastructure development and maintenance within the route, and plan icebreaking operations efficiently and effectively will be correlated with the predictability of and final changes in Arctic sea ice conditions.  With the minimum yearly extent of the Arctic sea ice in yearly recession, even hitting an historic record low on Sept 16 of 2012 (according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center), the NSRA should be and has been able to make significant progress.

Much responsibility will fall upon Russia insofar as the establishment and maintenance of the communication networks, cartographic/hydrographic information databases, and emergency preparedness measures that will be necessary for efficient, and responsible leadership in Arctic conditions.  Much money has been budgeted for these purposes, and activities are already being carried out.

  • By 2015-2016, Russia plans to have sorted out all navigational blank spots, and upgraded all navigation maps with route depth data.  (Клюев. В, 2012)
  • €23.4 million is to be invested in 10 emergency / rescue centers are to open along the Northern Sea Route by 2015.  Main centers include Murmansk (2013), Naryan-Mar (in construction, operational in 2013), Dudinka (2012), and Andyr.  Other subdivisions will be built in Arkhangelsk, Vorkuta, Nadym, , and Tiksi.  (Barents Observer, 2012)
  • Russia has been deploying extra aircraft (10 helicopters, and 8 aircraft) to stations in Murmansk, Novaya Zemlya, Dikson, and Mys Shmidta. (Barents, Observer, 2012)

As Russia intends to protect it’s northern geopolitical interests, it maintains and has been maintaining a strong presence along the NSR through research work, and the pilotage of transit vessels through the use of the Russian national icebreaking fleet under the direction of Rosatomflot.

Russia’s Atomic Icebreaker Fleet

Russia’s atomic icebreaker fleet, under the direction of Rosatomflot, has the mission to;

support the intensification of Arctic [transit] as a key factor [in the] rise and development of the Russian North. (Rosatomflot, 2012)

From this, the fleet of 7 icebreakers are used to patrol the NSR, pilot (break ice for and guide) other transit ships under contract through required route segments, and assist with scientific expeditions.  1 of the 7 icebreakers (Sevmorput) is a container vessel.

A few notes related to specific vessels;

  • Taimyr (Таймыр) – Shallow drift – Designed for shallow water operations such as those in the Kara Sea and the Yenisei River.  (Icebreaking along Norilsk Nickel’s transportation routes)
  • Vaigach (Вайгач) – Shallow drift / Sister ship of Taimyr – Also designed for shallow water operations and maintains Yenisei River during the colder months.
  • Sevmorput (Севморпуть) – Russia’s only nuclear powered container vessel has a deadweight tonnage of 33,900 and is designed to carry up to 74 lighters, or 1328 twenty-foot containers (or the 40 foot container equivalent).  Equipped with cranes that allow for the independent loading and unloading of lighters and some container types.

50 let Pobedy – Russia’s Newest Nuclear Icebreaker (

The Atomic nature of the fleet allows for months of independent navigation which is beneficial in an area of the world that rarely sees ‘outside civilization’.  Inopportune ships that find themselves stuck in thick ice are often rescued by Rosatomflot’s icebreakers.  Atomic fleet vessels have tremendous horsepower and the ability to attach to other vessels, through the use of thick metal cables, to tow them free.  When contracted out, Atomic vessels lead and break ice for paying ships through the entire NSR for a journey that may last weeks.  These vessels are staffed with a variety of professionals allowing them to also serve as lifelines for remote communities or even other ships that may require urgent medical attention.  This is the type of operation that can, under correct policy, provide resonant positive externalities.

Transit in Numbers

On the subject of the development of the Northern Sea Route, the Russian Minister of Transportation, Maxim Sokolov (Максим Соколов), estimates that in the near future there could be from ‘3 to 5 million tons of cargo […] transported using the [Northern Sea] Route.’  The route, Sokolov says, is something that ‘can be used by all states and all companies’, but ‘Japan, Korea, and Singapore [would see the greatest benefits as these are] countries that have a large amount of cargo shipped by sea.  ‘These countries would see transit times of 23 days instead of 46.’  (Sokolov. M, 2012)  Transit numbers have already increased exponentially from 2010.  The following trends can be observed;

  • 2010 – 4 vessels with 111,000 tons
  • 2011 – (29 June – 18 Nov) 34 vessels with 820,000 tons
  • 2012 – (late June – current) 749,706 tons as of Sept 12, 2012

Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S – A Pioneer in Arctic Transit

In 2010, the first ever bulk carrier of a foreign flag, operated by the Danish firm Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S, transited the official Northern Sea Route with 41,000 tons of iron ore headed for China.  The MV Nordic Barents, owned by ‘Investerings Gruppen Denkark’ was escorted by two of Rosatomflot’s icebreakers.  Fuel savings amounted to roughly USD 180,000 (avoiding the Suez Canal Route).  This was an important step in the development of the Northern Sea Route as a commercially viable trade route.

In 2011, the Japanese owned MV Sanko Odyssey, under the operation of Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S, transited the Northern Sea Route with 70,000 tons of iron ore destined for China.  MV Sanko Odyssey is the largest ice class bulk carrier in the world.  Fuel savings amounted to approximately 750 tons.

In August of 2011, the SCF Group (Sovcomflot) transited the NSR with over 120,000 tonnes of gas condensate from Murmansk to Map Ta Phut, Thailand.  Vladimir Tikhonov, a 160,000 tonnes deadweight tanker, was the first of it’s size to transit the NSR, setting a speed record to boot, showing yet again that the Route is both navigable and economical.  Escorting was done by 50 Let Pobedy and Yamal.

2012 has seen the following along the NSR (starting in late June);

  • Murmansk Shipping Company – ‘Indiga’ and ‘Varzuga’ – Diesel to NSR settlements
  • Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S – ‘Nordic Odyssey’ and ‘Nordic Orion’ – Iron ore concentrate to China
  • Novatek – ‘Marilee’ and ‘Palva’ – Gas condensate to South Korea
  • ‘Stena Poseidon’ – Kerosene from South Korea to Finland
  • ‘Vengeri’ – Tugboat
  • Chinese Icebreaker ‘Xuelong’ – Arctic expedition

Concluding Remarks

The incentive to serve as a northern lifeline is both large and commensurate with Rosatomflot’s, and thus Russia’s stated mission.  The intensification of the Northern Sea Route transit will depend on Russia’s ability to portray an image of Arctic dominance.  This is meant in the sense of trust and punctuality, as opposed to that of military strength.  This has, for the most part, been satisfied.  The United States, for example, has only 2 icebreakers that will often be insufficient in accommodating the search and rescue needs of the Alaskan north.  Canada has a fleet of icebreakers, 2 of which are rated as heavy icebreakers, but none of which would be able to reliably and independently perform the type of Arctic rescue operation that may be required.  With such stark contrasts, plans to construct yet more powerful nuclear icebreakers, and ambitious development plans for NSR emergency / rescue centers Russia will, at least into the foreseeable future, continue to discover and advance the Arctic world.


  • Arctic Info. Minister of Transportation: Use of the Northern Sea Route is our Specialty.  [ONLINE] Available at:–use-of-the-northern-sea-route-is-our-speciality. [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Barents Observer.  Northern Sea Route without Murmansk.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Barents Observer.  К Новому Рекорду на Севморпути.  [ONLINE] Available at:  [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Barents Observer.  Arctic emergency center opens in Murmansk in 2013.  [ONLINE] Available at:  %5BLast Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Barents Observer.  Russia deploys 18 emergency aircraft to the Arctic.  [ONLINE] Available at:  [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Canadian Coast Guard.  Icebreaking Program.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Единая Государственная Система Информации об Обстановке в Мировом Океане.  Морской Транспортный Флот, Зарегистрированный в Российском Международном Реестре Судов.  [ONLINE] Available at:  %5BLast Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • National Ice Center.  Daily Ice Analysis Products.  [ONLINE] Available at:  [Last Accessed 29 Sept 12]
  • Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S.  NRS PROJECT.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • RZD-Partner.  Slow Start on the Northern Sea Route.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 29 Sept 12]
  • Rosatomflot.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Russian Maritime Register of Shipping.  Symbols and Abbreviations Used in the Register of Ships.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • РиаНовости.  Ледоколы Росатомфлота начинают новый цикл работ в Арктике.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 29 Sept 12]
  • РиаНовости.  “Белые пятна” с гидрографических карт Севморпути исчезнут к 2016 году.  [ONLINE] Available at: %5BLast Accessed 28 Sept 12]
  • Север-Наш.  Атомоход “50 лет Победы” пробудет в Финском заливе до ухода льда.  [ONLINE] Available at: %5BLast Accessed 29 Sept 12]
  • The Maritime Executive.  Tanker Vladimir Tikhonov Completes Successful Northern Sea Route Transit in a Week.  [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 28 Sept 12]


2 Responses to The Northern Sea Route as a Viable Development – Russia’s Fleet of Atomic Icebreakers

  1. Pingback: A Future of Arctic Transit – Arctic Sea Ice Record Low Extent « Arctic Economics

  2. Pingback: Nickel Mining in Russia – Norilsk Nickel & Amur Minerals « Arctic Economics

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