ST PETERSBURG, Russia — Russia launched a nuclear-powered icebreaker on Saturday, part of an ambitious program to renew and expand its fleet of the vessels in order to improve its ability to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential.
The ship, dubbed the Ural and which was floated out from a dockyard in St. Petersburg, is one of a trio of the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world.
Russia is building new infrastructure and overhauling its ports as, amid warmer climate cycles, it readies for more traffic on the Northern Sea Route which it hopes to see become navigable year-round.
The Ural is due to be handed over to Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom in 2022 after the two other icebreakers in the same series, Arktika (Arctic) and Sibir (Siberia), enter service.
“The Ural together with its sisters are central to our strategic project of opening the NSR to all-year activity,” Alexey Likhachev, Rosatom’s chief executive, was quoted saying.
President Vladimir Putin said in April that Russia was stepping up construction of icebreakers with the aim of significantly boosting freight traffic along its Arctic coast.
The drive is part of a push to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States and Norway, as well as newcomer China.
By 2035, Putin said Russia’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, nine of which would be powered by nuclear reactors.
The Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
Designed to be crewed by 75 people, the Ural will be able to slice through ice up to around 3 meters thick.
Reporting by Dmitry Vasilyev.
Correction: A previous headline incorrectly stated that this was the first of icebreaker of its class to be launched. It is the third such vessel.