Russia’s new nuclear icebreaker abruptly ends its first working Arctic voyage

The ship set sail for the Northern Sea Route, but turned back to Murmansk before reaching the Kara Gate.

By Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer - November 18, 2020
The Arktika nuclear-powered icebreaker operated by Atomflot moored in the port of Murmansk, in the Kola Bay, on Russia’s Arctic coast on Oct. 27, 2020. (Lev Fedoseyev / TASS)

Following last month’s test voyage to the North Pole, and formal launch ceremony in Murmansk, Russia’s giant new nuclear icebreaker Arktika embarked on its first working tour to the Northern Sea Route earlier this month

The ship left from Atomflot’s service base in the Kola Bay on Saturday, according to the state-owned operator Rosatomflot.

“On November 14, the leading universal nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika left the port of Murmansk on its maiden voyage. The vessel headed towards the Kara Sea. Until mid-December, the nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika will operate in the Northern Sea Route,” a press release posted November 16 said.

[Sea ice at the North Pole was too thin to properly test Russia’s giant new icebreaker]

The Northern Sea Route Administration’s permission granted for Arktika to enter the Kara Gate, where the Northern Sea Route starts, is valid from November 16.

Online ship tracking service showed the path of the icebreaker sailing out the Kola Bay on a steady course towards the Kara Sea.

But halfway through the Barents Sea, the ship suddenly made a 180 degrees turn and sailed back on a northwestern course before turning south on Tuesday directly towards Murmansk, according to the tracking service.

Asked about the hastily return to port, Evgeny Sviridov, the head of the Atomflot’s communication department, told The Barents Observer that “Staff is conducting adjustment works onboard.” He would not elaborate but added: “The icebreaker will leave the port of Murmansk in the nearest future.”

In Murmansk, people have already started to post speculations on the regional Vkontakte page on what could have gone wrong. Unconfirmed reports hint at “mechanical problems” onboard, and nothing related to the two nuclear reactors.

[Russia’s new super icebreaker reaches the North Pole during ice trials]

Arktika is the lead of five vessels of Project 22220, the world’s most powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers. Construction of two similar vessels, the Ural and Sibir are currently well underway at the yard in St. Petersburg, while keel-laying of the fourth icebreaker, the Yakutia took place in May this year. The contract for the fifth, the Chukotka is signed.

When sailing north from the shipyard on September 22, there was already a problem with the propulsion. During sea trials in the Baltic Sea in February this year, a short circuit caused serious damage to the winding in one of the three electro engines. The damaged propulsion motor is 50 percent functional and can deliver 10 megawatts of propulsion power to the starboard wing propeller. It’s a tandem unit and only one half of it was damaged during the sea trials.

Evaluations by the shipyards experts concluded that the entire engine has to be lifted out of the hull and replaced, work that can’t be done in Murmansk.

In a comment to the Barents Observer, in April 2020, Director of Bellona Murmansk Andrey Zolotkov said that the Arktika should have remained in St. Petersburg until the engine was fixed.

Zolotkov questioned the maneuverability of a ship when one of three propellers is not working properly.

“Other nuclear-powered icebreakers always have spare blades on board ready to replace damaged ones while sailing in the Arctic.”

“In order to reduce all risks, it is advisable to leave the Arktika icebreaker in St. Petersburg and wait for the repair of the engine,” Andrey Zolotkov concluded.

Arktika and her sister-vessels are powered by two water-cooled reactors of the RITM-200 type, an improved version of the KLT-40 reactors used on the older icebreakers sailing for Rosatomflot.