Russia’s massive new nuclear-powered icebreaker embarks on its first Arctic voyage

The Arktika is the world's largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, but it's been plagued by technical troubles during sea trials.

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MOSCOW — A nuclear-powered icebreaker Russia says is the world’s largest and most powerful set off on Tuesday on a two-week journey to the Arctic as Moscow works to further tap the region’s commercial potential.

Known as “Arktika,” the nuclear icebreaker left St. Petersburg and headed for the Arctic port of Murmansk, a journey that marks its entry into Russia’s icebreaker fleet. It is embarking on the voyage despite persistent technical troubles that mean one of the ship’s three engines is inoperable.

Russian state firm Rosatomflot has called the vessel the world’s largest and most powerful icebreaker. It is more than 173 meters long, designed for a crew of 53, and can break ice almost three meters thick.

The ship is seen as crucial to Moscow’s efforts to develop shipping along a vast Arctic coastline that stretches from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska.

As the Arctic warms and sea ice retreats, Russia hopes the Northern Sea Route could serve as a vital shortcut, cutting sea transport times between Asia and Europe.

[Arctic sea ice shrinks to its second-lowest annual minimum extent ever]

“The creation of a modern nuclear icebreaker fleet capable of ensuring regular year-round and safe navigation through the entire Northern Sea Route is a strategic task for our country,” Vyacheslav Ruksha, head of Rosatom’s Northern Sea Route Directorate, said in a statement.

Prior to its voyage to the Arctic, the icebreaker was tested during sea trials in the stormy waters of the Gulf of Finland, navigating its way through high winds and towering waves.

The ship was named after a Soviet-era icebreaker of the same name that in 1977 became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole.

Russia has stepped up its construction of icebreakers in a bid to increase freight traffic in Arctic waters.

President Vladimir Putin said last year that the country’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, the majority of which would be powered by nuclear reactors.

Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber.