The government of Russia said its new flagship nuclear-powered icebreaker, described by the state as the world’s “largest and most powerful,” left a St. Petersburg shipyard on Tuesday headed for the Arctic.
The Arktika icebreaker set sail for the northern port of Murmansk, where it will be stationed upon arrival in two weeks’ time, according to the Kremlin. On the way to its Barents Sea home port, the Arktika will test its ability to navigate in icy conditions, breaking through sea ice north of the Franz Josef archipelago.
“This will allow setting up the electric propulsion system of the nuclear-powered ship in ice conditions,” Rosatomflot, a Russian state-owned company that operates civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Arktika measures more than 570 feet long. It is reportedly as tall as a 15-story building and designed to break through a layer of ice nine feet deep.
“The creation of a modern nuclear icebreaker fleet of Russia capable of ensuring regular year-round and safe navigation throughout the entire water area of the Northern Sea Route is a strategic task of our country,” Vyacheslav Ruksha, head of Rosatom’s Northern Sea Route Directorate, said.
In recent years, Russia has increased its development of heavy-duty icebreakers as part of its stated aim to clear a path for freight traffic along its Arctic coast. The path would follow the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, near Alaska. The Kremlin envisions the route as a link for regular commercial transport between Asia and Europe.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the country’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers.
Russia is currently the only nation to operate nuclear-powered civilian ships. However, “China is catching up, developing an icebreaker of very similar proportions [to the Arktika] — with similar ambitions to open up the Arctic,” CBS News reported Tuesday.
In addition to China, Russia competes against the U.S., Canada, and Norway for dominance in the Arctic, which “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.
“This wonderful ship, this vessel, in the nearest future will every day corroborate our sovereignty in the northern territories of the Arctic Ocean,” St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko said at Tuesday’s Arktika launch ceremony.
“Russia’s Arctic attracts many who are interested in its resources. But the Arctic is ours, and we’ve proved it,” he said, adding that Russia was ready to cooperate with other countries in the region.
Despite the Kremlin touting Arktika’s historic launch this week, the ship’s “sailing to Murmansk has been disputed by experts as the ship has only two of its three engines working. It was during sea trials in the Baltic Sea in February this year that a short circuit caused serious damage to the winding in one of the three electro engines,” the Barents Observer reported Tuesday. As a result of the malfunction, one of the ship’s three propellers is not working.