MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev, for RIA Novosti.) - Two thirds of Russia's hydrocarbon resources are concentrated in its northern regions.
They account for 90% of the natural gas and 75% of the oil produced in the country, 20% of the national income and 60% of the exports. Adjacent is a vast oceanic shelf, which covers 2.5 million square kilometers and contains immense mineral resources.
Most general estimates show that Russia's shelf areas in its northern seas currently contain about 100 billion tons of equivalent fuel, including 16.7 billion tons of oil and condensate and 78.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, or 20-25% of the world's hydrocarbons. There is no doubt that the shelves of the northern seas will become the main source of increasing Russia's oil and gas potential in the 21st century.
However, this northern wealth is hard to access and huge money needs to be spent to improve this situation. A 1,300km railway from Vorkuta to Igarka remains half-built, even though construction began before World War II.
When the rail route failed, Russia started building a fleet of nuclear icebreakers. In 1959, the world's first nuclear-powered icebreaker, the Lenin (44,000 horsepower), was commissioned and the navigation period increased from one and a half to seven months a year.
A series of less powerful ships were later built, which made it possible not only to turn the Northern Seaway into a permanently functioning waterway, but also to start a regular development of the Arctic zone.
Large linear icebreakers - the Arktika, Sibir, Rossiya and others - could give their captains more than 75,000 hp and accomplish missions in the harsh conditions of the ice-covered sea, far away from ports for a long time. They showed that nuclear power had indisputable advantages over the organic fuel used by other ships, including diesel icebreakers.
Apart from the Lenin, seven nuclear-powered icebreakers and oceanic nuclear lighter carriers and container ships were built between 1975 and 1992. A project to build a new linear icebreaker, 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), which was suspended during perestroika, is now nearing completion. New generation reactors are being designed for future nuclear icebreakers, which will succeed the present ships after 2015.
According to Transport Minister Igor Levitin, the first new-generation icebreaker should set sail in 2014. The preliminary design costing 60 million rubles ($2 million) should be completed in 2005-2006, while the technical design should be concluded in 2006-2007 at a price of 236 million rubles (just under $8 million). To ensure stable navigation along the Northern Seaway, the minister said it would be necessary to have five nuclear icebreakers permanently in service and one more under scheduled repairs. (Today Russia has 36 icebreakers, eight of which are nuclear-powered.)
In the past, the building of a nuclear icebreaker fleet was, in fact, an act of converting military production to civilian usage. At that time, in contrast with conversion projects in the past few years, science-intensive products were made without disrupting main production under military contracts, which meant both the Navy and the civilian fleet benefited from the conversion. The latter received modern unique ships, while the Navy had an opportunity to check out new shipbuilding ideas on civilian ships working in harsh northern conditions for about 7,000 and sometimes even up to 10,000 hours a year.
The nuclear icebreaker fleet does no harm to the Arctic environment. It neither contaminates ports nor dumps liquid or solid waste into the sea. The health of the crews is thoroughly assessed. Interestingly, tests revealed that the highest sickness rate was not among sailors servicing the nuclear reactors but among navigators who experienced major stress during their work. Statistics show also crewmembers on board nuclear-powered ships suffer from illnesses far less often than their counterparts on diesel ships.
In the opinion of Academician Nikolai Khlopkin, who has made a great contribution to the development of nuclear-powered ships, Russia has to modernize its icebreakers in the next few years if it wants to preserve its status in the Arctic. Above all, the service life of the existing icebreakers and their nuclear reactors must be extended. And at least two new icebreakers should be built. The first should be a double-draft ship, capable of operating on the main sea routes and entering the mouths of Siberian rivers. The second one should be a superpowerful leader that can come to rescue of a ship in distress or deliver goods to any area of the Arctic Ocean.
Khlopkin also believes every effort must be made to prevent a reform of the icebreaker fleet that would see a re-distribution of property among oligarchs. This should be avoided at least because such icebreakers have nuclear power plants, which must be serviced by highly qualified experts. Nobody wants another Chernobyl, especially in the Arctic.
If these problems are solved, the Russian icebreaker fleet will remain the only civilian nuclear fleet in the world capable of reaching any part of the Arctic.
Yury Zaitsev is an expert at the Space Research Institute