Though it may be a mere coincidence, on March 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree establishing the United Shipbuilding Corporation, a government-sponsored project combining state financial assets in the shipbuilding sector, and the next day, on March 23, the world's largest nuclear icebreaker, 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), joined the Russian merchant fleet.
The icebreaker, initially launched as the nuclear ship Ural in 1989, was commissioned at the Baltiisky Zavod (Baltic Shipyard) in St. Petersburg and set sail for Murmansk on April 2. An upgraded version of the Arktika-class icebreaker, the 159-meter (522-foot) long and 30-meter (100-foot) wide vessel, with a displacement of 25,000 metric tons, is designed to break through ice up to 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) deep and has a 138-man crew.
Russia is the only country to operate civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers in the Arctic, and it has been doing so for over 40 years. The first reactor for the Lenin icebreaker was developed in 1954-1956, and the ship itself entered service in 1959. Seven more icebreakers and an ocean-going cargo icebreaker were built in 1975-1992. However, the Lenin icebreaker and the Sibir, the first second-generation icebreaker, were decommissioned in 1989 and 1993, respectively. Subsequent repairs, which made it possible to extend the Arktika icebreaker's service life, may also help reactivate the Sibir. Nevertheless, the government must start building new icebreakers soon because all those currently in service will probably be scrapped between 2012 and 2015.
The 50 Years of Victory icebreaker took 18 years to complete. Russian shipbuilders resumed work on this ambitious Soviet-era project after President Vladimir Putin told a conference that the famous Northern Sea Route linking Murmansk and Vladivostok would remain a top priority of Russia's plans in the Arctic. Putin emphasized the importance of icebreakers for Russia and instructed the Finance Ministry to find money to complete the 50 Years of Victory.
She is the sixth, and last, second-generation Sibir-class icebreaker and the fourth vessel revamped for Arctic navigation. The first three icebreakers in this class, i.e. the Arktika, the Soviet Union and the Yamal (initially called the October Revolution), were completed between 1985 and 1992. Although the 50 Years of Victory was floated off in 1993, she did not enter service until this year.
The Northern Sea Route is a highly important factor in developing hydrocarbon deposits on Russia's Arctic shelf, which contains an estimated 62.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, nine billion metric tons of crude oil in offshore deposits and 3.5 billion metric tons of oil on shore. This accounts for 25% of global hydrocarbon deposits. There are plans to produce up to seven million metric tons of oil at the Prirazlomnoye deposit in the Pechora Bay, in the south-west part of the Barents Sea. The Shtokman gas-condensate deposit in the Barents Sea and deposits in the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea also contain tremendous amounts of natural gas.
The Northern Sea Route will become a major Eurasian transshipment route in the next few years because the distance between Murmansk and Yokohama, Japan along this route is just 5,770 nautical miles. The longer route via the Suez Canal, in contrast, is 12,840 nautical miles. The distance between Rotterdam, the Netherlands and Yokohama via the Northern Sea Route and the Suez Canal is 7,350 and 11,250 nautical miles, respectively. A special expedition financed by northern European countries said that the Northern Sea Route is a cost-effective transport passage.
Russia must maintain its icebreaker fleet and also build special-purpose ships to transport hydrocarbons. The Russian government said that 40 ice-resistant oil platforms and 14 off-shore gas platforms will have to be completed between now and 2030 as part of programs for developing hydrocarbon deposits on the continental shelf. This country will also have to build 55 ice-resistant tankers and storage tankers, as well as 20 gas carriers of the same class for delivering fuel to Russian and foreign customers. The government decided to set up the United Shipbuilding Corporation because Russia lacks the civilian shipyards necessary to build all these vessels.
Russia's leaders plan to rectify the situation by establishing three major holding companies within the framework of the corporation by late this year. One of them, the Northern Holding Company, will be expected to master the production of ships and floating platforms for continental shelf deposits.
Unlike the United Aircraft Corporation, which brings together companies that design and manufacture civilian and military planes and helicopters, the United Shipbuilding Corporation will mostly cater to the domestic market. The Industry and Energy Ministry said that the sector would double production by 2015, with civilian vessels accounting for at least 33% of total output.
Though this plan will be quite expensive, Russia has no choice because its military shipyards are in a much better state than its civilian facilities, which are almost bankrupt.
Yury Zaitsev is an academic adviser at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.