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50 years with nuclear powered icebreakers

Lenin icebreaker in Murmansk. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

On December 3rd 1959, the world’s first nuclear powered civilian vessel was officially taken into operation. Lenin was the first of nine nuclear icebreakers designed for navigation in the Arctic out of Murmansk. Today Lenin is a museum of Russia’s nuclear fleet.

Equipped with originally three nuclear reactors, the icebreaker Lenin was launched from the shipyard in Leningrad in 1957. After two years of testing, Lenin was put into ordinary icebreaker operations by the end of 1959. She was then looked upon as a truly piece of master engineering.

Lenin was transferred to Murmansk and got its own pier and onshore wooden house in the northern part of the city, then known as base 92. Still, all maintains and repair works were done at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk near Arkhangelsk.

Later, the base in Murmansk was extended and renamed RTP Atomflot and all repair work and maintains of Lenin and the follow-up fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers were carried out there.

Although, Lenin was the world’s first nuclear powered surface vessel, she was not the first time nuclear power was used at sea. Both the United States with its Nautilus and the Soviet Union with its Leninski Komsomol had experience with nuclear powered military submarines.

But still, use of nuclear power at sea was not without problems. Many small problems with the reactors cooling system arose the first years. In 1966, after Lenin has sailed six journeys in the Arctic, the icebreaker was taken out of operation for necessary maintains. Leakages were discovered and when the uranium fuel rods were to be replaced it was discovered that several of them had expanded and were partly destroyed.

The fuel rods that could be taken out of the partly damaged reactor were transferred to the old service vessel Lepse, the rest – some 60 percent – were left in the reactor core which later was cut out and in 1967 dumped in the Kara Sea east of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic. Lenin’s reactor still rest on the seabed. The highly radioactive fuel rods that were taken out are still inside one of the storage rooms onboard Lepse, placed in a dry-dock at Atomflot in Murmansk waiting for safe decommissioning.

Lenin was then taken to Severodvinsk were she got two new reactors installed during a two-and-a-half year reconstruction period. The first of the new reactors was started in April 1970, at the 100 year’s anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. The second was started on the 1st of May the same year. Lenin then sailed without any reported accidents until she was officially taken out of operation in 1989.

The Soviet Union’s second nuclear powered icebreaker, Arktika, was taken into operation in 1975. Arktika was the first ever surface vessel to sail to break the ice and sail all the way to the North Pole in August 1977. In all nine nuclear powered icebreakers are so far built. The latest is 50-years anniversary, put into operation two years ago. In addition, a nuclear powered container vessel, the Sevmorput, was taken into operation in 1988, but the vessel has spent most of its lifetime in port. All of Russia’s nuclear powered icebreakers are based in Murmansk.

Since 1989 the nuclear powered icebreakers have also been used for tourist purposes carrying passengers to the North Pole.

Today, it is Rosatomflot that operates Russia’s fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers.

Three other countries have also sailed nuclear powered civilian vessels. The United States had its cargo liner Savannah, Germany had its cargo and passenger ship Otto Hahn and Japan had its NS Mutsu.

As BarentsObserver  reported earlier this year, Russia is now planning to build a new generation of nuclear powered icebreakers for operations in the Arctic. Construction of the first vessel will start in 2010 and be ready for its first voyage in 2015. The new icebreakers will be equipped with a new type of nuclear reactor than used in today’s Arktika-class icebreakers.

BarentsObserver reported in June that 17 billion rubles are allocated from Russia’s federal budget to the development of the third generation nuclear powered icebreakers to operate from Murmansk. It will be a double-hull icebreaker capable of moving in both rivers and seas.

While the new icebreakers still only exists on paper, you can visit the 50 year old Lenin. It is permanently laid up in the central passenger harbour in Murmansk and works as a museum of the nuclear icebreaker fleet.