Nuclear icebreaker science exhibit to open in Murmansk

A new exhibit aboard the “Lenin” is set to open this spring, offering museum-goers a look at the science behind the world’s first-ever nuclear powered icebreaker.


The BarentsObserver landed an exclusive sneak peek at the museum exhibit, which won’t open its doors to the public until June 5. The dark, glowing exhibit information screens are highly interactive, and will offer touch screens, virtual tours of space, shaking decks, and the ability to work with real equipment.

The ship’s science exhibit will target both kids and adults. Many presentations will dive into the vessel’s rich history, and one interactive display will even offer children a chance to take a “polar bear selfie.”

Participants will learn how the nuclear-powered civilian ship was able to chart Arctic waters with impressive ice-crushing mechanisms and trace its journeys from 1959 until she was decommissioned in 1989.

Funded by Kolarctic Enpi, the project was then spearheaded by the Arctic Centre of University of Rovaniemi, Finland, in partnership with the Arctic Expo Centre from Atomflot, Murmansk and Polaria in Tromsø, Norway.

All parts of the science exhibit are translated in both English and Russian. “This is a memory of the people,” said Yaroslav Lukomsky, an interpreter and guide on board the Russian vessel. “Now we transmit the history and the experience of a country.”

A brief “Lenin” history

Along Russia’s Arctic coast, the “Lenin” was used to clear sea ice routes for cargo ships for over 30 years. In addition to being an icebreaker, the ship was the world’s first nuclear-powered civilian ship and hosted passengers from all over the world (Fidel Castro even visited in 1962).

The “Lenin” became a floating museum after she was permanently moored in Russia’s north, at the passenger terminal of the Port of Murmansk on May 8, 2009. Since the museum’s establishment, it has also acted as a cultural centre for locals and a conference hall for Russian officials.

The ship is outfitted with intriguing, Soviet era décor and furniture - twirling stairwells, minimalist clocks, brass map displays and wood panel walls which line the crew’s quarters.

The “Lenin” also showcases an intriguing, but controversial history.

When the “Lenin” first launched, it was powered by three nuclear reactors, which generated steam for four steam turbines. The steam was harnessed as energy to power the vessel’s electric motors. But in 1967, all three nuclear reactors were dumped into the western part of the Kara Sea, as a result of a cooling system leak.

One reactor still contained nuclear fuel and possibly induced a dangerous, radioactive dumpsite at the bottom of the Kara Sea.

A problem in the future?

By far, Russia is the world’s uncontested leader when it comes to nuclear icebreaker development. To start, Russia is the only country that has nuclear icebreakers. Five Russia nuclear-powered icebreakers are currently operating in the Arctic, and more are under construction.

What’s more is Russia plans to unveil the world’s largest ever nuclear-powered icebreaker in just two years.

While Russia invests more money in the pursuit of Arctic exploration, Nils Bøhmer, a nuclear physicist and managing director of the Bellona Foundation, worries these types of plans could have dire consequences.

“Russian safety culture makes more icebreakers dangerous,” Bøhmer said. “They have lots of rules on paper, but the crew doesn’t always practice them.”

Another nuclear spill could lead to an environmental disaster, he said, which would be nearly impossible to clean up in the highly inaccessible Arctic Ocean. “Radioactivity contamination in the remote Arctic could have dramatic local ecological effects,” he said, “and would probably affect fishing communities the most.”

“In the case of nuclear icebreakers, the accidents will have much worse consequences that with normal ships,” Bøhmer said. “For the crew too… if there is a fire, how is a search and rescue team supposed to get out there?”

Russia prioritizes Arctic exploration

Russia is unique in its icebreaker ventures, largely because it boasts the longest national Arctic coastline. In order to go from West to East in Russia’s seaways, you need heavy technology, Bøhmer said.

But Lukomsky said he is tired of seeing issues involving nuclear-powered vessels and submarines clogging northern media outlets.

The new science exhibit about the “Lenin” is an effort to teach people about what Russia is doing and why, he said. And Russia’s fleet has impressive safety protocols, he said.  

“There are more important things… if people knew more about icebreakers, then they wouldn’t have to be afraid,” he said. “Nothing is able to prevent this centre from venturing deeper and deeper into the scientific field.”