Northern Sea Route Prospects Drive Urgent Demand for New Icebreakers

August 3, 2017

Projections for volumes along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) heat up as the first Yamal gas carrier tests the waters in a voyage to South Korea, while China and Russia reach agreement to exploit the ‘Ice Silk Road’.

Before the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg, President Xi Jinping of China visited Russia to sign an agreement dubbed ‘Ice Silk Road’, identifying Russia’s Northern Sea route as key to future cooperation between the two nations.

The agreement offered further proof of the critical role the NSR will play in Russia’s raw materials export drive eastward, and China is not the only leading Asian economy hoping to benefit. As the largest importer of liquefied natural gas in the world, Japan’s commitment to the massive Yamal LNG project was made explicit in 2014, when the Japanese Bank for International Co-operation brokered a US$400 million financing package to ensure completion.

At the end of July 2017, meanwhile, the world's largest icebreaking tanker, Christophe de Margerie, departed from Norway's Hammerfest LNG plant headed for South Korea, on its first commercial voyage via the NSR. The Arc7 ice-class vessel is the first of 15 vessels envisaged for Yamal LNG, with first liftings expected in October.

In 2016, NSR traffic grew by 35%, reaching 7.27 million tonnes overall. Sovcomflot Chief Executive Sergey Frank was recently quoted by TASS as forecasting that the shipping company’s total NSR oil shipments in 2018 would reach 12 million tons. Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Transport forecasts NSR volumes by 2020 will reach 65 million tons per year.

While the Yamal LNG carriers will operate unassisted July-December, converting overall NSR traffic projections into reality will rely on icebreaker support, along a route where average ice thickness exceeds 1.6m December-June. Today, requirements are mostly served by four Arktika-class nuclear icebreakers, the newest of which is the 50 Let Pobedy, completed in 2007. The others, Yamal, Sovetskiy Soyuz and Rossiya date respectively from 1993, 1990 and 1985.

The need for fresh icebreaking tonnage is therefore becoming acute. Dmitry Fishkin, Deputy Director of the Department for the Development of Interregional and Cross-Border Cooperation of the Economic Development Ministry has suggested that the need will be urgent by 2021, as NSR oil and gas volumes are due to ramp up.

In fact, three new icebreakers are under construction at United Shipbuilding Corp, with delivery now due one apiece in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The LK-60Ya-class nuclear-powered vessels will be able to cut through 2.8m-thick ice. Two more vessels of the same type are already planned, as well as a LK-110Ya ‘Leader-class’ vessel to break winter ice up to 4.3 meters, and 2.5m-thick ice continuously at 10 knots.

At a recent meeting, between Sovcomflot’s Frank and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Medvedev gave assurances that the Government will fulfil all its obligations to support the pace of development of NSR infrastructure, including icebreakers and navigational aids.

The undertaking brings efforts by Russia’s shipbuilding segment to meet its icebreaker commitments on time to the top of the agenda at NEVA 2017*, the biennial gathering of the international maritime community in Russia’s capital of the North. With reports emerging that the delivery of Arktika will be delayed, new edge will be brought to a seminar on auxiliary vessels and a special session to advance internationally-sourced localisation of shipbuilding and ship equipment manufacturing in the Russian Federation.

*NEVA 2017 – the 14th International Maritime Exhibition and Conferences of Russia, takes place in St. Petersburg, during 19 - 22 September at the Expoforum Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Christophe de Margerie photos courtesty of Sovcomflot