Russia’s investing in nuclear-powered ships for Arctic dominance

in July 26th, 2021

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Russia is touting its icebreaker development — not the team-building exercise, but the ships designed to navigate through ice-covered waters. Historically, ships have only been able to operate in the eastern Arctic during warmer months. But for Russia, that all changes with the introduction of new nuclear-powered icebreakers that can smash through ice as thick as 9.2 feet (2.8 meters), clearing a route that’s 15 days faster than its non-Arctic counterparts. 

With fewer travel days using less fuel, these new ships save time and money on oil and gas deliveries to Southeast Asia, but not everyone is enthused by Russia's progress.  

  • In addition to their icebreakers, Russian military activity in the region has the Pentagon on alert — especially as easy shipping routes also make for easy missile routes.
  • Global competition for the Arctic’s transit routes has exacerbated tensions between the U.S., Russia, and China. In fact, China is working on its own nuclear icebreaker quite comparable to Russia’s.
  • And environmentalists are concerned over the increased use of an already sensitive region. Last year, temperature in the Arctic Circle reached a record-breaking 100.4°F (38°C) due to human-driven climate change. 

Beyond shipping routes, the Arctic is an attractive destination for mining natural resources. Recent estimates suggest it holds 412 billion barrels of oil, or 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. This could further increase traffic in the region as ice continues melting — helpful for accessing those resources but detrimental to the Arctic’s ecology.


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