Nick Smith’s article on visiting the North Pole as appearing in current edition of E&T magazine

Breaking the ice at the North Pole

You don’t have to be an Arctic explorer to visit the Geographic North Pole these days. E&T sent intrepid reporter Nick Smith to Murmansk’s Atomflot, where he joined the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory on a trip to the top of the world…

I’m standing on the bridge of the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. It’s been days since we’ve seen land and even longer since we’ve seen anything approaching darkness. Here in the high latitudes in summer it never gets dark, and in the eerie silent fog, the Arctic seems like the loneliest place on earth. My GPS says we’re at 89° 59 999’N, which means we’re about as close as we can get to the North Pole without actually being there. In fact, given the size of the 50 Years of Victory – 159.6 metres long, with a breadth of 30metres – it’s perfectly possible that part it is already at the Pole.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what my GPS says – not because of any possible margin of error – but because the only navigational reading that counts is the one on the bridge. We’re only technically at the Pole when Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the ‘50 лет Победы’ says we are. Positioning a 23,439 tonne ship on such a precise point as 90 degrees North, while simultaneously smashing through a pan of multiyear ice several metres thick, is a tricky job. Captain Lobusov has until now operated an ‘open bridge’, but we’ve been temporarily invited to leave to allow his crew some breathing space, to concentrate on this moment of pinpoint navigation. I leave reluctantly because the tension is mounting and it’s obvious that the precision of the final phase of the navigation is a matter of extreme seriousness. This is the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker and we’re going to stop it on a sixpence.

And the Victory truly is huge. For all the facts and figures (see side panel ‘Specification Sheet’), nothing can really prepare you for the experience of simply being aboard this huge work of engineering art. Of course, compared with some of the commercial ocean going cruise liners such as the Independence of the Seas (which is twice as long) the Victory is a big minnow. But the idea of being aboard a ship powered by two nuclear reactors that’s going to blast its way through the ice to the Pole is simply awe-inspiring. To think that even in the heaviest of icebreaking conditions the Victory consumes only 200g of nuclear fuel per day – about the weight of an apple – borders on science fiction.

It’s getting on for midnight on 15th July 2009 and after several attempts to ram a pan of multiyear ice out of our way, the icebreaker finally moves into position. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ says an excited voice on the ship’s PA system, ‘we have achieved our expedition’s objective.’ The ship’s GPS reads 90° 00 000’ N (and for the record 172° 51 811’ E, although that hardly matters) and so it’s official – we’ve finally arrived at the Geographic North Pole. Most of the ship’s 124 passengers gather on the bow deck to celebrate, while the crew sets about the business of parking the ship (‘park’ is the technical term for mooring an icebreaker). Preparations are made for a party out on the ice at a ceremonial pole the following day. As the engines stop and the relentless vibration subsides it’s a great feeling to think we’ll be walking on the ice tomorrow.

It’s hard to imagine what the great explorers of the past would have made of all this. Technology has advanced so far in the pat century that a feat of navigation that was once only the dream of visionaries and madmen is now a reality for adventure tourists. In 1909 no one had set foot at the North Pole for certain – Commander Robert Peary of the US Navy claimed to have arrived there with a team of dogs that year – and it was to be another 60 years before British Explorer Wally Herbert could claim to be the first human to have beyond all doubt arrived at the Pole on foot. The challenges for these pioneering explorers were enormous: apart from the constant battle with 5-metre high pressure ridges and ‘leads’ (rivers of open water), there was the gnawing sub-zero temperatures, ravenous polar bears and the intellectual rigours of navigation with compasses, wristwatches and the stars (on the rare occasions when the sky was clear or dark enough). It was a mind-bogglingly tough existence that these men chose, and one that’s hard for the passengers of the Victory to understand.

A new day doesn’t dawn, but the clock tells us that it’s another day, and so on 16th July the ceremonies begin and I celebrate being the 22,500th person to set foot on the ice at the North Pole. This figure was calculated for me by onboard polar historian Robert Keith Headland, formerly archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who has kept meticulous records of every arrival – and even disputed arrival – since Peary claimed to have attained ninety degrees north.

As you stand with your feet on what T.S.Eliot called the ‘still point of the turning world’ the significance of this place slowly sinks in. Look directly upwards along the earth’s rotational axis you’ll come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you’ll reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you’ve maintained a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

To date the only nuclear-powered icebreakers to have been built are Russian. The reason for this, according to Captain Lobusov of the 50 Years of Victory, is simply that Russia is the only country that needs them. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is a need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’

Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, icebreakers such as the Victory and her sister ship Yamal become available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission these ships in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

Ten nuclear powered surface ships have been built in Russia, nine of which are icebreakers, with the tenth a container ship with icebreaking capabilities.  And although the specifications differ from one to another, those in the Arktika class – of which the Victory is the newest member –are fundamentally the same, becoming more efficient, powerful or faster as evolving technology allows for higher performance.

Power for the Victory is supplied by two pressurised water KLT-40 nuclear reactors, each containing 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. Each reactor weighs 160 tonnes and is enclosed in a reinforced compartment. Fifty kilos of uranium isotopes are contained in each reactor when fully fuelled, with a daily consumption of approximately 200g a day of heavy isotopes when breaking thick ice. This means that the Victory can remain operational for four years between changes of the reactor rods, Used cores are extracted and new ones installed in Murmansk, where spent fuel is reprocessed and waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant. A total of 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel monitor ambient radiation. While on my way to the North Pole I was taken around the engine and control rooms, shown the nuclear reactors and I spoke to several of the officers in charge of keeping the Victory moving. Of course, you’re not allowed to photograph everything, but the Russians are far more open about showing you the technology of this ship that perhaps might be expected.

After spending a day at the Pole it’s time to turn around and sail back to the Victory’s base at Atomflot in Murmansk on Russia’s northern coastline. While the voyage north had often been a bone-jarring experience as we smashed our way through the ice, the homeward leg was a much more sedate affair. The wake of broken pack ice that we’d left behind was now at times a mile wide and the process of sailing ‘downhill’ the way we came was a positively sedate affair by comparison. From time to time we slowed down to watch polar bears out on the ice, or the occasional ringed seal and we even saw a pod of walrus as we approached Franz Josef Land.

But for anyone thinking that we were on a pleasure cruise there were several reminders that we were on a working nuclear surface vessel, including being buzzed by Norwegian military aircraft and being warned from passing too close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where rocket testing made this route ‘dangerous to shipping’. We’d also been told by Moscow that we weren’t allowed to arrive at the Pole before 15th July, which seemed a bit odd as the Geographic North Pole – frozen wasteland or not frozen wasteland – is in international waters. I mentioned this to one of the Russian officers who corrected me very politely, informing me that we were on a Russian ship and if Moscow tells us not to go somewhere, for whatever reason, like it or not, we’re not going there.

The original Russian nuclear icebreaker: whatever happened to Lenin?

If 50 Years of Victory is the most recent, state-of-the-art nuclear icebreaker, then it owes much to the very first of all, the NS Lenin. Launched in 1957 Lenin was both the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship and the first nuclear powered civilian vessel. According to Soviet-born features editor of Engineering & Technology magazine, Vitali Vitaliev, it was: ‘the greatest ship in the world – a masterpiece of Russian engineering. As children we had pictures of it on our bedroom walls.’ It also featured on Russian postage stamps.

Lenin was decommissioned in 1989 because she was literally worn out. Years of crashing through the Arctic pack ice had worn the hull thin, and as a result she was laid up at Atomflot in Murmansk, where she was converted into a museum ship that opened in 2005. Lenin is held in such affection in Russia that when I visited in July earlier this year there were several wedding parties queuing up to have their official nuptial photographs taken in front of this imposing vessel.

On board, the technology looks very similar at first glance to that on 50 Years of Victory. And while there are obviously fewer computers and more mechanical dials and levers on view, the real difference is in the officers’ quarters, the mess rooms and the wardrooms. These are all exquisitely decked out with Art-Deco style interiors. While 50 Years of Victory is all about form and function, with its utilitarian magnolia paint and rudimentary furnishings, Lenin is simply opulent. With wooden paneling and brass everywhere, it resembles a floating palace more than a working icebreaker. The Party obviously knew how to look after itself.

But Lenin had a chequered operational history and was involved in two nuclear accidents.  And while these happened in the mid-1960s, they did not become widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In February 1965, after shutting down for refueling, fuel elements melted inside No2 reactor as a result of the coolant being prematurely removed. More than half of the fuel assemblies fused on to the reactor core, resulting in the need to remove of the fuel unit for disposal. The entire assembly was taken away, quarantined in a special cask and stored for two years before being dumped in Tsivolki Bay (near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago) in 1967.

Later that year a cooling system leak happened shortly after refueling. In order to locate the leak engineers needed to smash through the reactor’s concrete casing. They did this manually with old-fashioned sledgehammers and in doing so caused irreparable damage to the casing. As a result all three OK-150 reactors were rendered unserviceable and were subsequently replaced with two OK-900 reactors in an operation completed in early 1970. These two reactors provided steam for four turbines that in turn powered Lenin’s three sets of electric motors.

Specification sheet: How big? 50 Years of Victory in facts

50 Years of Victory is one of six Arktika class icebreakers operated by the Rosatomflot (Russian Atomic Fleet) of Murmansk on behalf of the Russian Government (the others are Arktica, Sibir, Rossiya, Sovietskiy Soyuz, and Yamal.) The ship’s name commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The keel was laid on 4th October 1989 in St Petersburg and the Victory was launched on 29th December 1993. After a prolonged fitting out – delayed by financial restrictions in Russia following the fall of Communism – the icebreaker finally came into service on 23rd March 2007. Engineering & Technology magazine joined the Victory for only its second commercial passenger voyage to the Geographic North Pole.

  • Length overall 159.6m – at waterline 136m. Breadth overall 30m – at waterline 28m. Draft 11.08m. Height keel-to-masthead 45m. There are 12 decks (4 below waterline)
  • The bow is ‘spoon-shaped’ – a new design for icebreakers – and has a 480mm thick cast steel prow, with an ‘ice tooth’ 20m aft
  • Displacement 25,840 tonnes overall (22,335 light ship). Registered tonnage 23, 439
  • The hull is double with water ballast in between them. Ribs are deployed at 50cm centres
  • The outer hull is 46mm thick, argon welded, armour steel overlaid with a 5-7mm plating of stainless steel (high molybdenum content) where ice is met (the ice skirt), and 25mm armour steel elsewhere
  • Nine bulkheads allow the icebreaker to be divided into 10 watertight compartments
  • The hull is also divided into two main longitudinal bulkheads – important areas are in independent watertight compartments
  • For fire protection the hull and superstructure are divided into 4 vertical zones by three bulkheads
  • Ice breaking is assisted by an air bubbling system delivering jets from 9m below the surface, specialised hull design, friction reducing alloy ice skirt, and capability for rapid moving water ballast
  • Ice may be broken while moving ahead or astern
  • A helicopter is carried for observing ice conditions up to 40km ahead of the vessel
  • The icebreaker is equipped to undertake close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
  • Search lights and other high intensity illuminations allow work to be carried out in winter darkness
  • Complement 108: 51 officers and 57 other ranks. The infirmary has 2 medical staff

Nick Smith travelled to the North Pole on board the 50 Years of Victory with the assistance of Quark Expeditions. To find out more about Quark’s scheduled voyages into the Polar Regions visit http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/

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