Nuclear icebreakers

Arktika, the second nuclear-powered icebreaker made by the Soviet Union, was the first surface ship to reach the North Pole.

When it comes to nuclear propulsion, most people think of submarines. One of the key advantages of nuclear power is that you do not need to refuel very often. It therefore makes sense to install it in submarines, giving them a very long reach (even around the world underwater). But submarines are not the only naval vessels that benefit from this kind of autonomy. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union installed nuclear reactors on icebreaker ships.

The first nuclear icebreaker was the Lenin. It launched in 1957 and barged around the northern reaches of the Soviet Union for the next thirty years, breaking the ice for following cargo ships. It also had at least two reactor mishaps and dumped nuclear waste directly into the ocean – but the waste hardly ever washed up on shore, so I guess everything is just fine.

The second nuclear-powered icebreaker was the Arktika, which launched in 1975. It had a huge hull (at the front, half a metre of steel thick), two 160 tonne reactors, and the ability to push its way through ice 2.8 metres thick.

For reference, the ice at the North Pole is 2.5 metres thick, on average. So it wasn’t too long before someone decided to send the Arktika as far north as it could go. On August 17, 1977, the Arktika became the first surface ship to reach the North Pole.

(It was not, however, the first ship to attempt to get to the North Pole. That honour goes to the Fram expedition, an absolutely bananas Norwegian scheme that I will write about another time.)

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