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Year-round Arctic Marine Transport to Dudinka in Support of Natural Resource Development and Production

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Since the winter of 1978-79, one of the most advanced Arctic marine transport systems in the Arctic has been the year-round operation comprised of rail traffic between the mines of the Mining and Metallurgical Company Norilsk Nickel to the port in Dudinka, on the Yenisei River and then the 231 nautical mile sailing to Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula.

MMC Norilsk Nickel is the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, and is among the top four platinum producers in the world, as well as among the top 10 copper producers. MMC Norilsk Nickel is also a large global enterprise with production facilities in the Russian Federation, Australia, Botswana, Finland, the United States and the Republic of South Africa.

Mining in the Norilsk area began in the 1920s. The region quickly became a critical supplier of non-ferrous metals within the Soviet Union. During the 1950s, the Northern Sea Route Administration was tasked with building a year-round Arctic marine transport system on the western end of the NSR and into the Yenisei.

The development of large, nuclear icebreakers came first with the Lenin in 1959 (world’s first nuclear surface ship) followed by a small fleet of larger icebreakers of the Arktika class. These icebreakers were designed to create tracks in the ice for lower-powered cargo ships to sail in convoy astern of a lead icebreaker.

With unlimited endurance, the nuclear icebreakers could provide year-round services in the deeper waters along the major routes of the NSR. Ice-strengthened cargo ships and shallow-draft icebreakers came next. By the 1978-79 winter season there was enough icebreaking capacity to maintain year-round navigation by convoying ships from the Yenisei west across the Kara Sea and into the Barents Sea to Murmansk. A continuous flow of non-ferrous metal concentrates could be maintained to smelters on the Kola Peninsula and to other industries in the Soviet Union.

During 1982-87 a new icebreaking cargo ship, the SA-15 or Norilsk class, was delivered by Finland’s former Valmet and Wartsila shipyards to the Soviet Union. Nineteen of these Arctic freighters (174 m length and 19,950 dwt) were built and several today remain in service on the route between Dudinka and Murmansk.

In many respects, the Norilsk class multi-purpose carriers revolutionized Arctic shipping in the same manner as the commercial carrier M/V Arctic developed for the Canadian Arctic during the same years. With high propulsion power (21,000 shp), the Norilsk class ships could operate under their own power as an icebreaker. These ships carried cargoes the length of the NSR in summer during the late 1980s; during the winter they were used effectively to support the Norilsk-Dudinka operation.

Their proven capability for independent navigation through ice fields without icebreaker support was a significant technological achievement, as well as a notable advance in efficient (and costeffective) Arctic marine operations. The successful operation of these ships was a harbinger of the future for Arctic marine transport.

In April 1988, a new, shallow-draft polar icebreaker named Taymyr was delivered to the Soviet Union by Wartsila’s Helsinki shipyard. A single nuclear reactor was installed at the Baltic shipyard in (then) Leningrad, and the ship was ready for service along the NSR and in the shallow Siberian rivers by 1989. A second ship of the class, Yaygach, was added to the Murmansk Shipping Company’s icebreaker fleet in 1990.

The design of this class represents the apex in the development process for the Soviet polar icebreaker fleet. Coupled in its design are Finnish advances in shallow-draft ship design with nuclear propulsion developed in the Soviet Union. A draft of only 8 meters was attained with Taymyr, which compares favorably with the average 11-meters draft of the largest Soviet icebreakers of the period. A power plant producing 44,000 shp provided a capability of continuously breaking 1.8 meters of level ice at a 2-knot speed. These capabilities fit perfectly with the requirements for icebreaking (level river ice) on the shallow Yenisei River to the port of Dudinka; these extraordinary nuclear ships could maintain an ice track out to the Kara Sea through the winter in nearly all conditions.

Year-round shipping to Dudinka functioned throughout the 1990s and the early years of the new century despite the financial challenges facing the Russian Federation. MMC Norilsk Nickel was restructured several times and since 2001 the company has flourished, focusing on economic efficiencies, foreign marketing and potential investments. The marine transport component also received significant attention as the SA-15 Norilsk class ships supporting the Dudinka run began to age.

The company’s marine operations department worked closely with the Finnish shipbuilder Aker Yards to develop a new freighter class that would be owned and operated by MMC Norilsk Nickel. The vision was for a fleet of five icebreaking containerships designed for year-round operations. The first of the ships, Norilsk Nickel (168 meter length, 14,500 dwt, 650 TEU capacity), was completed in Helsinki early in 2006. The new ship is designed as a “double- acting hull” and is fitted with an azimuthing pod for propulsion.

The Azipod concept, as it is called, allows the ship to move sternfirst efficiently in the ice; the ship is designed to break 1.5 meter thick ice unassisted. In light ice or open water, Norilsk Nickel turns 180 degrees and moves bow first. Ice trials for the new ship were conducted in March 2006 in the Kara Sea and Yenisei River, and the vessel achieved a 3-knot speed continuously moving through 1.5 meter thick ice.

Norilsk Nickel has performed well in operating unassisted (without icebreaker escort or convoy) during its initial two years of service. With four more of the class being built in Germany, MMC Norilsk Nickel will have an operational fleet of five icebreaking carriers, all highly capable of operating independently through the winter season to serve the port of Dudinka. Safe and efficient, the Norilsk Nickel class ships represent a new concept of Arctic marine operations. They will enhance a regional, Arctic marine transport system in western Siberia and better link a key Russian commercial enterprise to world markets.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©