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FEATURE - Atomic icebreakers keep Russia's north alive
By Oliver Bullough

MURMANSK, Russia, June 24 (Reuters) - It's June and as Russians swarm south for their annual beach holidays, Stanislav Rumyantsev has rather different plans -- he's preparing to head for the North Pole.

As captain of the atomic icebreaker Yamal, he will be spending his summer smashing through the ice of the Arctic Ocean, taking tourists to the top of the world and providing a lifeline to Russia's north.

"It's fine, there's nothing tough about it. I've been to the North Pole at least five times," said Rumyantsev, his ship towering over the wharves of Russia's Arctic port of Murmansk, half way between Moscow and the North Pole.

At the Yamal's heart -- a spotless room lined with humming banks of computers covered in flashing lights and fast-changing displays -- technicians checked the controls of its two nuclear reactors and steam turbines.

Russia is unique in having a nuclear icebreaker fleet, allowing its ships to cover its long and frozen northern coast. But the fleet is ageing, and some are concerned that Russia's Arctic towns, which depend on it for food, will not be able to survive.

Although Russia has exploited the Arctic since mediaeval fur traders discovered its riches, it moved in seriously only in the 1950s and 1960s, when the first atomic icebreaker could for the first time sail quickly from one end of Russia to the other.

By the late 1980s, the Northern Sea Route was carrying 6.7 million tonnes annually, but the economic meltdown of the 1990s slashed cargoes and it now sees only 1.7 million tonnes a year.

"In the last three or four years, trade has stabilised since the collapse," said Anatoly Gorshkovsky, who heads the Northern Sea Route administration at the transport ministry.


The collapse of the Soviet Union halted icebreaker building, and the Murmansk Shipping Company, which manages the fleet for the state, is having to run some vessels well past their life span, often using them for tourist excursions to raise money. Some 5,000 people have travelled on Russian icebreakers to the North Pole.

"The Arktika has already worked half as long again as it was supposed to. We have two programmes going to try and extend its life further," said Mustafa Kashka, who runs the company's icebreaker division.

"Atomic icebreakers are crucial to the Northern Sea Route. All through these hard economic times, they have kept operating, if they weren't necessary, they would have stopped," he said.

The majority of cargo -- between 1.2 to 1.4 million tonnes, according to government figures -- is linked to Norilsk Nickel, a company carved out of the tundra in Russia's far north and the world's largest producer of nickel and palladium.

It has been exploring other methods of getting its metals to the market, and even suggested using submarines last year, but currently relies on icebreakers, and the Murmansk Shipping Company's cargo ships.

"It's not just for shipping out our products, but food and other necessities have to come in behind an icebreaker except in a couple of the summer months," said a company spokesman.

The Murmansk Shipping Company says it also works with many of the biggest names in the Russian energy sector -- including LUKOIL, Gazprom and YUKOS -- and looks set to benefit from a giant oil export terminal proposed for Murmansk by Russia's largest oil companies.

It expects the amount of cargo it ships to boom in the next decade, as Russian energy companies start extracting oil and gas from the Arctic shelf.

"We are expecting to ship five million tonnes annually after a few years, and by 2015, we expect to ship 12 to 20 million, with most being oil," said a company spokesman, as he showed Reuters through the Yamal's maze-like lower decks.


Icebreakers are not just important for the companies of the far north, but crucial for feeding their workers and heating their houses during the long, bitter winter.

According to government statistics, four-fifths of food reaches the towns of the far north by sea, the majority in ships following an icebreaker.

"Even in summer ships often have to follow an icebreaker, it is possible for there to be ice at any time of year," said Gorshkovsky. "Without the Northern Sea Route, the people could not live and their economy would be nothing."

But Kashka said extending icebreakers' lives was only a temporary measure, and that to service the Russian north the state would have to build new ships.

"If building starts by 2007, we can have a new icebreaker in time," he said, adding that he was encouraged by a visit to the Yamal by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov earlier this year.

During his visit Kasyanov was reported to have pledged 2.5 billion roubles ($82.45 million) to finish an icebreaker that was started in 1989, but has never been completed.

"I think the funding problem will be resolved, it's a realistic thing to think. If the big oil companies want to work, they have to have icebreakers," said Kashka.

And Captain Rumyantsev did not mind the prospect of ploughing the Arctic Ocean for a few more years in his icebreaker, with the yellow nuclear symbol on its side and a polar bear on its funnel.

"We work four months on, and four months off, so next summer, I'll be free to go and do whatever I want," he said.

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