In 1957 the USSR launched both the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship and the first nuclear-powered civilian vessel: the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin. Now permanently moored in Murmansk, the ship is an unmissable museum for anyone visiting the largest city on Earth above the Artic Circle. An embodiment of the technical progress of her time, the Lenin comprised 70,000 parts, with the total length of welds stretching to more than 6,000 kilometer. Lenin entered operation in 1959 and worked clearing sea routes for cargo ships along Russia’s northern coast. From 1960 to 1965 the ship covered over 85,000 miles during the Arctic navigation season, of which almost 65,000 were through ice.
At that time Lenin was powered by three OK-150 nuclear reactors (3 × 90 MW). Two were actually sufficient for daily operations and the third one was carried around both as a “spare nuclear reactor” and as a “booster” in case maximum power was needed. This first generation of marine nuclear fission reactors proved not to be either economical (at full capacity the ship used five to six pounds of uranium-235 per 100 days) nor safe enough during refuelling operations and after a couple of incidents in 1965 and 1967 (the details of which were, of course, not widely available until after the fall of the Soviet Union) they were replaced by two more modern and even more powerful OK-900 nuclear reactors (2 × 171 MW).
The massive refit was completed in June 1970 and from the 14th of November to the 1st of December of the same year the ship completed an historical mission by escorting a cargo ship from Murmansk to Dudinka and back. This was the first voyage in the winter season in the Western part of the Artic Ocean. The reason behind the extended navigation season was the development of the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Company. This voyage became a milestone in the history of Polar navigation and in the following years several voyages with the escort of nuclear power icebreakers were undertaken in order to extend the navigational season in the Northern Sea Route as long as possible. In 1978 nuclear ice breakers Lenin, Artika and Sibir ensured the first all year-round navigation of the Artic.
All proceeded relatively smoothly for five years. Then in autumn of 1983 the Eastern part of the Artic Ocean saw particularly difficult ice conditions. Despite severe weather conditions, the ice nuclear breaker Artika had been able to ensure the delivery of necessary cargo to the Chukchi Peninsula ports. But then things turned for the worse and over 20 freighters and tankers became stuck in the ice and in risk of being crushed or at least overwintering in the Artic ocean. The largest flotilla of ice-breakers in history was then assembled to go to their rescue. Unfortunately one of the ships was crushed and sunk by the grinding ice floes before the icebreakers succeeded in breaking a path for them to the open sea, but all other were successfully rescued by the combined effort of nuclear powered icebreakers Lenin and Sibir, as well as icebreaker Krasin, Admiral Makarov, Yermak and others.
The 1983 rescue is still the largest rescue operation in history, but it is definitely not the only one. The abnormal ice conditions in the Eastern Artic Ocean in the autumn of 1994 were similar to those of 9 years before. Dozens of transport vessels delivering supplies to the settlements along the Russian Artic coast became once again beset in the ice (though, this time, not all at once and not all in the same area). That year nuclear-powered ice-breakers Rossya and Yamal assisted all of them and freed them from the ice.
By that time, though, the Lenin had already been decommissioned (in 1989), because its hull had worn thin from ice friction. That is why modern Artika-class icebreakers, such as the aforementioned Yamal, have a special polymer coating on their hull to reduce friction.
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