FEATURE | Unified icebreaking fleet proposed for Russia’s Northern Sea Route
In his interview with IAA PortNews following the 11th International Forum “Arctic Projects, Today and Tomorrow”, Vyacheslav Ruksha, Deputy General Director of Rosatom – Director of the Northern Sea Route Directorate, shares his opinion on rationale behind changing the NSR Navigation Rules.
PN: In November, over 20 vessels bound for the port of Pevek got stuck in the eastern part of the Northern Sea Route due to a challenging ice situation. What is the cause of the forced drift of vessels in the NSR waters?
VR: “There had been a series of causes. First of all, several projects had entered the active phase of implementation in Chukotka: gold mine Kekura, Baimsky MPC, and infrastructure development projects. By the end of the year, they have accumulated the need for transportation of some 200,000 tonnes of cargo. However, navigation season in this part of the Northern Sea Route is only three months long (between August and October – Ed.) while it takes about seven to eight days to sail from Arkhangelsk to Pevek and the same way back. So you can calculate the number of voyages and the number of ships needed.
“The requests were registered in the end of the navigation period – that was the second cause. From a commercial point of view that is quite understandable. All transportation companies have a standard procedure with the agreements signed only by August and cargo available in a month or in a month and a half. All the ships trapped in the ice had over 100,000 tonnes of cargo that was to be transported simultaneously, in the end of October.
“The third cause was the following: according to the forecast of RosHydroMet, ice conditions along the entire Northern Sea Route were announced to be easy up to the end of November. The ships’ ice class (Arc4— Ed.) allowed them to move independently but starting from November 2 till November 6, they began to suspend their independent voyages amid really challenging ice conditions asking for icebreaker assistance.
“The situation in Arkhangelsk and in Pevek was the same. As of mid-November, escorting services in the eastern part of Northern Sea Route could be provided by nuclear-powered icebreakers Vaygach and Taimyr operating in the Kara Sea at that moment, and Yamal. The first task was to assist ships of over 100,000 DWT and it took Yamal three days. Vaygach joined on November 16.
“With ice still thin now, 30 to 40 cm, and wind not strong, the canal does not freeze fast, hence escorting of a convoy is possible. So, Vaygach assisted a convoy of eight vessels. Several days later (the operation was completed on December 7 – Ed.), all the ships were in ice-free waters at the western ice edge of the Kara Sea. Evidently, Arc4 ships cannot pass the Northern Sea Route without icebreaker assistance in November.
“Yet, the Rules (Rules for Navigation in Northern Sea Route Waters approved by RF Government – Ed.) allow them to sail independently in case of favourable weather conditions. Here comes an issue: either ice class is too low or weather forecast is not reliable.”
PN: Is it reasonable to introduce amendments into the Rules of Navigation in the NSR waters now?
VR: “Yes, it is. Back in 2018, when this norm was introduced into the Navigation Rules, I was sure that general permits for Arctic voyages should be issued before the end of October but individual confirmations are to be issued from November 1 upon preliminary requests of ship owners. The confirmation would depend on the number of icebreakers available. If there are twenty-four ships and one icebreaker in the area and it takes eight days to pass from Pevek to the western edge of Northern Sea Route, unlimited number of permits is inadmissible.
“Ship owners say that the NSR Directorate impedes their commercial abilities. However, easy ice situation was announced up to the end of November and this situation can be faced again next year if the approach is not changed. Ship owners are eager to pass the Northern Sea Route without paying for an obligatory icebreaker assistance: with easy ice conditions officially stated at the website of NSR Administration, they come to the Arctic by Arc4 ships in November!”
PN: Will the NSR Directorate initiate the revision of the Rules?
VR: “Of course. Related instructions have been given by the Russian Government already. Basing on this year’s experience, technical requirements specified by the Rules should be thoroughly considered. The situation should be assessed calmly together with the Ministry of Transport and Russian Maritime Register of Shipping.
“Actually, the real situation seen in November does not allow for Arc4 ships to sail without icebreaker assistance. Among the ships in forced drift were those of Russian and foreign ice class. With an international shipping as we have, I have always insisted on state control of the industry to be in the hands of the Ministry of Transport, which acts as a unified body taking into consideration all global requirements.
“I think the Navigation Rules should state the priority of icebreakers in the Arctic. Those coming to a countryside by track understand that a tractor may become necessary.”
PN: What amendments are under consideration?
VR: “It is necessary to revise methods applied by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute for determination of ice conditions. The length of the Northern Sea Route between the Kara Gate and the Bering Strait is about 5,500 kilometres and ice conditions in the Kara Sea are absolutely different from ice conditions in the Chukchi Sea. The methods applied today are based on data of 2015.
“The next phase of amendments is to verify the compliance of ships’ technical passports with their real capabilities. For example, the Arc7 ship Yury Arshenevsky could not complete the voyage independently whereas the Arc7 nuclear-powered container carrier Sevmorput entered the route and passed it without problems for eight days following the instructions of MOH (Marine Operations Headquarters of FSUE Atomflot – Ed.).
“It is necessary to estimate if Arc4, Arc-5, Ice1 and Ice3 are appropriate for this season in the Arctic and to define which classes can pass certain types of ice. Besides, the ice formation process should be monitored on the Northern Sea Route: the conditions at the beginning of the route in the western part can be drastically different from those in the eastern part by the end of the voyage on the eighth day. It can be determined that, for example, 10 ships can be allowed to sail if one icebreaker is available or 20 ships with two icebreakers available. Thus, both western and eastern sectors should have one icebreaker in November, and the third icebreaker can be required.
“Therefore, the NSR Directorate should expand its fleet with at least two icebreakers. Icebreakers available today are diesel-fueled ships operated by FSUE Rosmorport on behalf of the Ministry of Transport. Regular long-term contracts for icebreaker assistance signed by the NSR Directorate cover a period until early July with all nuclear-powered icebreakers to be ready again by December 1. That means that a repair and maintenance cycle in one dock for all the four icebreakers (Arktika is not included as it is new) is four months.
“That is a tight schedule and if we need November for transit navigation, diesel-electric icebreakers of Rosmorport, Kapitan Dranitsyn, Krasin and Admiral Makarov are needed for this period. Those icebreakers are currently involved actively only in February. They could provide icebreaker assistance on the Northern Sea Route in November and in the first half of December allowing to cover the beginning and the end of the summer-autumn navigation season when nuclear-powered icebreakers are not available due to maintenance. Thus, a unified icebreaking fleet would be formed for the Northern Sea Route.”
PN: What legal form could integrate nuclear-powered and diesel icebreakers in the Arctic?
VR: “I still believe that Arctic icebreakers Krasin and Admiral Makarov should be on the balance sheet of FSUE Atomflot.”
Co-written with Yana Wojciechowska, PortNews editor.