Russia's dream to dominate the Arctic will soon get a boost with a nuclear-powered icebreaker designed to navigate both shallow rivers and the freezing depths of the northern seas. In August, Rosatomflot, Russia's atomic fleet, inked a deal to begin construction of a massive new vessel that can blast through ice around three meters thick at a price of about $1.2 billion.

Powered by two RITM-200 compact pressurized water reactors generating 60 megawatts, the new model will have liquid ballasts, allowing it to alter its draft (the depth of the loaded vessel in the water) between 8.5 to 10.8 meters. The icebreaker will thus have access to both Siberian rivers that extend far into Russia and deep Arctic waters.

Why the effort and cost? “Climate change is a pivotal factor in accelerating Russia's interest in icebreakers,” says Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution. “We are seeing a major change in the Northern Sea Route, which is a transport route along Russia's north coast from Europe to Asia. Just in the past few years, with less and less permanent sea ice, maritime traffic across the Russian Arctic has risen exponentially.”

The expectation is that the melt will continue, but sections of the route still would require icebreakers to keep it open year-round. The icebreakers are also crucial for collecting data on Russia's continental shelf borders, which are needed to stake a claim to exclusive economic rights along vast tracts of the Arctic and to fend off other claimants, such as the U.S., Canada, Norway and Denmark. Russia argues that an undersea formation called the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Siberia's shelf and belongs to Russia exclusively.

Russia is the only country in the world currently building nuclear icebreakers and has a fleet of about half a dozen in operation, along with a larger fleet of less powerful, diesel-powered icebreakers.

Conant traveled to Russia on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Adapted from the Guest Blog at