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Scott Wasserman //

Nuclear icebreakers – what’s so special about them?

This story really happened more than 30 years ago.

In the Russian High Arctic, a convoy of over 50 Soviet-era ships became trapped in ice fields along the Northern Sea Route or "Northeast Passage." In those days, many Russian Arctic settlements were dependent on food and other necessities that were typically delivered by these traditional convoys. This time, however, the convoy was unable to return after supplying the isolated settlements due to impassable ice.

As the situation became dire, it was agreed that a nuclear-powered icebreaker, the Lenin, would be pressed into service to lead the other ships out of their icy jail.    

What makes this story special – and the Lenin the hero – was her power source: nuclear energy. It enabled the Lenin and her crew to prevent hundreds of seamen from being trapped in the ice for a prolonged period of time. It was one of the biggest and most successful rescue missions of its day.

To prevent reoccurances of the episode, the Soviet fleet needed more nuclear-powered icebreakers. The Northern Sea Route required safe passage for Russian trade vessels during the winter months as Arctic settlements remained dependent on them for their supplies. An enormous shipbuilding campaign evolved and continued into the 1990s. During this period, eight nuclear-powered icebreakers out of the Soviet Union's master plan for ten were completed and put into service.

Today, those eight icebreakers are still operational. The main feature which makes these shipbuilding wonders so special is their autonomy from traditional fossil fuels. If projections are correct, nuclear icebreakers have an operational expectancy of approximately 70 years. In future posts, we will go into more detail about the technical aspects of nuclear icebreakers.

The 50 Years of Victory – completed just ten years ago in 2007 – is one of just two nuclear icebreakers that's been used to transport tourists to the North Pole. Poseidon Expeditions is proud to have two or three North Pole cruises every summer aboard this 128-passenger vessel.

If you have anything you'd like to add about nuclear-powered icebreakers or travel on a North Pole expedition cruise, please do so in the comments!

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