The Soviet Ship That Cuts Through Ice Like a Nuclear-Powered Knife Through Butter

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What the Soviets lacked in ability for effective governance, they made up for in ballsy engineering prowess. Really, who else would think to pack two nuclear reactors into a ship and set it loose in the Arctic breaking ice? The North Koreans? Psshhh, not likely.

The NS Yamal, named after the "Ends of the Earth" Yamal Peninsula in Northwest Siberia, is an Arktika-class nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker. Although construction on it began back in 1986, the Yamal was not completed until 1992, after the fall of Soviet rule. Since the new Russian government no longer needed it for its intended purpose — keeping Arctic shipping lanes open — the 150 meters long, 23,455 ton Yamal has since been operated by the Murmansk Shipping Company as a converted 50-cabin cruiser for North Pole tours.

This ship is powered by dual pressurized-water nuclear reactors, each of which contains 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. When fully loaded with 500kg of nuclear material, the Yamal can operate for up to five years without needing to refuel. Each reactor weighs 160 tons and resides within a closed compartment under reduced pressure and is shielded by steel, high density concrete and water. 86 sensors throughout the ship monitor radiation levels at all times.


Breaking with the Soviet tradition of intuitive, straightforward design, the reactors are used to power Rube Goldberg propulsion system. The reactors power boilers which generate high pressure steam to power 12 dynamos which in turn power electric motors attached to each of the three propeller screws. These motors provide each screw with roughly 25,000 horsepower or 55.3MW. With that much power, the Yamal punches through ice up to 2.3m thick at a speed of 3 knots. And though the Yamal's maximum rated ice thickness is 5m, it has been recorded smashing individual ice ridges as thick as 9m.

But the Yamal doesn't rely on brute force and a 48mm thick double hull alone. It's coated with a special, friction-reducing polymer and also uses a water ballast system between the double hulls to concentrate additional weight in the stern. If those aren't enough, the Yamal is equipped with a an air bubbling system that jets 24 m³/s of air 9m below the surface to help break up the floe (they also help with steering).


Despite its ability to break through 20 vertical feet of ice at a time, the Yamal is effectively trapped in the Arctic. Because the reactors use the area's frigid water for cooling, the Yamal is physically incapable of traveling near (and definitely not past) the equator without overheating and melting down its fuel supply.

[Yamal (Icebreaker) Wiki - Cool Antarctica - Image: Wofratz]

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