by Will Davis
December 5 marks the anniversary of the launch of the first nuclear powered icebreaker, the Lenin, in what at that time was the Soviet Union. The job that icebreakers perform is among the very most demanding that any type of seagoing vessel endures due to the environment, the remoteness, and the tremendous stresses on the ship itself. As it turns out, it’s a perfect application for nuclear energy. Let’s take a look at this historic ship, its design and the operation of icebreakers with a variety of photos from my library.
ICEBREAKER LENIN WHEN NEW IN SEPTEMBER 1959 (Official Press Photo, Will Davis collection.) The “world” in which these icebreakers operate is so foreign and hostile to most people that it’s out of mind. These ships must continuously, day and night, for months at a time move through sea ice in order to clear important shipping lanes in Russia’s north. The ice can be minimal or, at times and in places, several feet thick. Temperatures are well below zero (F) and the ships are away from port for extended periods up to several months. Nuclear power makes large icebreakers into idealized ships; diesel or oil fired ships must be refueled, and thus their time-on-station is always absolutely limited. With nuclear energy, the fuel for years of operation is always there; thus, the limits of the ships’ operation is never fuel but rather crew considerations such as food.
IN THE ICE (Post card in Will Davis collection). Nuclear power did the same thing to icebreakers that it did to submarines – it made them larger. Since the range of such ships was greatly extended (although, not truly unlimited with early cores) and vast power was available, not only was size no longer a limitation (for speed considerations) but actually a help