U.S. Coast Guard U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea during a research expedition in the Arctic, 2009

Breaking the Ice

Why the United States Needs Nuclear-Powered Icebreakers

The United States needs more icebreakers. The country has a growing national interest in the Arctic, and its relations with Russia, a dominant force in the region, are increasingly chilly. Yet Washington is woefully unprepared for the Arctic challenge when it comes to one crucial tool: the mighty nuclear-powered vessels that would support its economic and security objectives in the high north.

Because of a receding icecap, the Arctic is becoming increasingly accessible for exploration and transit. For the United States and other Arctic nations, this development offers significant new opportunities, from previously unavailable shipping routes to yet untapped natural resources. It also comes with fresh risks—it’s a new arena for potential geopolitical competition—and additional responsibilities: managing the remote but increasingly crowded space.  

In all these respects, nuclear icebreakers—that is, ships that are powered by a nuclear reactor and designed to clear paths through the ice for other ships to follow—are indispensable. Nuclear propulsion is extremely efficient, allowing such an icebreaker to go decades before it requires refueling. (A conventional U.S. Navy destroyer that deploys to the Arctic runs out of fuel by the time it reaches Alaska.) Nuclear icebreakers are also more capable than conventional vessels of producing the thrust necessary for cleaving ten-foot-thick ice for sustained periods of time. A nuclear icebreaker on its toughest workday burns through a single pound of uranium, whereas a conventionally powered ship would require about a hundred tons of diesel for the same job.

In terms of both conventional and nuclear icebreakers, Russia is the world’s uncontested leader. It maintains a fleet of 40 ships and is currently the only country that has nuclear-powered icebreakers, with four such vessels of the heaviest class operating in the Arctic. Eleven more icebreakers are in development or planning stages, including the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, scheduled for completion in 2017.

The United States, by contrast, has only two conventional icebreakers in service, and only one of them is suitable for Polar Star, which is tasked mostly with conducting scientific missions and supporting research in Antarctica. Moreover, the Polar Star is already nearly a decade past its planned retirement age. The United States urgently needs to develop a new icebreaker class and create the next-generation fleet of nuclear icebreakers and ice-hardened conventional ships to buttress its standing in the world’s crucial frontier region.

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