Nick Smith at the North Pole

Breaking the ice at the North Pole

You don't have to be an Arctic explorer to visit the Geographic North Pole these days. E&T visited Murmansk's Atomflot, where we joined the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory on a trip to the top of the world…

I'm standing on the bridge of the world's largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. It's been days since we've seen land, and even longer since we've seen anything approaching darkness.

Here, in the high latitudes in summer, it never gets dark; and in the eerie silent fog the Arctic could be the loneliest place on Earth. My GPS says we're at 89° 59 999'N, which means we're about as close as we can get to the North Pole without actually being there. In fact, given the size of the 50 Years of Victory - 159.6m long, with a breadth of 30m - it's perfectly possible that part it is already at the Pole.

Of course, it doesn't matter what my GPS says - not because of any possible margin of error, but because the only navigational reading that counts is the one on the bridge. We're only technically at the Pole when Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the 50 Years of Victory says we are.

Positioning a 23,439t ship on such a precise point as 90° North, while simultaneously smashing through a pan of multiyear ice several metres thick, is a tricky job. Captain Lobusov has, until now, operated an 'open bridge', but we've been temporarily invited to leave to allow his crew some breathing space, to concentrate on this moment of pinpoint navigation. I reluctantly leave as the tension is mounting, and it's obvious that the precision of the final phase of the navigation is a matter of extreme seriousness. This is the world's largest nuclear icebreaker, and we're going to stop it on a sixpence.

The Victory truly is huge. For all the facts and figures (see 'How big?', p22), nothing can really prepare you for the experience of being aboard this huge work of engineering art. Compared with some of the commercial ocean-going cruise liners such as the Independence of the Seas (which is twice as long), the Victory is a big minnow; but the idea of being aboard a ship powered by two nuclear reactors that's going to blast its way through the ice to the Pole is awe-inspiring. To think that even in the heaviest of icebreaking conditions the Victory consumes only 200g of nuclear fuel per day - about the weight of an apple - borders on science fiction.

It's getting on for midnight on 15 July 2009 and, after several attempts to ram a pan of multiyear ice, the icebreaker finally moves into position. "Ladies and gentleman," says an excited voice on the ship's PA system, "we have achieved our expedition's objective." The ship's GPS reads 90° 00 000' N (and, for the record, 172° 51 811' E, although that hardly matters), and so it's official - we've finally arrived at the Geographic North Pole.

Most of the ship's 124 passengers gather on the bow deck to celebrate, while the crew sets about the business of parking the ship ('park' is the technical term for mooring an icebreaker). Preparations are made for a party out on the ice at a ceremonial pole the following day. As the engines stop and the relentless vibration subsides, it's a great feeling to think we'll be walking on the ice tomorrow.

It's hard to imagine what the great explorers of the past would have made of all this. Technology has advanced so far in the past century that a feat of navigation that was once only the dream of visionaries and madmen is now a reality for adventure tourists. In 1909, no one had set foot at the North Pole - Commander Robert Peary of the US Navy claimed to have arrived there with a team of dogs that year - and it was to be another 60 years before British explorer Wally Herbert could claim to be the first human to have, beyond all doubt, arrived at the Pole on foot. The challenges for these pioneering explorers were enormous: apart from the constant battle with 5m-high pressure ridges and 'leads' (rivers of open water), there was the gnawing sub-zero temperatures, ravenous polar bears, and the intellectual rigours of navigation with compasses, wristwatches and the stars (on the rare occasions when the sky was clear and/or dark enough). It was a mind-bogglingly tough existence that these men chose, and one that's hard for the passengers of the Victory to understand.

A new day doesn't dawn, but the clock tells us that it's another day, and so on 16 July the ceremonies begin and I celebrate being the 22,500th person to set foot on the ice at the North Pole. This figure was calculated for me by onboard polar historian Robert Keith Headland, formerly archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who has kept meticulous records of every arrival - and even disputed arrival - since Peary claimed to have attained 90° north.

As you stand on what TS Eliot called the "still point of the turning world", the significance of this place slowly sinks in. Look directly upwards along the Earth's rotational axis, and you'll come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet and, after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000m of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you'll reach sea level at the South Pole - after which there are another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835m of ice. If you've maintained a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

Icebreakers

To date, the only nuclear-powered icebreakers to have been built are Russian. The reason for this, according to Captain Lobusov, is simply that Russia is the only country that needs them. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. "We have very vast country from west to east and there is a need to carry cargo by sea, and so we need an ice fleet," says Captain Lobusov.

He goes on to explain how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for opening commercial seaways, icebreakers such as the Victory and sister ship Yamal become available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission these ships to make the armchair explorer's dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

Ten nuclear-powered surface ships have been built in Russia, nine of which are icebreakers with the tenth a container ship with icebreaking capabilities. And although the specifications differ from one to another, those in the Arktika class - of which the Victory is the newest member - are fundamentally the same, becoming more efficient, powerful or faster as evolving technology allows for higher performance.

Power for the Victory is supplied by two pressurised water KLT-40 nuclear reactors, each containing 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. Each reactor weighs 160t and is enclosed in a reinforced compartment. Fifty kilos of uranium isotopes are contained in each reactor when full, with a daily consumption of approximately 200g of heavy isotopes when breaking thick ice. This means that the Victory can remain operational for four years between changes of the reactor rods. Used cores are extracted and new ones installed in Murmansk, where spent fuel is reprocessed and waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant.

Eighty-six sensors distributed throughout the vessel monitor ambient radiation. While on our way to the North Pole I was taken around the engine and control rooms, shown the nuclear reactors, and I spoke to several of the officers in charge of keeping the Victory moving. You're not allowed to photograph everything, but the Russians are far more open about showing you the technology of this ship than perhaps might be expected.

Travelling home

After spending a day at the Pole it's time to turn around and sail back to the Victory's base at Atomflot in Murmansk on Russia's northern coastline. While the voyage north had often been a bone-jarring experience as we smashed our way through the ice, the homeward leg in the wake of broken pack ice that we'd left behind which was, at times, a mile wide, and the process of sailing 'downhill' the way we came, was a positively sedate affair by comparison.

From time to time we slowed down to watch polar bears out on the ice, or the occasional ringed seal, and we even saw a pod of walrus as we approached Franz Josef Land.

But for anyone thinking that we were on a pleasure cruise there were several reminders that we were on a working nuclear surface vessel, including being buzzed by Norwegian military aircraft and being warned from passing too close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where rocket testing made this route 'dangerous to shipping'. We'd also been told by Moscow that we weren't allowed to arrive at the Pole before 15 July, which seemed a bit odd as the Geographic North Pole - frozen wasteland or not frozen wasteland - is in international waters. I mentioned this to one of the Russian officers who corrected me very politely, informing me that we were on a Russian ship and if Moscow tells us not to go somewhere, for whatever reason, like it or not, we're not going there.

 

E&T magazine travelled to the North Pole on board the 50 Years of Victory with the assistance of Quark Expeditions. To find out more information about Quark's scheduled voyages into the Polar Regions, visit www.quarkexpeditions.com [new window].

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