Orbital Marine Power (https://orbitalmarine.com) is developing a large, moored tidal turbine, the O2, which they claim is the most powerful tidal turbine in the world. The O2 soon will be deployed at sea off the Orkney Islands, northeast of Scotland.
Key features of the O2 tidal turbine are:
74 meter (243 ft) tubular steel hull with fore and aft mooring connections.
Hydraulically-actuated steel legs extending from the hull support the generator nacelles and rotors that are deployed underwater after the hull has been moored using a four-point mooring system.
Two 20 meter (65.6 ft) diameter, 2-bladed rotors give the O2 more than 600 m2 (6,458 ft2) of swept area to capture flowing tidal energy.
Blade pitch control enables bi-directional operation of the turbines with the hull in a fixed moored position (the hull doesn’t swing with the tide).
Each rotor drives a 1 MWe generator housed in the nacelle.
Power is delivered to shore by a submarine cable.
Here are three short videos that will give you a quick introduction to this remarkable machine:
If the O2 demonstration proves to be successful, Orbital Marine Power plans to develop and deploy larger tidal turbines in the future.
So, what does the O2 tidal turbine have in common with an airship? The Aeromodeller II airship design developed by Belgian engineer Lieven Standaert implements an airborne mooring as a means to generate power using two wind turbines while remaining aloft.
Both the O2 tidal turbine and the Aeromodeller II airship are buoyant vehicles in their respective media (water and air, respectively) and both are designed to extract power from that medium while moored (or tethered). Important differences are that the O2 tidal turbine is permanently moored and supplies power to users on land. The Aeromodeller II drops its anchor periodically to recharge its own power system while tethered and then raises its anchor to continue its journey. You’ll find more information on the Aeromodeller II airship in my separate article here: https://lynceans.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Aeromodeller-II-converted.pdf
An FNPP is a transportable barge housing one or more nuclear power reactors that can deliver electric power and other services, such as low temperature process heat and/or desalinated water, to users at a wide variety of coastal or offshore sites. FNPPs are a zero-carbon energy solution that has particular value in remote locations where the lack of adequate electrical power and other basic services are factors limiting development and/or the quality of life.
After being manufactured in a shipyard, the completed FNPP is fueled, tested and then towed to the selected site, where a safe mooring provides the interfaces to connect to the local / regional electrical grid and other user facilities.
The US operated the first FNPP, Sturgis, in the Panama Canal from 1968 to 1975. Sturgiswas equipped with a 45 MWt / 10 MWe Martin Marietta MH-1A pressurized water reactor (PWR) that was developed under the Army Nuclear Power Program.
Sturgis supplied electric power to the Panama Canal Zone grid, replacing the output of Gatun Hydroelectric Plant. This allowed more water from Gatun Lake to be available to fill canal locks, enabling 2,500 more ships per year to pass through the canal. After decommissioning, dismantling was finally completed in 2019.
2. Akademik Lomonosov – The first modern FNPP
It wasn’t until 2019 that another FNPP, Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, supplied power to a terrestrial electricity grid, 44 years after Sturgis. The Lomonosov is a one-of-a-kind, modern FNPP designed for operation in the Arctic. With two KLT-40S PWRs, Lomonosov supplies up to 70 MWe of electric power to the isolated Chukotka regional power grid or up to 50 Gcal/h of low temperature process heat at reduced electrical output to users in the industrial city of Pevek, near the eastern end of Russia’s Northern Sea Route.
Lomonosov started providing electricity to the grid on 19 December 2019 and regular commercial operation began on 22 May 2020.
3. FNPPs under development by several nations
Several nations are developing new FNPP designs along with plans for their serial production for domestic and/or export sale. The leading contenders are presented in the following chart.
Floating Nuclear Power Plants in Operation & Under Development
Akademik Lomonosov and the first four new FNPP designs in the above chart use small PWRs in various compact configurations. PWRs have been the dominant type of power reactor worldwide since their introduction in naval reactors and commercial power reactors in the 1950s. The Seaborg power barges will use compact molten salt reactors (CMSRs) that have functional similarities to the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) that was tested in the US in the early 1960s.
Russia is developing their 2nd-generation “optimized floating power unit” (OPEB) to deliver 100 MWe electric power, low temperature process heat and water desalination to support their domestic economic development in the Arctic. In November 2020, Rosatom director for development and international business, Kirill Komarov, reported that there was demand for FNPPs along the entire length of Russia’s Northern Sea Route, where a large number of projects are being planned. This was reinforced in May 2021, when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin endorsed a plan to deploy OPEBs to supply a new power line at Cape Nagloynyn, Chaunskaya Bay, to support the development of the Baimskaya copper project in Chukotka. The development plan calls for 350 MWe of new generation from nuclear or liquid natural gas (LNG) generators. Baimskaya currently is supplied from Pevek, where the Lomonosov is based.
A version of the OPEB also is intended for international export and has been designed with the flexibility to operate in hot regions of the world. Bellona reported that “Rosatom has long claimed that unspecified governments in North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are interested in acquiring floating nuclear plants.”
In the 1960s, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) set up the 719 Research Institute, also known as the Wuhan Second Ship Design Institute or CSIC 719, to develop applications for nuclear power technology in marine platforms. CSIC has become China’s biggest constructor of naval vessels, including nuclear submarines.
About a decade ago, China considered importing FNPP technology from Russia. In 2015, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) agreed with a CSIC 719 design plan to develop an indigenous offshore marine nuclear power platform. This plan included both floating nuclear power plants and seabed-sited nuclear power plants. Today, part of this plan is being realized in the FNPP programs at China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power (CGN), two staunch competitors in China’s nuclear power business sector.
China included the development of CNNC’s 125 MWe ACP100S and CGN’s 65 MWe ACPR50S marine PWR plants in its 13th five-year plan for 2016 to 2020. The NDRC subsequently approved both marine reactor designs.
As an example of the magnitude of China’s domestic offshore market for FNPPs, the total installed fossil fuel-powered generation in China’s offshore Bohai oilfield was estimated to be about 1,000 MWe in 2020 and growing. Replacing just these generators and providing heating and desalination services for offshore facilities represents a near-term market for a dozen or more FNPPs. Other domestic application include providing these same services at remote coastal sites and offshore islands. China has announced its intention to construct a batch 20 FNPPs for domestic use. The Nuclear Power Institute of China (NPIC) has recommended installing the country’s first FNPP at a coastal site on the Yellow Sea near Yantai, Shandong Province. South Korea raised its objection to this siting plan in 2019.
Other possible FNPP deployment sites may include contested islands that China has begun developing the South China Sea. This is a very sensitive political issue that may partially account for why there has been very little recent news on the CNNC and CGN FNPP programs. Based on their development plans discussed about five years ago, it seemed that China’s first FNPP would be completed in the early 2020s.
In addition to their domestic applications, China has repeatedly expressed interest in selling their FNPPs to international customers.
South Korea & Denmark
In the absence of clear domestic FNPP markets in South Korea and Denmark, KEPCO E&C and Seaborg Technologies are focusing on the export market, primarily with developing nations.
Details on modern FNPP designs
You’ll find more details on these new FNPPs in my separate articles at the following links:
All of the new FNPPs require regular reactor refueling and periodic maintenance overhauls during their long service lives. The periodic overhauls ensure that the marine vessel, the reactor systems and ship’s systems remain in good condition for their planned service life, which could be 60 or more years.
The FNPPs with PWRs have refueling intervals ranging from about 2 years (ACP100S) to as long as 10 years (RITM-200). Some of the PWR refuelings will be conducted dockside, while others will be conducted in a shipyard during a periodic maintenance overhaul. For Russian FNPPs, such overhauls (referred to as “factory repairs”) are scheduled to occur at 12-year intervals for the Lomonosov and 20-year intervals for the OPEB.
The fundamentally different Seaborg CMSR, with molten salt fuel, is refueled regularly while the reactor is operating. Periodic maintenance overhauls would still be expected to ensure the condition of the marine vessel, the reactor systems and ship’s systems.
With a fleet of FNPPs in service, most will be operating, while some are in the shipyard for their periodic maintenance overhauls. In addition, new FNPPs would be entering service periodically. When it is time to service an FNPP in a shipyard, it will be replaced by a different (existing or new) FNPP that is brought in to take its place.
At the end of its service life, an FNPP will be returned to a shipyard to be decommissioned, decontaminated and then dismantled, like Sturgis. Russia already has established special long-term spent fuel and radioactive waste storage facilities in mainland Russia. China, South Korea and Denmark will need to make similar provisions for the end-of-life processing and safe disposition of their retired FNPPs.
5. Economic issues
In March 2019, Jim Green wrote on what he called “the questionable economics of SMRs” in his article, “An obituary for small modular reactors.” One of his conclusions was that, “…in truth there is no market for SMRs.” Another conclusion was that “No-one wants to pay for SMRs. No company, utility, consortium or national government is seriously considering building the massive supply chain that is at the very essence of the concept of SMRs ‒ mass, modular factory construction. Yet without that supply chain, SMRs will be expensive curiosities.”
I might agree that this could be the case for land-based SMRs, but marine FNPPs are a different matter. In remote areas being considered for FNPP deployment, there probably are fewer energy options, energy price competition is a lesser concern, and an extended fuel supply chain is undesirable or impractical. Examples include FNPP applications supporting resource development along Russia’s Northern Sea Route and in China’s offshore waters. The domestic markets in both nations probably can support production runs of 10s of FNPPs. While this isn’t “mass production” in the sense of many heavy industries, it would certainly be a big enough production run to change the manufacturing paradigm in the marine nuclear industry and provide a real validation of the economics of SMRs.
6. International nuclear regulatory / legal / political issues
Deployment of the first modern FNPP, the Akademik Lomonosov, in the Arctic was accomplished under Russian domestic nuclear laws and regulations and, after the reactors were fueled, the transit to its destination was accomplished within Russian territorial waters. The final destination, Pevek, is about 980 km (609 miles) from the Bering Strait and the nearest international boundary. Not without controversy, particularly among Scandinavian nations, Lomonosov’s deployment was straightforward after the vessel completed all stages of licensing and regulatory reviews required in Russia. Now Lomonosov has been commissioned and is setting an example for the rest of the world by operating successfully in a remote Arctic port.
Except for Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaking vessels, there have been no other civilian nuclear vessels in service since Japan’s Mutsu retired in 1992. For almost 30 years, there has been no need to establish and maintain a comprehensive international civilian nuclear vessel regulatory and legal framework.
In her August 2020 article, “Legal framework for nuclear ships,” Iris Bjelica Vlajić reports that the main international documents regulating the use of civil nuclear ships are:
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
IMO Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)
IMO Convention on The Liability of Operators of Nuclear Ships and the Code of Safety for Nuclear Merchant Ships
Further FNPP deployment along Russia’s arctic coast and initial FNPP deployment in China’s territorial coastal waters can be accomplished under the respective nation’s domestic nuclear laws and regulations. It’s easy to imagine that a range of international issues will arise as FNPP deployment becomes more widespread, in situations like the following
An FNPP is deployed to a site close to an international border.
An FNPP is deployed in a sensitive international ecosystem.
A fueled FNPP from any nation needs to transit an international strait or an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another nation enroute to its destination.
An FNPP is deployed to an island that is contested by one or more other nations (i.e., several islands and island groups in the South China Sea).
There has been speculation recently that the sensitivity of the last issue, above, may be contributing to increased secrecy in the last couple of years related to China’s FNPP programs.
As FNPP deployment expands, the international community will be playing catch-up as the UN, IMO, IAEA and others contribute to developing a modern nuclear regulatory and legal framework for FNPPs.
In the next decade, I think it’s very likely that two or more of the new FNPP designs will enter service. The leading contenders seem to be Russia’s OPEB and China’s ACP100S FNPP. It remains to be seen if economic issues and/or international nuclear regulatory / legal / political issues will stand in the way of eventual FNPP deployments to sites around the world.
In early April 2021, a flurry of articles described the beautiful, futuristic, nuclear-powered eco-yacht conceived by entrepreneur Aaron Olivera, CEO of Earth 300 (https://earth300.com), and introduced in Singapore as his concept for a signature vessel for conducting environmental research and raising environmental awareness around the world.
This sleek yacht is almost 300 meters long with a prominent cantilevered observation deck near the bow and a 13-story glass “science sphere” amidships. Olivera describes this vessel as follows:
“Earth 300 it is an extreme technology platform for science, exploration and innovation at sea. Its mission is to ring the ecological alarm on a global scale and combat climate change. Using technology it will quickly scale and deploy solutions to market. Its ultimate ambition is to inspire billions of people to contribute to the preservation of our shared planet, and becoming a sustainable and future worthy civilization.”
The ship’s design was developed by Ivan Salas Jefferson, founder of Iddes Yachts (https://iddesyachts.com), in collaboration with the Polish naval architecture firm NED (https://www.ned-project.eu). Mikal Bøe is the CEO of London-based Core Power (https://corepower.energy), which will supply the next-generation, inherently safe marine molten salt reactor (m-MSR) power plant, using MSR technology developed by the US nuclear company TerraPower (https://www.terrapower.com) that was co-founded by Bill Gates.
The current design has taken six years and $5 million to develop. Earth 300 reports that it is making good progress toward getting an Approval in Principle (AIP) from RINA (formerly Registro Italiano Navale). RINA is a founding member of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), which promotes safer and cleaner shipping worldwide. The AIP is a framework used by RINA to review and approve innovative and novel concepts that are not covered by traditional classification prescriptive rules, so that a level of safety in line with the current marine industry practice is provided. The AIP process is a risk-based approach to classification that allows for new designs and novel concepts to be validated with safety equivalencies.
Following the AIP, Earth 300 should be able to request construction quotes from one or more shipyards, likely in Europe and/or South Korea. The ship will be equipped with 22 laboratories for about 160 scientists, cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics systems, and facilities for operating helicopters and submersible and semi-submersible vehicles. Earth 300 executives reportedly estimated that the total construction cost will be between $500 million and $700 million.
Once in operation, the ship is certain to command attention wherever it goes, as a recognizable symbol for environmental protection. This notoriety may be enough to attract wealthy tourists willing to pay $3 million for a 10-day cruise in the 10 luxury suites with private balconies and accommodations for personal staff in a separate set of cabins. That sort of money will buy a lot of selfies, instagrams and some durable bragging rights.
The ship is designed to accommodate 425 people, including the ship’s crew, scientists, and the group of wealthy tourists paying full price. In addition, it has been reported that Olivera envisages inviting groups of other people to travel at a lower price or even for free. For example, 10 suites would be made available to what Olivera calls Very Interesting Persons – people from all walks of life who would bring unique experience or knowledge to the voyage. In addition, some lucky artists, explorers and students may travel for free.
While I’m impressed with the general concept of this ship, I feel that the primary benefit of this grand vessel can’t be to serve as a mobile marine “mixer” for a few very wealthy individuals to associate with scientists, some elite Very Interesting Persons, and a patchwork of others interested in environmental protection.
Like the 3 AM infomercial says, “But wait, there’s more.” Research performed aboard the ship would be “open source” and shared with other research efforts around the world. That’s great, but more information is needed on the meaningful research programs that would be conducted on the Earth 300 vessel in segments that match the schedule and route of what is essentially a cruise ship. It seems that a much less expensive dedicated vessel could accomplish the same research while not serving as an environmental sideshow on a cruise ship.
With the ship scheduled to launch in 2025, the vessel itself will be ready many years before the planned marine molten salt reactors (m-MSRs) have been developed and approved by the appropriate nuclear and marine regulatory agencies. Therefore, it is likely that the vessel will be designed to operate initially with a conventional marine power plant running on synthetic “renewable” fuels. This isn’t exactly a big step in the right direction for helping to reduce the carbon emissions from worldwide commercial marine transportation.
Like the 3 AM infomercial says, “But wait, there’s more,” or at least, there should be.
Core Power, the developer of the m-MSR planned for the Earth 300 vessel, is designing their 15 MWe inherently safe micro-reactor system as a zero-carbon replacement power source for the fossil-fueled power plants in many commercial marine vessels. On their website, Core Power presents the following business case:
“Over the next few decades as many as 60,000 ships must transition from combustion of fossil fuels to zero-emission propulsion. The UN’s maritime agency IMO has mandated with unanimous approval from 197 countries that shipping must reduce emissions by 50% of the 2008 total, before 2050. This means an actual emission reduction of almost 90%, by 2050. MSR technology being developed by the consortium could achieve that goal, by powering production of green sustainable fuels for smaller ships and providing onboard electric power for large ships, with zero emissions as standard.”
I think it is actually fortuitous that the Earth 300 vessel will start its life as a fossil-fueled vessel. From this starting point, Earth 300 will be at the vanguard of a new generation of inherently safe marine nuclear power system development and deployment.
Converting the Earth 300 vessel to nuclear power will move the discussions on commercial marine nuclear power from the academic domain, where it has languished for many decades, to the commercial marine nuclear safety regulatory domain, which has been inactive for decades and likely is not prepared for this new applicant. By being first in line, Earth 300 and Core Power take on substantial licensing risk that certainly will add to the time and cost of their nuclear licensing efforts. However, they are in unique positions as a reactor supplier and a vessel operator to help shape the licensing dialogue pertaining to the use of inherently safe micro-reactors in marine vessels, and the worldwide operation of vessels using such reactors.
The experience gained from converting Earth 300 from fossil to nuclear power will de-risk the nuclear power conversion process for the entire marine transportation industry.
Regulatory precedents will have been established for the reactor designer and the vessel operator.
The conversion experience will yield many metrics and lessons learned that will help in planning and executing subsequent conversions.
Ports around the world will be on notice that commercial nuclear-powered vessels once again are a reality and appropriate port-specific nuclear safety plans may be required
In this role alone, Earth 300 will create a path for the commercial marine transportation industry to meet the IMO’s 2050 emission goal. This would be a truly substantive accomplishment that will far outweigh the ship’s public relations accomplishments as a symbol of environmental protection and showcase for environmental research.
I hope Aaron Olivera gets the support he needs to build the Earth 300 ship and subsequently convert it to nuclear power. At one level, the ship is a grand gesture. On another level, the nuclear powered ship is a substantive step toward a future with zero-carbon commercial marine transportation.
The first race of the 36th America’s Cup racing series starts on 5 March 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. The defending Emirates Team New Zealand and the challenging Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team will be sailing (or rather flying) a radical new class of America’s Cup boats knows as the AC75, which is a foiling monohull that was designed from the ground up to “fly” on its foils. It isn’t clear if the AC75 is a flying boat or a sailing airplane.
The Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team won the right to challenge based on its performance in the Prada Cup match races held from 14 January thru 20 February 2021. The America’s Cup races are scheduled from 5 to 14 March 2021. You’ll find complete information on the races on the America’s Cup website at the following link: https://www.americascup.com
The New York Yacht Club American Magic entry, Patriot, was eliminated during the Prada Cup races, after recording no wins in the Round Robin series and no wins in the semi-final races against Luna Rossa. Patriot was damaged and in danger of sinking following a dramatic high-speed capsize following a tack in gusty wind conditions while leading Luna Rossa during Round Robin 2 Race 3 on 16 January 2021.
The AC75 operates with two completely different sets of boat dynamics:
Waterborne while accelerating at maximum power to quickly reach foiling speed at 12 – 14 knots
Flying on the foils to reach a top speed that can exceed 50 knots
Making a smooth transition from waterborne to flying on the foils can be a big challenge for the crew. As the transition is being made, the power demand drops rapidly (suddenly) as the hull emerges from the water and starts flying on the foils. The crew must quickly adjust sail power and trim to maintain control of the flying boat.
The AC75 is a very lightweight vessel, with a fully-loaded weight of 7,600 kg (16,800 lb). The empty weight, not including sails or crew, is limited to 6,520 kg (14,374 lbs.). Of that, 3,358.5 kg (7,403 lb) is supplied by, or specified by, the America’s Cup event organizer, and includes the following standard items for all teams.
Mast: A detailed specification; essentially a one-design mast with a D-shaped leading edge; teams can choose their manufacturer.
Rigging: Supplied to all teams.
Media equipment: Cameras, mounting hardware, power & controls supplied to all teams.
Foil cant arms and hydraulic control system: Standard system developed, tested and supplied to all teams by one manufacturer. The hydraulic system is powered manually by hand-operated grinders. The hydraulic system includes an interface to the trailing edge flaps on the foils supplied by each team.
Each team is responsible for designing and building the rest of the boat while remaining within an empty weight budget of 3,161.5 kg (6,968 lb). The primary areas for innovation by each team are the following:
Hull design: (maximum length 75 feet / 22.86 m), with the primary choice being a flat bottom or with skeg to provide a less sensitive transition between waterborne and foil borne modes.
Crew and hand-operated grinder placement
Twin-skin soft main sail: Forms a fabric 3-D airfoil
Single-skin soft head sails
Rudder + stern foil
Foil wings, fairing and active trailing edge flaps: These are mounted to the standard cant arms; foils must be symmetrical with a maximum span 4 meters; flaps control lift; total weight is limited to about 1/3rd the weight of the empty boat.
There are many AC75 videos available online, including many covering the exciting Prada America’s Cup World Series races in December 2020 and the Prada Cup races in January – February 2021. These boats are so fast that the races are short and action packed. I’ve listed several videos focusing more in boat technology below.
I hope you’ll enjoy a few of the AC75 videos and follow the America’s Cup Races. It’s not like any yacht racing you’ve seen before.
“Sea Wolves – The new America’s cup boat! AC75 Technology analysis/Deep dive special! Auckland 2021” (51:07 minutes), Sea wolves, (with an introductory review of Americas Cup history by Troy Sears, owner of the replica yacht America, which is home ported in San Diego, CA), 16 December 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjs76uHEqeM
The Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench in the middle of western Pacific Ocean, is the deepest known area in the world’s oceans. Its location, as shown in the following map, is 322 km (200 miles) southwest of Guam and 200 km (124 miles) off the coast of the Mariana Islands.
Since the first visit to the bottom of the Challenger Deep 60 years ago, on 23 January 1960, there have been only five other visits to that very remote and inhospitable location. In this post, we’ll take a look at the deep-submergence vehicles (DSVs) and the people who made these visits.
The following topographical map, created in 2019 by the Five Deeps Expedition, shows that the Challenger Deep is comprised of three deeper “pools.” The dive locations of the manned expeditions into the Challenger Deep are shown on this map.
1960: Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard, in the bathyscaphe Trieste, made the first manned descent into the Challenger Deep and reached the bottom at 10,916 meters (35,814 ft) in the “Western Pool.”
2012: Canadian filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron, in the DSV Deepsea Challenger, reached the bottom at 10,908 meters (35,787 ft) the “Eastern Pool.”
2019: Businessman, explorer and retired naval officer Victor Vescovo, in the DSV Limiting Factor, made two dives in the “Eastern Pool” and reached a maximum depth of 10,925 meters (35,843 feet).
2019: Triton Submarine president, Patrick Lahey, in the DSV Limiting Factor, made two dives to the bottom, one in the Eastern Pool and one in the Central Pool.
What is there to see on the way down to the bottom?
The oceans can be divided into vertical zones based on water depth. This basic concept is shown in the following diagram.
The five vertical zones in the above diagram have the following general characteristics:
The Sunlight Zone: This is the shallow (upper 150 meters), sunlit upper layer of the ocean, extending above the continental shelf. Phytoplankton can photosynthesize in this zone.
The Twilight Zone: This is the medium-depth ocean where sunlight is still able to penetrate to a modest depth (a few hundred meters). There is enough light to see, but not enough for photosynthesis. This zone is bounded by the edges of the continental shelf and islands in the deep ocean.
The Midnight Zone: This is the deep ocean, which is bounded by the continental slope and the seamounts and islands rising above the ocean floor. No sunlight is able to reach this deep. There is no photosynthesis in this zone.
The Abyssal Zone: This zone includes the deep ocean plains and the deep cusp of the continental rise. The temperature here is near freezing and very few animals can survive the extreme pressure.
The Hadal Zone: This is the ocean realm in the deep ocean trenches. More people have been to the Moon than to the Hadal Zone.
The Challenger Deep is the deepest known Hadal Zone on our planet. On the way down through 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) of ocean, the few explorers who have reached the bottom have seen aquatic life throughout the water column and on the sea floor. You can take a look the varied and strange sea life by scrolling through the well done graphic, “The Deep Sea,” by Neal Agarwal, which is at the following link.
Now, let’s take a look at the few manned missions that have reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep.
1960: Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in the bathyscaphe Trieste
Trieste was designed by Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard and was built in Italy. This deep-diving research bathyscaphe enabled the operators to make a free dive into the ocean, without support by cables from the surface. Trieste was launched in August 1953, operated initially by the French Navy and acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1958.
The design of the 15 meter (50 ft) bathyscaphe Trieste is analogous to a zeppelin that has been redesigned to operate underwater. On Trieste, the “gondola” is a 14-ton spherical steel pressure vessel for two crew members. The weight of this “gondola” is carried under a large, lightweight, cylindrical float chamber filled with gasoline for buoyancy (gasoline is less dense than water). There is no differential pressure between the float chamber and the open ocean.
The Trieste is positively buoyant when loaded with ballast and floating on the surface before a mission. To submerge, Trieste would take on seawater and fill its fore and aft water ballast tanks. If needed to achieve the desired negative buoyancy, Trieste also could release some gasoline from the main float chamber. To achieve positive buoyancy at the end of a mission and ascend back to the surface, the pellets in the two ballast hoppers would be released, and Trieste would slowly rise to the surface.
The propulsion system consists of five special General Electric 3-hp dc motors. These motors are designed to operate in inert fluid (silicone oil) and are subjected to full ambient pressure during diving operations. These modest propulsors gave Trieste only limited mobility.
After acquisition by the Navy, Trieste was transported to San Diego, CA, for extensive modifications by the Naval Electronics Laboratory.
After a series of local dives in Southern California waters, Trieste departed San Diego on 5 October 1959 aboard a freighter and was transported to Guam to conduct deep dives in the Pacific Ocean under Project Nekton. After arriving in Guam, record-setting dives to 18,000 and 24,000 feet were conducted in nearby waters by Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard (son of Auguste Piccard). Then Trieste was towed to the Mariana Trench dive site, where Walsh and Piccard began their mission into the Challenger Deep on 23 January 1960.
The mission took 8 hours and 22 minutes on the following timeline:
Descent to the ocean floor took 4 hours 47 minutes. They reached the bottom at a depth of 10,916 meters (35,814 ft).
Time on the bottom was 20 minutes.
Ascent took 3 hours and 15 minutes.
For much of the mission, cabin temperature was about 7° C (45° F). While on the bottom, Walsh and Piccard observed sea life, although the species observed are uncertain. They described the sea bottom as a “diatomaceous ooze.”
For a comprehensive review of this historic dive into the Challenger Deep, I recommend that you watch the following video, “Rolex presents: The Trieste’s Deepest Dive,” (22:38).
After successfully completing Project Nekton, Trieste underwent further modifications and was transferred to the East Coast in 1963 to assist in the search for the USS Thresher (SSN-593), which sank off the coast of New England. Trieste found the wreck of the nuclear submarine at a depth of 2,600 m (8,400 ft). Trieste was decommissioned in 1966 and went on display in 1980 at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. Following are photos I took during my visit to that museum.
2012: James Cameron in the Deepsea Challenger
Almost a decade ago, filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron led a team that designed and built the one-man, 11.8-ton DSV named Deepsea Challenger (DCV 1) for a mission to dive into the Challenger Deep and reach the deepest point in the ocean. The general arrangement of this novel submersible is shown in the following diagram.
In the water, the submersible floats vertically with the steel pilot’s chamber at the bottom of the vessel. When brought aboard its support vessel, the submersible sits horizontally in a cradle.
About 70% of the Deepsea Challenger’s volume is comprised of a specialized structural syntactic foam called Isofloat, which is composed of very small hollow glass spheres suspended in an epoxy resin.
The strength of this structural foam enabled the designers to incorporate 12 thrusters as part of the infrastructure mounted within the foam, but without the need for a steel skeleton to handle the loads from the various mechanisms. The lithium batteries are housed within the syntactic foam structure. The foam also provides buoyancy, like the gasoline-filled float chamber on the bathyscaphe Trieste.
The Deepsea Challenger is equipped with a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, temperature, salinity, and pressure gauges, multiple 3-D cameras and an 8-foot (2.5-meter) tower of LED lights. An underwater acoustic communication system provides the communications link with the support vessel during the dive. Mission endurance is 56 hours.
On March 26, 2012, more than 52 years after the Trieste’s dive into the Challenger Deep, Cameron plunged 10,908 meters (35,787 feet, 11 kilometers, 6.8 miles) below the ocean surface and became the first solo diver to reach such depths. After a two hour and 36 minute descent, he traveled along the bottom for about three hours and reported it being a flat plain with a soft, gelatinous sea floor. The thrusters enabled precise station keeping and a maximum speed of 3 knots.
A National Geographic film of his expedition, Deepsea Challenge 3D, was released to cinemas in 2012. You can watch the short movie trailer (2:44) here:
Cameron was awarded the 2013 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest for his deep dive into the Challenger Deep. In the following long video (58:25) “Journey to the Deep,” he shares his experiences and perspectives from his record-setting dive.
The Deepsea Challenger is retired from diving.
2019: Victor Vescovo and the Five Deeps Expedition
In 2015, businessman and explorer Victor Vescovo partnered with Triton Submarines LLC to design and build the two-person, 14-ton, titanium hull, deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor to enable Vescovo to conduct the Five Deeps Expedition to visit the deepest points in the world’s five oceans. The Five Deeps Expedition website is here:
During this period, the expedition covered 87,000 km (47,000 nautical miles) in 10 months and the Limiting Factor submersible completed 39 dives.
The DSV Limiting Factor is a Triton 36000/2 submersible that is designed for dives to 11,000 m / 36,000 ft and pressure tested to 14,000 m / 45,991 ft. Like James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger, the Limiting Factor is constructed with glass-bead based syntactic foam, which is very durable and able to withstand the enormous pressure placed on the submersible as it descends thousands of meters into the sea, and does so repeatedly without significant deformation or stress fractures developing over time.
The Limiting Factor has a Kraft Telerobotics “Raptor” hydraulic manipulator capable of functioning at full-ocean depth. Mission endurance is 16 hours plus 96 hours of emergency life support.
Using a Kongsberg EM124 multi-beam echo sounder mounted to the hull of the support vessel DSSV Pressure Drop, the Five Deeps Expedition team created detailed topographical maps of the Challenger Deep before the first of four dives. Dives 1 and 2 were conducted by Vescovo into the Eastern Pool. Dives 3 and 4 were conducted by Triton Submarines President, Patrick Lahey; Dive 3 was into the Eastern Pool and Dive 4 was into the Central Pool. Two days later, Dive 5 was conducted in the Sirena Deep. These five dives were accomplished in eight days. A synopsis of each dive follows:
Dive 2 (3 May 2019): Vescovo reached a depth of 10,927 meters. Time on the bottom was 217 minutes.
Dive 3 (3 May 2019): This was a commercial certification dive with Patrick Lahey piloting and Jonathan Struwe aboard as a specialist. A Five Deeps Expedition scientific lander that became stuck on bottom during Dive 2 was freed from the bottom and recovered from 10,927 meters by direct action of the manned submersible (deepest salvage operation ever). Time on the bottom was 163 minutes. The submarine passed all of its qualification tests and commercial certification by DNV GL was granted following this dive.
Dive 4 (5 May 1959): This was a scientific dive with Patrick Lahey piloting and John Ramsay (the submarine’s designer) in the second seat. Video surveys were conducted and biological samples were collected. Time on the bottom was 184 minutes.
Dive 5 (7 May 2019): While still in the Mariana Trench area, Lahey conducted the first ever dive into the Sirena Deep, 128 miles (206 km) northeast of the Challenger Deep. On this dive (Dive 5), he reached a depth of 10,714 meters (35,151 ft, 6.66 miles). Time on the bottom was 176 minutes.
You’ll find a good summary of the five dives in the Challenger Deep and Sirena Deep in the expedition’s press release dated 13 May 2019, “Deepest Submarine Dive in History, Five Deeps Expedition Conquers Challenger Deep,” which is available here:
The entire expedition was filmed by Atlantic Productions for a five-part Discovery Channel documentary series, “Deep Planet.”
Into the future
The Triton 36000/2 Limiting Factor is the only submersible that is commercially certified for repeated exploration to the deepest points in the ocean. It is the only insurable, full ocean depth (FOD) manned submersible in the world. The official certification of the vessel to FOD is overseen by an independent third party, the world-standard credentialer of maritime vessels DNV-GL (Det Norske Veritas Germanischer Lloyd).
The manufacturer, Triton Submarines LLC, located in Vero Beach, Florida reported:
“Designed and certified to make thousands of dives to Hadal depths, during decades of service, Triton is excited to offer the opportunity for a private individual, government or philanthropic organization or research institute to acquire this remarkable System and continue the adventure.”
“Available to purchase today for $48.7 million, the Triton 36,000/2 Hadal Exploration System will be ready for delivery in 2019, after its successful (Five Deeps) expedition. The System will be fully proven. It will have extended the boundaries of human endeavor and technology. And it will offer a unique deep-diving capability unmatched by any nation or organization in the world.”
In 2015, I compiled the first edition of a resource document to support a presentation I made in August 2015 to The Lyncean Group of San Diego (www.lynceans.org) commemorating the 60thanniversary of the world’s first “underway on nuclear power” by USS Nautilus on 17 January 1955. That presentation to the Lyncean Group, “60 years of Marine Nuclear Power: 1955 –2015,” was my attempt to tell a complex story, starting from the early origins of the US Navy’s interest in marine nuclear propulsion in 1939, resetting the clock on 17 January 1955 with USS Nautilus’ historic first voyage, and then tracing the development and exploitation of marine nuclear power over the next 60 years in a remarkable variety of military and civilian vessels created by eight nations.
Here’s a quick overview at worldwide marine nuclear in 2018.
Source: two charts by author
In July 2018, I finished a complete update of the resource document and changed the title to, “Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 –2018.” Due to its present size (over 2,100 pages), the resource document now consists of the following parts, all formatted as slide presentations:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2A: United States – Submarines
Part 2B: United States – Surface Ships
Part 3A: Russia – Submarines
Part 3B: Russia – Surface Ships & Non-propulsion Marine Nuclear Applications
Part 4: Europe & Canada
Part 5: China, India, Japan and Other Nations
Part 6: Arctic Operations
The original 2015 resource document and this updated set of documents were compiled from unclassified, open sources in the public domain.
I acknowledge the great amount of work done by others who have published material in print or posted information on the internet pertaining to international marine nuclear propulsion programs, naval and civilian nuclear powered vessels, naval weapons systems, and other marine nuclear applications. My resource document contains a great deal of graphics from many sources. Throughout the document, I have identified the sources for these graphics.
You can access all parts of Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 – 2018 here:
The Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, also known as GUGI and Military Unit 40056, is an organizational structure within the Russian Ministry of Defense that is separate from the Russian Navy. The Head of GUGI is Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev, Hero of Russia.
Source. Adapted from Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, http://eng.mil.ru/en/index.htm
Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev at the commissioning of GUGI oceanographic research vessel Yantar. Source: http://eng.mil.ru/
GUGI is responsible for fielding specialized submarines, oceanographic research ships, undersea drones and autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and other undersea systems. Today, GUGI operates the world’s largest fleet of covert manned deep-sea vessels. In mid-2018, that fleet consisted of eight very specialized nuclear-powered submarines.
There are six nuclear-powered, deep-diving, small submarines (“nuclear deep-sea stations”), each of which is capable of working at great depth (thousands of meters) for long periods of time. These subs are believed to have diver lockout facilities to deploy divers at shallower depths.
One Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma (aka X-Ray) sub delivered in 1986; Length: 44 m (144.4 ft.); displacement about 529 tons submerged. This is the first and smallest of the Russian special operations nuclear-powered submarines.
Two Project 18511 Halibut (aka Paltus) subs delivered between 1994 – 95; Length: 55 m (180.4 ft.); displacement about 730 tons submerged.
Three Project 1910 Kashalot (aka Uniform) subs delivered between 1986 – 1991, but only two are operational in 2018; Length: 69 m (226.4 ft.); displacement about 1,580 tons submerged.
One Project 09851 Losharik (aka NORSUB-5) sub delivered in about 2003; Length: 74 m (242.8 ft.); displacement about 2,100 tons submerged.
The trend clearly is toward larger, and certainly more capable deep diving special operations submarines. The larger subs have a crew complement of 25 – 35.
Kashalot notional cross-section diagram. Source: adapted from militaryrussia.ru
Kashalot notional diagram showing deployed positioning thrusters, landing legs and tools for working on the bottom. Source: http://nvs.rpf.ru/nvs/forum
The Russian small special operations subs may have been created in response to the U.S. Navy’s NR-1 small, deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine, which entered service in 1969. NR-1 had a length of 45 meters (147.7 ft.) and a displacement of about 400 tons submerged, making it roughly comparable to the Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma . NR-1 was retired in 2008, leaving the U.S. with no counterpart to the Russian fleet of small, nuclear-powered special operations subs.
GUGI operates two nuclear-powered “motherships” (PLA carriers) that can transport one of the smaller nuclear deep-sea stations to a distant site and provide support throughout the mission. The current two motherships started life as Delta III and Delta IV strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The original SSBN missile tubes were removed and the hulls were lengthened to create large midship special mission compartments with a docking facility on the bottom of the hull for one of the small, deep-diving submarines. These motherships probably have a test depth of about 250 to 300 meters (820 to 984 feet). They are believed to have diver lockout facilities for deploying divers.
General arrangement of a Russian mothership carrying a small special operations submarine. Source: http://gentleseas.blogspot.com/2015/08/russias-own-jimmy-carter-special-ops.html
The motherships also are believed capable of deploying and retrieving a variety of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), including the relatively large Harpsichord: Length: 6.5 m (21.3 ft.); Diameter 1 m (3.2 ft.); Weight: 3,700 kg (8,157 pounds).
These nuclear submarines are operated by the 29th Special Submarine Squadron, which is based along with other GUGI vessels at Olenya Bay, in the Kola Peninsula on the coast of the Barents Sea.
Olenya Bay is near Murmansk. Source: Google Maps
Russian naval facilities near Murmansk. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Mothership BS-136 Orenburg at Oleyna Bay. Source: Source: http://www.air-defense.net/
The GUGI fleet provides deep ocean and Arctic operating capabilities that greatly exceed those of any other nation. Potential missions include:
Conducting subsea surveys, mapping and sampling (i.e., to help validate Russia’s extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic; to map potential future targets such as seafloor cables)
Placing and/or retrieving items on the sea floor (i.e., retrieving military hardware, placing subsea power sources, power distribution systems and sonar arrays)
Maintaining military subsea equipment and systems
Conducting covert surveillance
Developing an operational capability to deploy the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo.
In time of war, attacking the subsea infrastructure of other nations in the open ocean or in the Arctic (i.e., cutting subsea internet cables, power cables or oil / gas pipelines)
Analysts at the firm Policy Exchange reported that the world’s undersea cable network comprises about 213 independent cable systems and 545,018 miles (877,121 km) of fiber-optic cable. These undersea cable networks carry an estimated 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted by cables under the ocean.
Since about 2015, NATO has observed Russian vessels stepping up activities around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. None are known to have been tapped or cut. Selective attacks on this cable infrastructure could electronically isolate and severely damage the economy of individual countries or regions. You’ll find a more detailed assessment on this matter in the 15 December 2017 BBC article, “Russia a ‘risk’ to undersea cables, Defence chief warns.”
GUGI also is responsible for the development of the Poseidon (formerly known as Status-6 / Kanyon) strategic nuclear torpedo and the associated “carrier” submarines.
Poseidon, which was first revealed on Russian TV in November 2015, is a large, nuclear-powered, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that functionally is a giant, long-range torpedo.
The Russian TV “reveal” of the Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 November 2015. Source: https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/tag/9m730/
It is capable of delivering a very large nuclear warhead (perhaps up to 100 MT) underwater to the immediate proximity of an enemy’s key economic and military facilities in coastal areas. It is a weapon of unprecedented destructive power and it is not subject to any existing nuclear arms limitation treaties. However, its development would give Russia leverage in future nuclear arms limitation talks.
The immense physical size of the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo is evident in the size comparison chart below.
The Bulava is the Russian submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) carried on Russia’s modern Borei-class SSBNs. The UGST torpedo is representative of a typical torpedo launched from a 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tube, which is found on the majority of submarines in the world. An experimental submarine, the B-90 Sarov, appears to be the current testbed for the Poseidon strategic torpedo. Russia is building other special submarines to carry several Poseidon strategic torpedoes. One is believed to be the giant, highly modified Oscar II submarine KC-139 Belogrod, which also will serve as a mothership for a small, special operations nuclear sub.The other is the smaller Project 09851 submarine Khabarovsk, which appears to be purpose-built for carrying the Poseidon.
For more information on GUGI, Russian special operations submarines and other covert underwater projects, refer to the Covert Shores website created by naval analyst H. I. Sutton, which you’ll find at the following link:
The latest U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), is the first of a new class (the Ford-class) of carriers that is intended to replace the already-retired USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and all 10 of the Nimitz-class carriers (CVN-68 to CVN-77) as they retire after 49 years of service between 2024 to 2058. Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), a Division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, built all U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and is the prime contractor for the Ford-class carriers.
USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) was authorized in fiscal year 2008. Actual construction took almost four years from keel laying on 13 November 2009 to launching on 11 October 2013. NNS uses a modular construction process to build major subassemblies in industrial areas adjacent to the drydock and then move each modular unit into the drydock when it is ready to be joined to the rapidly growing structure of the ship.
Overview of the NNS shipyard and CVN-78 in January 2012. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding / Chris OxleyCVN-78 under construction in the NNS drydock. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding
NNS created a short video of an animated 3-D model of CVN-78 showing the arrival and placement of major modules during the 4-year construction period. Highlights are shown in the screenshots below, and the link to the NNS animated video is here:
In this video, you’ll see major subassemblies, like the entire bow structure and the island superstructure moved into place with heavy-lift cranes.
CVN-78 lower bow unit being moved into place in 2012. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding / Ricky ThompsonCVN-78 “island” superstructure being moved into place. Source: Newport News Shipbuilding
After launching, another 3-1/2 years were required for outfitting and testing the ship dockside, loading the two Bechtel A1B reactors, and then conducting sea trials before the ship was accepted by the Navy and commissioned in July 2017.
CVN-78 underway. Source: U.S. Navy
Since commissioning, the Navy has been conducting extensive operational tests all ship systems. Of particular interest are new ElectroMAgnetic Launch System (EMALS) and the electro-mechanical Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) system that replace the traditional steam catapults and hydraulic arresting gear on Nimitz-class CVNs. If all tests go well, USS Gerald R. Ford is expected to be ready for its first deployment in late 2019 or early 2020.
So, how much did it cost to deliver the USS Gerald R. Ford to the Navy? About $12.9 B in then-year (2008) dollars, according Congressional Research Service (CRS) report RS-20643, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 9 August 2017. You can download this CRS report here:
Milestones for the next two Ford-class carriers are summarized below:
CVN-79, USS John. F. Kennedy: Procured in FY 2013; scheduled for delivery in September 2024 at a cost of $11.4 B in then-year (2013) dollars.
CVN-80: USS Enterprise: To be procured in FY 2018; scheduled for delivery in September 2027 at a cost of about $13 B in then-year (2018) dollars.
To recapitalize the entire fleet of 10 Nimitz-class carriers will cost more than $130 B by the time the last Nimitz-class CVN, USS George H.W. Bush, is scheduled to retire in 2058 and be replaced by a new Ford-class CVN.
The current Congressional mandate is for an 11-ship nuclear-powered aircraft carrier fleet. On 15 December 2016, the Navy presented a new force structure assessment with a goal to increase the U.S. fleet size from the currently authorized limit of 308 vessels to 355 vessels. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength reported that the Navy’s actual fleet size in early 2017 was 274 vessels, so the challenge of re-building to a 355 ship fleet is much bigger than it may sound, especially when you account for the many planned retirements of aging vessels in the following decades. The Navy’s Force Structure Assessment for a 355-ship fleet includes a requirement for 12 CVNs. The CRS provided their commentary on the 355-ship fleet plans in a report entitled, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 22 September 2017. You can download that report here:
As the world’s political situation continues to change, there may be reasons to change the type of aircraft carrier that is procured by the Navy. Rand Corporation provided the most recent assessment of this issue in their 2017 report entitled, “ Future Aircraft Carrier Options.” The Assessment Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations sponsored this report. You can download this report at the following link:
The Arctic Council describes itself as, “….the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.” The council consists of representatives from the eight Arctic states:
Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands)
In addition, six international organizations representing Arctic indigenous people have permanent participant status. You’ll find the Arctic Council’s website at the following link:
One outcome of the Arctic Council’s 2004 Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland was a call for the Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group to conduct a comprehensive Arctic marine shipping assessment as outlined in the AMSP. The key result of that effort was The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report (AMSA), which you can download here:
This report provided a total of 17 summary recommendations for Arctic states in the following three areas:
I. Enhancing Arctic marine safety
A. Coordinating with international organizations to harmonize a regulatory framework for Arctic maritime safety.
B. Supporting International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards for vessels operating in the Arctic.
C. Developing uniform practices for Arctic shipping governance, including in areas of the central Arctic ocean that are beyond the jurisdiction of any Arctic state.
D. Strengthening passenger ship safety in Arctic waters
E. Supporting development of a multi-national Arctic search and rescue capability.
II. Protecting Arctic people and the environment
A. Conducting surveys of Arctic marine use by indigenous people
B. Ensuring effective engagement with Arctic coastal communities
C. Identifying and protecting areas of heightened ecological and cultural significance.
D. Where appropriate, designating “Special Areas” or “Particularly Sensitive Areas”
E. Protecting against introduction of invasive species
F. Preventing oil spills
G. Determining impacts on marine animals and take mitigating actions
H. Reducing air emissions (CO2, NOx, SO2 and black carbon particles)
III. Building the Arctic marine infrastructure
A. Improving the Arctic infrastructure to support development while enhancing safety and protecting the Arctic people and environment, including icebreakers to assist in response.
B. Developing a comprehensive Arctic marine traffic awareness system and cooperate in development of national monitoring systems.
C. Developing a circumpolar environmental response capability.
D. Investing in hydrographic, meteorological and oceanographic data needed to support safe navigation and voyage planning.
The AMSA 2009 Report is a useful resource, with thorough descriptions and findings related to the following:
Arctic marine geography, climate and sea ice
History of Arctic marine transport
Governance of Arctic shipping
Current marine use and the AMSA shipping database
Scenarios, futures and regional futures to 2020 (Bering Strait, Canadian Arctic, Northern Sea Route)
Human dimensions (for a total Arctic population of about 4 M)
Environmental considerations and impacts
Arctic marine infrastructure
Four status reports from 2011 to 2017 documented the progress by Arctic states in implementing the 17 summary recommendations in AMSA 2009. The fourth and final progress report entitled, “Status of Implementation of the AMSA 2009 Report Recommendations; May 2017,” is available at the following link:
Through PAME and other working groups, the Arctic Council will continue its important role in implementing the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan. You can download the current version of that plan, for the period from 2015 – 2025, here:
For example, on 6 November 2017, the Arctic Council will host a session entitled, “The global implications of a rapidly-changing Arctic,” at the UN Climate Change Conference COP23 meeting in Bonn, Germany. For more information on this event, use this link:
In my 9 September 2015 post, I reviewed the current state of the U.S. icebreaking fleet. My closing comments were:
“The U.S. is well behind the power curve for conducting operations in the Arctic that require icebreaker support. Even with a well-funded new U.S. icebreaker construction program, it will take a decade before the first new ship is ready for service, and by that time, it probably will be taking the place of Polar Star, which will be retiring or entering a more comprehensive refurbishment program.”
Alternatives for modernizing existing U.S. polar icebreakers to extend their operating lives and options for procuring new polar icebreakers were described in the Congressional Research Service report, “Coast Guard Polar icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress,” dated 2 September 2015. You can download that report here:
While the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 made funds available for “pre-acquisition” activities for a new polar icebreaker, little action has been taken to start procuring new polar icebreakers for the USCG. This Act required the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to engage the National Academies (ironically, not the Coast Guard) in “an assessment of alternative strategies for minimizing the costs incurred by the federal government in procuring and operating heavy polar icebreakers.”
The DHS and USCG issued the “Coast Guard Mission Needs Statement,” on 8 January 2016 as a report to Congress. This report briefly addressed polar ice operations in Section 11 and in Appendix B acknowledged two key roles for polar icebreakers:
The USCG provides surface access to polar regions for all Department of Defense (DoD) activities and logistical support for remote operating facilities.
The USCG supports the National Science Foundation’s research activities in Antarctica by providing heavy icebreaking support of the annual re-supply missions to McMurdo Sound. Additionally, USCG supports the annual NSF scientific mission in the Arctic.
This report to Congress failed to identify deficiencies in the USCG polar icebreaker “fleet” relative to these defined missions (i.e., the USCG has only one operational, aging heavy polar icebreaker) and was silent on the matter of procuring new polar icebreakers. You can download the 2016 “Coast Guard Mission Needs Statement” here:
On 22 February 2017, the USCG made some progress when it awarded five, one-year, firm fixed-price contracts with a combined value of $20 M for heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis. The USCG reported that, “The heavy polar icebreaker integrated program office, staffed by Coast Guard and U.S. Navy personnel, will use the results of the studies to refine and validate the draft heavy polar icebreaker system specifications.” The USCG press release regarding this modest design study procurement is here:
The National Academies finally issued their assessment of U.S. polar icebreaker needs in a letter report to the Secretary of Homeland Security dated 11 July 2017. The report, entitled, “Acquisition and Operation of Polar Icebreakers: Fulfilling the Nation’s Needs.” offered the following findings and recommendations:
Finding: The United States has insufficient assets to protect its interests, implement U.S. policy, execute its laws, and meet its obligations in the Arctic and Antarctic because it lacks adequate icebreaking capability.
Recommendation: The United States Congress should fund the construction of four polar icebreakers of common design that would be owned and operated by the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
Recommendation: USCG should follow an acquisition strategy that includes block buy contracting with a fixed price incentive fee contract and take other measures to ensure best value for investment of public funds.
Finding: In developing its independent concept design and cost estimates, the committee determined that the cost estimated by USCG for the heavy icebreakers are reasonable (average cost per ship of about $791 million for a 4-ship buy).
Finding: Operating costs of new polar icebreakers are expected to be lower than those of the vessels they replace.
Recommendation: USCG should ensure that the common polar icebreaker design is science ready and that one of the ships has full science capability. (This means that the design includes critical features and structures that cannot be cost-effectively retrofit after construction).
Finding: The nation is at risk of losing its heavy icebreaking capability – experiencing a critical capacity gap – as the Polar Star approaches the end of its extended service life, currently estimated to be 3 to 7 years (i.e., sometime between 2020 and 2024).
Recommendation: USCG should keep the Polar Star operational by implementing an enhanced maintenance program (EMP) until at least two new polar icebreakers are commissioned.
You can download this National Academies letter report here:
There has been a long history of studies that have shown the need for additional U.S. polar icebreakers. This National Academies letter report provides a clear message to DHS and Congress that action is needed now.
In the meantime, in Russia:
To help put the call to action to modernize and expand the U.S. polar icebreaking capability in perspective, let’s take a look at what’s happening in Russia.
The Russian state-owned nuclear icebreaker fleet operator, Rosatomflot, is scheduled to commission the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker in 2019. The Arktika is the first of the new Project 22220 LK-60Ya class of nuclear-powered polar icebreakers being built to replace Russia’s existing, aging fleet of nuclear icebreakers. The LK-60Ya is a dual-draught design that enables these ships to operate as heavy polar icebreakers in Arctic waters and also operate in the shallower mouths of polar rivers. Vessel displacement is about 37,000 tons (33,540 tonnes) with water ballast and about 28,050 tons (25,450 tonnes) without water ballast. When ballasted, LK-60Ya icebreakers will be able to operate in Arctic ice of any thickness up to 4.5 meters (15 feet).
The principal task for the new LK-60Ya icebreakers will be to clear passages for ship traffic on the Northern Sea route, which runs along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. The second and third ships in this class, Sibir and Ural, are under construction at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg and are expected to enter service in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Arktika (on right), Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant (center), and Sibir (on left) dockside at Baltic Shipyard, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 2017: Source: Charles Diggers / maritime-executive.com
In June 2016, Russia launched the first of four diesel-electric powered 6,000 ton Project 21180 icebreakers at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg. The Ilya Muromets, which is expected to be delivered in November 2017, will be the Russian Navy’s first new military icebreaker in about 50 years. It is designed to be capable of breaking ice with a thickness up to 1 meter (3.3 feet). The Project 21180 icebreaker’s primary mission is to provide icebreaking services for the Russian naval forces deployed in the Arctic region and the Far East. The U.S. has no counterpart to this class of Arctic vessel.
Project 21180 military icebreaker Ilya Muromets. Source: The Baltic Post
You’ll find more information on Russia’s Project 21180-class icebreakers here:
Russia’s 7,000 – 8,500 ton diesel-electric Project 23550 military icebreaking patrol vessels (corvettes) will be armed combatant vessels capable of breaking ice with a thickness up to 1.7 meters (5.6 feet). The keel for the lead ship, Ivan Papanin, was laid down at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg on 19 April 2017. Construction time is expected to be about 36 month, with Ivan Papanin being commissioned in 2020. The second ship in this class should enter service about one year later. Both corvettes are expected to be armed with a mid-size naval gun (76 mm to 100 mm have been reported), containerized cruise missiles, and an anti-submarine capable helicopter (i.e., Kamov Ka-27 type). The U.S. has no counterpart to this class of Arctic vessel.
It appears to me that Russia and the U.S. have very different visions for how they will conduct and support future civilian and military operations that require surface access in the Arctic region. The Russians currently have a strong polar icebreaking capability to support its plans for Arctic development and operation, and that capability is being modernized with a new fleet of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreakers. In addition, two smaller icebreaking vessel classes, including an icebreaking combatant vessel, soon will be deployed to support Russia’s military in the Arctic and Far East.
In comparison, the U.S. polar icebreaking capability continues to hang by a thread (i.e., the Polar Star) and our nation has to decide if it is even going to show up for polar icebreaking duty in the Arctic in the near future. The U.S. also is a no-show in the area of dedicated military icebreakers, including Arctic-capable armed combatant surface vessels.
Where do you think this Arctic imbalance is headed?
Update: 4 January 2019
In September 2018, the Coast Guard renamed its New Icebreaker Program ‘Polar Security Cutter.’ The hull designation will be WMSP. W is the standard prefix for Coast Guard vessels, and MSP stands for Maritime Security-Polar. However, the revised designation does not alter how the vessel is funded.
10 December 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service, “Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter (Polar Icebreaker) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” which you’ll find at the following link: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf
With the heavy polar icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB-10) used exclusively to support Antarctic operations, the medium-size cutter Healy (WAGB-20) is the only Coast Guard polar icebreaker serving the Arctic region. Healy was built in 2000 primarily as an Arctic research vessel for the national Academy of Sciences.
“HEALY is designed to conduct a wide range of research activities, providing more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and accommodations for up to 50 scientists. HEALY is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees F. The science community provided invaluable input on lab layouts and science capabilities during design and construction of the ship. At a time when scientific interest in the Arctic Ocean basin is intensifying, HEALY substantially enhances the United States Arctic research capability.
As a Coast Guard cutter, HEALY is also a capable platform for supporting other potential missions in the polar regions, including logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and enforcement of laws and treaties.”