I’ve been pondering the misadventures of the Akademik Shokalskiy for several days, thinking about the difference in result between an excursion planned on the cheap by people who depend on things going smoothy and a voyage planned by people who included contingencies and had access to more capable technology.
In the summer of 1994, the United States and Canada collaborated on a polar expedition aimed at studying the impact of global warming on the seas surrounding the North Pole. Each nation contributed its most powerful icebreaker. The planners determined that an expedition with two powerful ships, each with independent and redundant capabilities would enable them to conduct a surface transit through western waters to the North Pole.
Although the same path had been repeatedly traveled by nuclear-powered submarines that could take the easy way to the North Pole by traveling under the ice — with the first trip completed by the USS Nautilus in 1958 — the USCGC Polar Sea and the CCGS Louis St-Laurent were designed to power their way through packed ice, at least in the thinner ice prevalent in July and August.
The Polar Sea, the sister ship of the Polar Star that is currently heading to help extract the Akademik Shokalskiy, was designed to be able to break through 2 meter thick ice at a continuous speed of 3 knots and to smash through ice up to 7 meters thick by backing and thrusting forward.
Those capabilities are enabled by a flexible propulsion plant that includes three shafts powered by electrical motors, six 3,000 SHP (2,235 kw) diesel generators that can be configured to provide as much as 18,000 SHP (13,400 kw) to the motors, and three LM2500 combustion gas turbines, each with an initial output of 20,000 SHP (15,000 kw), which were later upgraded to 25,000 SHP (18,600 kw).
That power plant, with a maximum propulsion power of 75,000 SHP (56,000 kw) (some of the electrical power output of the generators listed above must supply “hotel loads”) gives Polar Sea and Polar Star about 15 times as much muscle as the 3,100 SHP (2,300 kw) Akademik Shokalskiy. Of course, that means that they also consume at least 15 times as much fuel per minute if they have to use their full strength. The Louis St-Laurent has similar icebreaking capabilities but a somewhat less powerful propulsion system, with a total output of 20,000 kw.
Along the way, the scientific contingent of the of the summer 1994 expedition planned to take ice core samples, survey animal populations, conduct seismic measurements and conduct additional baseline surveys.
Because everyone associated with planning the trip recognized its historical significance, the passenger list included a film crew and journalists to document the journey. The resulting film became an A&E documentary titled Icebreaker to the North Pole.
The careful planning for redundancy paid off when the Polar Sea broke a blade off of one of its three propellers. That casualty did not result in a distress call or an inability to continue the trip because the Polar Sea was designed for the arduous task. It had two more propellers available, so it could progress on its own power, with a little help from its friend when the ice got too thick to break in its less powerful configuration. The voyage planners had provided for the unpredictable, but possible, contingency of mechanical failure.
When the ships neared their destination, they were greeted by a powerful vessel that made ice crushing look easy.
Since the Yamal is powered by two KLT-40 nuclear power plants, its captain does not have to be careful about fuel economy and can use high power to show off. Its propulsion power is the same as the Polar Sea‘s at 75,000 SHP from three electrically powered propulsion motors. The Yamal has a similar level of redundancy since each of its 55 MWe reactors can provide full power to the propulsion motors. The elimination of concerns over fuel economy also give the Russian operators more practice in ice operations that is available to the Americans; the Polar class ships are less frequently used due to the impact of high fuel bills on perennially tight Coast Guard budgets.
Because moving through thick ice was so routine for the Russian nuclear powered ice breaker, it did not use a buddy system. In fact, the trip was so easy for the larger ship that it comfortably carried a significantly more vulnerable collection of passengers, a group of child entertainers and their parents. The professional quality of their performance on the ice was quite a bit better than the infamous singalong from the passengers on Akademik Shokalskiy.
After meeting at the North Pole, US and Canadian officers were given a tour of the impressive Russian ship, which was well-appointed with luxurious-looking paneling and a heated swimming pool. When they arrived at the dining room they faced a couple of almost embarrassing questions. “Are your icebreakers the most powerful in your country?” When both the US and the Canadian captains replied, “Yes” the next entertainer asked “Then why do you move so slowly in the ice?”
The main problem slowing down the pair of North American ships was the broken propeller on the Polar Sea, which limited its propulsion plant to 2/3 of maximum speed. In addition, it is expensive to race through ice using 75,000 SHP produced by burning oil in three LM2500 gas turbine engines. At that power level, the Polar Sea burns about 13 tons of fuel per hour (an typical LM2500 specific fuel consumption is 0.354 lbs/shp-hr).
After some neighborly exchanges and a couple of days at the North Pole, the captain of the Yamal and the captain of the Polar Sea decided that it would be prudent and helpful for the American and Canadian ship to follow the Yamal out of the ice. That would make the trip significantly easier and quicker than having the Polar Sea struggling out in its damaged condition with just the assistance of the Louis St-Laurent.
Obviously, this episode had the potential for a significant propaganda win for the Russians in demonstrating capabilities that were superior to those of its economic rivals in the US and Canada. However, it could have also been used as a way to increase the interest in the use of nuclear energy. It makes activities that are arduous, but possible, with fossil fuel seem almost trivially easy. As one scientist put it, it is mind-opening to think about the benefits of being freed from worries about endurance and resupply.
When the Americans and Canadians first learned that they were sharing the area near the North Pole with a nuclear icebreaker, they immediately started worrying. After the film crew and the voyage planners had witnessed the surprising and undeniable demonstration of the superior capabilities enabled by nuclear energy, they decided to temper the potential interest on the part of any later viewer of the documentary. During the post journey production, they inserted an extraneous video sequence about Russian closed cities that were used to produce materials used for nuclear weapons.
The weapons material manufacturing facilities have about the same relationship to icebreaker propulsion plants as bullet factories have with pickup truck engines, but such is the state of commercial media’s indoctrination about nuclear energy. The producers felt they needed to insert the negative and ominous footage before they could show the sequences demonstrating the positive aspects of the technology. The inserted footage prepares the audience and tempers its impressed awe about the arrival of the comfortable and powerful ship with a generous helping of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
One of the reasons I favor the use of nuclear energy is that it makes it easier to be resilient and independent. It is in both the US and the world interest to more openly discuss the implications of a better, more capable, more energy dense fuel source.
It is also worth noting that the fossil fuel powered ships chosen by the climate change researchers in both 1994 and 2013 can accelerate the very ice loss that they worry about. That effect is no so much from the minor amounts of CO2 that their engines produce, but from the effects of the soot that gets deposited on the pristine ice. That soot causes an effect called greying of the icecap, which makes the ice a much better solar energy absorber. That hastens the summer melting process.
As I was preparing this post, I was reminded that the people who planned The Spirit of Mawson excursion and chose the cheaper Akademik Shokalskiy instead of a more powerful, but more expensive, icebreaker are not the only people in this world who are putting themselves and others at risk by making a cheap selection without contingency planning.
This week, the Northeast section of the United States is suffering through one of the worst cold spells in more than 20 years.
During the relatively mild winters that have been common in the intervening years, grid planners, public utility commissions, utility customers and power plant operators have gotten used to operating on the cheap and failing to plant for the worst case event. They have noticed the low prices of natural gas and assumed that the fuel would be available when needed. A number of customers have made the investment to remove their oil burning furnaces and underground storage tanks and replace them with natural gas heating systems.
They forgot to take into account the fact that there is a finite limit to the amount of gas that can be pushed through a piping system and that there is no alternative means of moving the vapor to the places where it is needed. As a result of system choices based on short term pricing, they have failed to plan for a widespread and deep cold spell when the need to continuously supply gas for heat bumps into the need to continuously supply gas to produce electricity.
Oil furnaces, coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants all have a significant resiliency advantage over natural gas. They each store a certain amount of fuel on site. That inventory can be burned to supply needed heat and electricity even when the fuel delivery systems fail. Of course, the duration that coal and oil fuel inventories will last before being fully consumed pales in comparison to the 18-24 month fuel cycles of a commercial nuclear power plant, but they beat the heck out of the lack of onsite storage for natural gas.
As of yesterday evening, Platts was reporting that there were places in New England where the price of natural gas reached as high as $99 per MMBTU compared to a New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closing price of just $4.20. The real meaning of that price spike is that there are some places where there is no gas available at all, no matter how much the customer is willing to pay.
That is a potentially life-threatening situation in a region where the temperature is expected to remain well below freezing for the next several days before a warming trend arrives. Just imagine the increased challenge if a similar event happens next year, after one more nuclear power plant — the 620 MWe Vermont Yankee — and its enormous “fuel tank” is removed from the Northeast power grid.