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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Norilsk Plans to Ship Nickel on Nuclear Subs

ST. PETERSBURG Some people say a project to convert nuclear-powered submarines into cargo carriers is crazy, others believe it is feasible. In any case, the navy is behind it.

And the isolated mining and smelter conglomerate Norilsk Nickel in the north of Siberia hopes what must be the boldest swords-to-plowshares project in history will allow it to ship thousands of tons of nickel under the ice off the Arctic coast in all weathers.

The submarines in question are "boomers," stealthy behemoths carrying long-range ballistic missiles. The boomer is arguably the most lethal weapon ever built, and the biggest of them all Norilsk Nickels object of desire is the one called Akula, or shark, and NATO calls Typhoon.

Designed with unique ice-breaking capabilities, it carries 20 SS-N-20 missiles each with 10 warheads for a total of 200 independently targeted nuclear bombs seven times more powerful than the one that hit Hiroshima. Its no wonder that it inspired the best-selling book "The Hunt for Red October."

Three Akulas are more or less operational and the other three were headed for destruction under a U.S.-funded, $250 million program to help the impoverished navy pay for the costly dismantling.

The Akula caught the eye of the management of Norilsk Nickel, the worlds biggest producer of nickel, which is an essential ingredient of steel. Built in the 1930s with prison labor at the cost of thousands of lives, the sprawling Norilsk factory is one of the nations most profitable enterprises, with 1999 sales of $2.944 billion and profits of $1.278 billion. Its 103,000 employees produce 22 percent of the worlds nickel, along with 60 percent of its palladium and 40 percent of its platinum, as well as copper and cobalt.

But getting these valuable metals nickel topped $10,000 a ton last year to their markets is no easy task. The ore is loaded onto ships in Dudinka, a bleak port on the vast Yenisei River, for the 560 kilometer journey north to the Kara Sea, where they turn west for the 1,760-kilometer voyage to Murmansk, the nations main ice-free Arctic port. River and sea are covered with thick ice for nine months of the year, so the cargo ships must follow one of the nations nuclear-powered icebreakers for most of the trip.

There are now six icebreakers in operation; all are owned by the state but operated by Murmansk Sea Line, a subsidiary of the nations No.1 oil firm, LUKoil. The fleet is overextended and under-maintained, and one icebreaker is due to be retired in a few years, said Norilsk Nickel spokesman Anatoly Komrakov.

Norilsk Nickel managers worry that at that time, LUKoil may give preference to oil over metal in its allocation of icebreaker time, especially since LUKoil is developing its Arctic fields and rapidly expanding its fleet of tankers. And building a new nuclear icebreaker would cost at least $150 million.

So last year, Komrakov said, the company commissioned St. Petersburgs Rubin Design Bureau, designer of the Akula, to study the feasibility of turning Akulas, minus missile and torpedo launchers, into cargo ships.

In the meantime, Norilsk Nickel general director Alexander Khloponin headed for the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, near Arkhangelsk, where the Akulas were built in the 1980s and where the first one was being dismantled.

He had no trouble convincing the navy brass to delay the cutting up of the next one scheduled for the blowtorch while the study was under way: They love his plan, just as they hate losing the gem of their strategic submarine fleet.

Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of the navy, recently told a television interviewer that the project "is the best way to use surplus submarines."

The designers delivered their verdict in February: For $80 million, an Akula can be made to carry 12,000 tons of cargo safely and reliably.

First, it would plow through the surface ice while descending the shallow Yenisei River. Then it would slide below the ice and, at a speed of 25 knots, three times faster than an ice breaker-led convoy, head for Murmansk, where its load would be transhipped to surface vessels. The entire operation would take place in or near Russian waters.

With three all-weather Akulas plying the Dudinka-Murmansk route, Norilsk Nickel wouldnt need to depend on LUKoils icebreakers any more.

Norilsk Nickel chairman Yury Kotlyar has been downright enthusiastic.

"I think this project is absolutely realistic," he told a wire service last February. "I am certain we will have our first sea trials next year." Meanwhile, a second study is being done to more precisely evaluate the cost of modifying the companys docks and of operating the subs.

Komrakov said results are due in January.

He said his company favors creating a joint venture with the navy. The submarine crews will work as civilians and presumably be paid more than the paltry $50 a month they now receive.

But others are not so sure the project is viable.

"Its a crazy idea its far too dangerous," said researcher Thomas Nilsen of Norways Bellona Foundation, which monitors environmental threats posed by the Northern Fleet. "Navigating the Kara Sea is very tricky because its so shallow."

U.S. submarine expert and author Norman Polmar differs.

"Its a great idea: These are marvelous ships that include tremendous feats of engineering," he said. "I know the designers at Rubin [Design Bureau] well, and if they say it can be done, I believe them.

"But I doubt it would be economical," he added, "because these things are horribly expensive to run."

"Its economically unrealistic," agreed analyst Mikhail Seleznyov of Moscows United Financial Group. "They should use their healthy cash flow to build icebreakers."

Still, suggests defense analyst Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, "We should support commercial conversion."

Ambassador Thomas Graham, a former head of the Arms Control Agency who lives in Washington, said U.S.-Russian treaties involve only the destruction of launchers. "The owning nation can dispose of the ship as it wishes," so U.S. permission would not be required. Click here to read our Special Report on the Kursk Tragedy.