China breaks the Arctic ice with launch of new research vessel Snow Dragon II
Icebreaker could pave the way for nuclear powered super ship but for now it’s all about exploration and scientific surveys
China has launched its first home-made icebreaking vessel, a further step towards strengthening its exploration and research around the earth’s poles.
The Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon II, was jointly designed by Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology and a China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) institute. Construction began in 2016 at CSSC’s Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.
The vessel features powerful propellers on both prow and rear, making it the world’s only polar research boat vessel that can break ice while going forwards or backwards. Its power, speed, and on-board research equipment add up to a significant upgrade on the original Xuelong, which was bought from Ukraine in 1994 and upgraded in 2013, after a refit in 2007.
The launch of Xuelong 2 on Monday follows the news that China has begun work on a nuclear-powered icebreaking cargo vessel. In June, China National Nuclear Corporation announced it was looking for partners to build a polar supply ship that is expected to carry a group of third-generation miniaturised reactors.
The development of a nuclear-powered icebreaker could have global implications. China would acquire, through its design and construction, the knowledge and experience to manufacture large-scale nuclear-powered ships that could eventually be applied to building the ultimate super warship – a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The former Soviet Union went through a similar learning process – building nine nuclear-powered icebreaking vessels before its first attempt at a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Ulyanovsk.
The technology could also be applied to floating nuclear power plants. Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, the world’s only floating power unit, has been in operation since April this year. It generates 70 megawatts of electricity via two KLT-40 icebreaker type reactors, enough to power the needs of 200,000 people.
The development of new research and supply boats has been primarily driven by China’s deepening participation and expanding involvement in polar affairs, experts said.
“China is becoming more active in the Arctic and Antarctic, and it needs to possess the relevant capability that suits the status of a major player,” said Wang Chuanxing, professor at Tongji University specialising in polar research.
At this point, scientific research, surveys and the collection of first-hand data were expected to be the primary goal, in line with the other polar powers. This work was a precondition for any future scientific or environmental plans, and even for resource detection and commercial development, he said.
China issued a white paper on Arctic policy in January, calling for international cooperation in areas such as transport routes, climate change, environmental protection and resource development, as well as legally binding international fishery agreements.
“In the drafting of international rules and laws in the Arctic and Antarctic, the ability to have a say should be backed by a country’s presence, research and knowledge about these areas,” Wang said.
The Xuelong 2, once it is commissioned in the first half of 2019, will expand China’s scientific missions in the polar regions with a full load of advanced laboratories and equipment, including two on-board helicopters. It will be able to travel at 12 to 15 knots for 20,000 nautical miles and sustain 90 crew and researchers on board for up to 60 days.
With a 14,000 tonne displacement, the new vessel is smaller than the 21,000 tonne Xuelong, which will enable it to sail complex routes through icy waters with greater flexibility. With its all-direction swinging engine and double icebreakers, Xuelong 2 can even spin in full circles on a frozen sea.