The Arctic has been largely inaccessible for commercial shipping and resource exploitation, but with the ice-shelf slowly receding, not only countries are preparing to benefit economically from the region’s hidden treasures – but international firms too. One of the world’s largest port operators, DP World, seeks to run the ports Russia will be constructing along the Northern Sea Route, a vital shipping lane whose development Moscow has defined as one of its top policy priorities.
The Northern Sea Route will become key in shipping minerals and ores mined from the vast ice steppes of the Arctic around the world. The melting ice represents a vast economic opportunity for Russia and other countries with vested interests in the Arctic, as well as for local communities. How to go about developing sustainably is the biggest question these actors are facing.
According to some estimates, the Arctic could be free of ice by mid-century greatly facilitating the extraction of oil and gas as well as the mining of minerals such as gold, graphite, nickel, titanium and uranium. But these operations, as well as the communities supporting them, need to have access to energy resources- resources that do not cause additional environmental harm.
For energy experts, the solution lies in small modular reactors (SMR), small nuclear power plants capable of supplying remote mining towns with reliable energy. “SMRs can be deployed on both onshore and offshore sites and are mobile and autonomous. They address the problem of energy deficits in remote areas with limited grid infrastructure”, says Evgeniy Pakermanov, the president of Rosatom Overseas. “They are truly innovative and speak to the idea of a flexible end result.”
Canada, another country with vast ice-covered and highly remote areas, is exploring a similar approach to supplying clean energy to its secluded Northern communities. According to Dr John Barrett, the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, these communities are receptive to the idea of SMRs. “If you talk to the small communities up there and tell them what you could do with a reliable source that’s when you get their attention. And what if this source was a small reactor, then some communities want to know more.”
For Russia’s Northern Sea Route ambitions, these reactors could be a game-changer enabling the rapid socio-economic development of the port areas along an increasingly important shipping route.