Federal government to reveal plans for building long overdue heavy icebreaker

The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery on Thursday and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard.

The announcement has been highly anticipated by shipyards in Vancouver and Quebec that have been fighting tooth and nail for the coveted contract since it was taken from the Vancouver yard nearly two years ago.

First announced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2008 and awarded to Seaspan Shipyards in October 2011, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker was one of seven ships to be built by the Vancouver shipyard through Ottawa’s multibillion-dollar shipbuilding plan.

The plan at the time was for the entire deal, valued at $8 billion for all seven ships, to usher in a new era of stability and prosperity for shipbuilding on Canada’s West Coast while delivering much-needed vessels for the coast guard and navy.

The Diefenbaker was arguably the crown jewel of the package. Originally budgeted at $721 million, the polar icebreaker was supposed to be delivered by 2017 and replace the coast guard’s flagship, the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent.

But scheduling conflicts, technical problems and other issues scuttled the timeline and budget — which was increased to $1.3 billion in 2013 and is now under review again — before the Trudeau government quietly lifted the ship from Seaspan’s order book in August 2019.

Fierce competition

The government has not provided much of an explanation for why it took the Diefenbaker away from Seaspan, substituting in 16 smaller vessels that the Vancouver shipyard argues were already promised to it by the previous Conservative government.

Ottawa has only said it wants to make sure the icebreaker is built “in the most efficient manner,” noting the increasing age of the coast guard’s entire icebreaker fleet.

Seaspan has said it is determined to win the work back.

Ottawa asked shipyards in March to explain how and why they should get the contract. Seaspan and Quebec rival Chantier Davie, which lost out of the competition that saw Seaspan get the Diefenbaker in 2011, were among the respondents.

Davie is considered Seaspan’s chief competitor for the Diefenbaker. After losing out of the competition for work in 2011, the rival yard has since charged back and is now in line to build six medium icebreakers for the coast guard.

The Quebec company insists it — not Seaspan — is best placed to build the Diefenbaker, particularly given it is already in line to build the other six icebreakers.

The two have since engaged in a fierce lobbying campaign to win the deal.

Davie launched a campaign to brand itself Canada’s National Icebreaker Centre while Seaspan has teamed up with several companies across Canada to tout the jobs that would be created in different communities if it was awarded the contract.

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Questions over Hobart port facilities ahead of new icebreaker Nuyina’s arrival

The suitability of the Hobart Port to house the new $1.9billion Antarctic icebreaker RSV Nuyina has been called into question, after upgrade works were declared a priority initiative by Infrastructure Australia.

Improvements to the Hobart port have been declared a priority initiative by Infrastructure Australia — the nation’s “independent infrastructure adviser” — partly because the existing port “cannot accommodate” the new vessel, it said.

But the Australian Antarctic Division is adamant the ship “can be accommodated and operated at the Port of Hobart using current infrastructure”.

Named Nuyina by schoolchildren as part of a competition, the Romanian-built ship is the replacement for the long-serving — and far smaller — Aurora Australis.

The Nuyina’s displacement — the weight of water it pushes aside — is listed as 25,500 tonnes. The displacement of the Aurora Australis is listed as 8,158 tonnes.

The newly released 2021 Infrastructure Australia priority projects list highlights improvements to the Hobart and Burnie ports as projects that need attention within the next five years.

According to the document, “in its existing condition, the port cannot accommodate the Australian Antarctic Division’s new purpose-built icebreaker, RSV Nuyina”.

TasPorts say works “will be completed prior to the vessel’s arrival” in Hobart.(

Supplied: TasPorts/Rob Burnett


However, Infrastructure Australia later clarified that while the port could accommodate the vessel, it could not do so “efficiently”.

The priority project list said the current condition of Macquarie Wharfs 4, 5 and 6 limit opportunities to grow trade, tourism and Antarctic exploration.

“The wharf assets are approaching end of life and require significant maintenance each year to sustain a minimal service level,” the document said.

Options to address the issues at Hobart’s deepwater port include wharf improvements, supporting infrastructure and a terminal or tourism visitor facilities.

Illustration showing size and capability difference between Nuyina and Aurora Australis ships.
Illustration showing the size and capability differences between Nuyina and Aurora Australis.(

Supplied: AAD/Rob Bryson


The AAD’s Rob Bryson said the vessel can operate from existing berths.

“In recent years, usage of these facilities by a variety of port users has increased dramatically and access is especially limited during the height of the Antarctic operating season in the summer months,” he said.

The Antarctic Division and TasPorts have recently entered a five-year agreement to invest $3 million in minor infrastructure upgrades, such as fenders and bollards.

TasPorts chief executive Anthony Donald said his company was equipped to facilitate the berthing of the new icebreaker at Macquarie Wharves and had been in discussions with the Australian Antarctic Division over infrastructure requirements and suitable arrangements for the 160-metre vessel.

“These works will be completed prior to the vessel’s arrival,” he said.

That arrival is expected in the middle of this year.

A large red ship.
The RSV Aurora Australis, berthed at Constitution Dock, Hobart.(

ABC News: James Dunlevie


In a statement in December, TasPorts said it was working with the Antarctic Division on longer-term arrangements to ensure “fit-for-purpose operational and infrastructure requirements are met”.

The Infrastructure Australia list also details issues with the Port of Burnie, saying export opportunities were being limited because it could not accommodate large enough vessels.

It said the port could be expanded to become “the state’s largest export gateway for bulk and containerised shipping”.

“The Tasmanian government estimates that mining and minerals exports from Tasmania are capable of growing from 0.5 million tonnes per annum in 2019 to 6 million tonnes per annum by 2029,” the report said.

“However, the current port capacity will limit this growth and increase supply chain costs for bulk exporters.”

It suggests additional berth and terminal capacity to support larger ships.

In October, a section of the Burnie port collapsed while a ship was being loaded with woodchips. In December, a forklift fell off the end of a ramp, preventing a ship from being unloaded.

The driver was not injured.

An artists's impression of the new icebreaker nuyina with the southern lights above.
Schoolchildren named the new ship Nuyina — which means “southern lights”.(

Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division


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North Pole Ice Cap Too Thin for Testing Russia’s Giant Icebreaker

Russia’s nuclear-powered Arktika icebreaker will need to undergo a second test voyage to prove its capabilities after Arctic sea ice levels were too thin during its first test run.

After reaching the North Pole on her maiden voyage, state nuclear-powered icebreaker agency Atomflot said the Arktika proved its ability to navigate in ice conditions, adding that the vessel sailed through three-meter-thick ice.

The statement was likely premature. The Arktika testing crew’s captain Oleg Shchapin said new ice tests will be needed, the state-run TASS news agency reported Monday. 

“Ice tests are still ahead, probably this year, because the current ice tests did not work out; the ice thickness was 1.1 to 1.2 meters. It was thin and loose, the icebreaker experienced no resistance at all,” TASS quoted Shchapin as saying.

“We tried to find a three-meter ice floe, but could not find one,” he added.

Shchapin did not specify where three-meter-thick ice could be found. Currently, the entire Northern Sea Route north of Siberia from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait is open water. The polar ice cap further north shrank to its second lowest extent in recorded history last month has never been reported weaker and thinner than it was this year.

Multiyear sea ice is currently only found in the waters north of Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

Departing from the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg on Sept. 22, the Arktika sailed straight to the North Pole before heading south and calling to her new homeport of Murmansk on Oct. 12.

The official commissioning of the Arktika took place on Wednesday, Oct. 21, in a ceremony in Murmansk attended by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. The prime minister also signed the icebreaker’s acceptance decree 

In December, the Arktika will begin plowing through ice along the Northern Sea Route. Next summer, however, a new starboard propulsion motor will be installed as the original one short-circuited and stopped working after trial sailings in the Gulf of Finland in February. The Arktika has three similar propulsion motors. 

The icebreaker is the first in a series of five nuclear-powered vessels which make up Project 22220.  

The four other vessels in the class are named Sibir, Ural, Yakutiya and Chukotka. They are expected to start operations from 2021 to 2027.

All will be based in Murmansk, but mainly operate along the eastern section of the Northern Sea Route.

This story was originally published in The Barents Observer.

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Alarm raised over possible overseas sale of the retiring Aurora Australis icebreaker

There are concerns Australia’s outgoing Antarctic icebreaker vessel Aurora Australis has been sold to the Argentinian Government.

Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie has written a letter to the Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, after the alarm was raised by Antarctic enthusiasts.

The enthusiasts are behind the Aurora Australis Foundation, and say they were contacted by an Argentinian supporter on social media.

News of the sale to the South American country prompted Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie to issue a plea to Arts Minister Paul Fletcher to order its retention here for further heritage assessment.

“I’ve pleaded to the Minister to invoke the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act, and order that the Aurora Australis remain in Australia until there can be a full heritage assessment,” he said.

The Aurora Australis sits in pack ice during the rescue of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy seen in the far distance in January 2014.(Jessica Fitzpatrick: Supplied)

“The fact is for all of us that have lived in Hobart for a long time that the Aurora Australis helps to define our sense of place, you know there’s the mountain, there’s the river, and there’s the Aurora Australis for much of the year.

“When I say to people it looks like the Aurora Australis will be gone for good it brings some people almost to tears,” he said.

“People are very, very fond of this vessel.”


It is unclear how much the Argentinian Government would have paid the ship’s owner P&O, but Mr Wilkie anticipates “it won’t have been much”.

“Until this point in time P&O were actively considering scrapping the vessel, in other words a million dollars, a couple of million dollars, it won’t be very very much at all.”

Aurora Australis in dock in Hobart
Aurora Australis was based in Hobart.(ABC News: Rebecca Hewett)

Mr Wilkie is calling on the Tasmanian Government to help keep the icebreaker in the state permanently.

“Of course the Federal Government can’t do this alone, it can invoke the Movable Heritage Act, but really this is a matter for the State Government to see the sense in this, to see the sense in Tasmania really realising our potential,” he said.

“We’re a maritime state, we are intimately involved in the Antarctic program in the southern oceans, and people come to Hobart wanting to see this sort of stuff.”

A Tasmanian Government spokesperson said the potential sale was a matter for the vessel’s owner.

“As Mr Wilkie knows, the future of the icebreaker is a matter for P&O Maritime,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for P&O says they have received a number of expressions of interest about potentially purchasing the vessel.

“P&O Maritime Logistics has been approached by a number of interested parties from around the world,” the spokesperson said.

The Federal Government has been contacted for comment.

The Aurora Australis icebreaker ship in Antartica surrounded by ice and people.
Mr Wilkie says the Aurora Australia should be kept in Australian until its heritage values were properly reviewed.(Supplied: Sarah Laverick)

Aurora Australis Foundation’s Dr Melanie Van Twest said her group was alerted to an announcement that a sale to Argentina was imminent.

“[An Argentinian man] identified an announcement in an Argentinian magazine that its Government is about to buy the Aurora Australis for use within its Antarctic program,” she said.

The foundation had been pushing for the decommissioned icebreaker to remain in Tasmania, and become a floating museum celebrating Australia’s maritime heritage.

“While of course we are pleased on one level to know the Aurora Australis potentially has more of a service life in front of her in Antarctica, we became very concerned that this ship that means a great deal to Australia never to be seen again,” Dr Van Twest said.

Expeditioners hold up flares with ship in the background.
Expeditioners hold up flares to farewell the Aurora Australis, as it departs Mawson research station.(AAD: Matt Williams)

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