SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Put two football fields end-to-end and you start to get a sense of the scale of the Arktika, the world's largest nuclear icebreaker. Now, Russia already has more icebreakers than any other country - in fact, more icebreakers than all other countries combined, which made NPR's Mary Louise Kelly begin to wonder - why do they need to build a new one? She travelled to St. Petersburg - the one in Russia, not Florida - to find out and to witness the Arktika slip into water for the very first time.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: They've just let a big crowd through the gates, and we're all walking down the dock toward the water here. You can just glimpse - I'm just seeing a first sight of this enormous ship. Bright blue - royal blue, I guess I would say - royal blue hull with the Russian flag right on front and the double headed eagle of Imperial Russia.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, the Arktika can punch through ice 13 feet deep. She's state-owned, but not a military ship, designed to clear shipping lanes for commercial vessels and help Russia exploit oil and gas off its northern coast - serious priorities for Moscow.
They're rolling back. Some of the giant cranes - moving them back away from the ship now. Circles of dock workers all around me - men standing in circles smoking. They tell me we built this ship with our hands. It's a proud day. Here's one of them, Vladimir Ivanov. He's been building ships here since 1968. And he was so enjoying the day that he made my colleague and me an offer.
VLADIMIR IVANOV: (Speaking Russian). (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He says it's 1,500 bucks, and you can go to the North Pole now.
KELLY: You'll take me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).
IVANOV: (Speaking Russian).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go.
KELLY: You can hear the laughter, also the pride, in Ivanov's voice when he describes the Arktika. Same with everyone we met on the docks. Up on the VIP platform, we talked with former Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko, now head of Russia's nuclear energy agency. He told me, I can show this ship to my son and tell him I contributed to this.
SERGEY KIRIYENKO: (Speaking Russian).
KELLY: Asia is developing fast, Kiriyenko said. And if ships can cut through the Arctic, they can get from Asia to Europe in a week. Russia stands to profit hugely as previously frozen waters melt. And that helps explain why when its economy is in crisis, Russia is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars on a supersized icebreaker.
Here we go - the ribbon-cutting.
KELLY: The champagne pops. Two guys carrying blowtorches appear and commence burning through steel beams, all that's holding the Arktika out of the water.
So many sparks flying. They've just caused a fire on the deck - a little one. Here we go. Here she goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: An enormous ship flying down the dock on a huge ramp into the water - in the water.
KELLY: Thousands of balloons - red, white and blue - being released into the air.
And just like that, the Arktika floated off, a symbol of Russia's ambitions in the Arctic and on the global stage. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Russia.
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