Nuclear-Powered Cargo Ship is a Suspect in Baltic Pipeline Breach

Sevmorput, the last nuclear-powered cargo ship and one of the last LASH carriers (Rosatomflot file image)

Published Oct 18, 2023 10:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Chinese container ship and a nuclear-powered cargo ship have attracted investigators' attention after damage to a subsea gas pipeline in the Baltic. Both appear to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to AIS data.

The first suspect is the Chinese boxship NewNew Polar Bear, which recently transited the Northern Sea Route, making headlines for the crossing. The other ship is the Russian government-operated LASH carrier Sevmorput, the last nuclear-powered cargo vessel in the world.

On Wednesday, the two vessels were named by Finland's National Bureau of Investigation as subjects of an inquiry into the cause of the pipeline breach, along with other unnamed ships. 

An open-source analysis of AIS data (above) suggests that Sevmorput crossed over the pipeline at about 0112 on the morning of the 8th, followed by NewNew Polar Bear a few minutes later. This was about the same timeframe as a faint seismic event in the area, which was detected by a Finnish monitoring station and classed as a "possible explosion" or a large gas release.

An ROV investigation found evidence of "mechanical impact or mechanical destruction" of the pipeline, according to Estonian authorities. The exact cause is still under investigation.

NewNew Polar Bear has been under surveillance ever since. According to Reuters, the Norwegian coast guard vessel KV Sortland tracked the Chinese boxship as it headed northward past Norway's offshore oil and gas fields.

In Estonia, Finland and Sweden, authorities suspect that the pipeline breach and simultaneous cable damage were likely caused by sabotage. 

As recently as April, Russia threatened to take "military-technical" measures to penalize Finland for joining NATO. Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute for Foreign Policy, told German outlet Tagesschau last week that "the list of states in the region that have the opportunity, motive and ability to carry out something like this is quite short. There's only Russia."