Russia plans tunnel to link Siberia and Alaska

By Andrew E. Kramer
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MOSCOW — Russia introduced a plan Wednesday to build a tunnel between Siberia and Alaska under the Bering Strait, saying the $65 billion project could be used to export Russian oil, natural gas and electricity to the United States.

While two officials at the Ministry of Economy endorsed the idea, they made clear that the Russian government had not signed off on it, other than to agree to a study on how to bridge the 93 kilometers, or 58 miles, of icy water that divides the Eastern and Western Hemispheres at their closest point.

Plans for a land link over the strait were first floated in the 19th century and have periodically been revived since; the latest twist is an emphasis on the link’s being used for exporting energy and natural resources, the mainstay of the Russian economy.

The Russian national electric company and state railroad endorsed the plan Wednesday, adding a patina of credibility to an idea often dismissed as a colossal waste of money, even if it were found technically feasible.

Earlier justifications for the project, from creating a transportation corridor to building a symbol of political unity between Russia and the United States, have met with little sympathy in either country.

This time, it is being promoted as an economic, not a political, project, said Viktor Razbegin, a deputy head of industrial research at the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade and longtime proponent of a bridge or tunnel for the roiling strait.

«It is a strategic for us to develop this land,» he said of Russia’s poor northeastern district, Chukotka, and neighboring areas in Siberia. «We cannot do it without a railroad.»

The tunnel would link the Russian towns of Provideniya and Chukotsky, with a combined population of 9,700 people, with Nome, Alaska, population 3,590.

The tunnel would be dug from Cape Dezhnev in Siberia to Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Officials in Moscow said it would extend 103 kilometers and would surface twice, on the two small Diomede Islands in the middle of the strait. It would include a rail, highway, oil and gas pipelines and fiber optic wire. The total length would be about twice that of the Channel Tunnel between Britain and the Continent and, according to Razbegin, would cost between $10 billion and $12 billion.

Further complicating the project, however, the tunnel would require building a total of 6,000 kilometers of railway to connect it to the nearest railheads on both sides of the strait. The railway links would add about $55 billion, making up most of the final cost.

The land link between Siberia and Alaska, first conceived as a bridge, is one of the world’s more enduring infrastructure ideas, for all its improbability, and is among the grandiose Russian ideas to unlock the riches of Siberia.

Over the years, seemingly no idea has seemed too grand. The Soviet Union studied reversing the flow of Siberian rivers to irrigate Central Asia. It also realized some large-scale ideas, including improbable industrial triumphs in the Arctic like exporting metal ore via nuclear-powered ice breaker.

As far back as the late 19th century, proponents of linking Asia and North America envisaged a bridge, an idea that then, as now, was met with skepticism because of the winter ice conditions.

Even if a link were engineered, the nearest rail links on both sides of the strait would be very far from it — at Yakutsk in Russia and at Fort Mason, British Columbia.

Undaunted, the ministry officials are organizing a conference in Moscow on Tuesday on the tunnel, called Megaprojects of the Russian East, according to Andrey Podderegin, an organizer. The tunnel, he said, would tap «huge unused potential» in gold, coal and other riches in the Russian Arctic.

The organizer’s Web site says the tunnel would also «bring about the sociopolitical and economic unity of the Russian state and reinforce its geopolitical influence» while also encouraging investment in Siberia.

The highest-ranking Russian government official scheduled to attend the conference Tuesday is Kiril Androsov, a deputy minister of trade and economic development, Podderegin said.

«It’s a corridor of development,» Podderegin said.

As with most supporters of the project, he is thinking big.

«The most effective is to lay a multitransit tunnel,» he said, «with a highway, railway and oil and natural gas pipelines. This potential must be used.»

The NY Nimes —>>>

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