Nord Stream comes ashore

July 29, 2010

Vyborg, or Viipuri in Finnish, is a Russian town with a quite non-Russian history. Not as long as 100 years ago this area belonged to Finland. And nowadays the town is flooded with Finns, especially on weekends. Vyborg itself, being surrounded by the Gulf of Finland, is externally too much alike old European towns – the same small two-storied houses with engraved balconies and narrow paved streets stretching for miles.

It is believed that the settlement was founded here by the princes of Novgorod. However, from the 8th to the 18th century the town was owned by the powerful Kingdom of Sweden. During this period it wasn’t once when Russia tried to capture the town. It’s no wonder as early in the 15th century Vyborg turned into a large commercial center visited by merchants from the German Empire. And Russia was already keen to avoid dependency on transit states in an attempt to establish direct trading routes with Germany.

As centuries passed, the Nord Stream gas pipeline construction to connect Russia with Germany is primarily aimed at ensuring reliable gas supply to European consumers and avoiding transit risks.

At the site

The headquarters of Nord Stream AG have been opened in Vyborg and the Portovaya Bay located 60 kilometers away from the town will be the initial point of the pipeline.

Nord Stream AG commenced construction of the gas pipeline offshore part this April. So far, about 220 kilometers of pipes have been laid on the Baltic Sea bottom and 15 kilometers – offshore Germany. It’s only one-tenth of the pipeline route to be passed by 2012 when the second of two gas pipeline strings (each some 1,224 kilometers long) is planned for commissioning. Anyway, the pipeline operating company assures that the project will be implemented strictly according to the schedule.

The shore pull, which implies dragging the pipeline string onshore, is the most crucial construction stage to start late in June at the Portovaya Bay site.

Before this more than 300 boulders were removed from the pipeline corridor. Some of them now rest along the roadsides representing a natural fencing. The greatest discovery is a 115-ton boulder. Trenches for pipe laying were excavated by special dredgers.

Aboveground structures intended for the future pipeline are now being constructed at the Bay as well. Just a few months ago there was a pine wilderness, the seaside landscaping has started this spring. The construction site is now completely arranged: it is deforested, construction materials and equipment are procured. Heavy-duty basements (anchor blocks) intended to balance the 22,000-ton force applied to the submerged pipeline as a result of the operating temperature difference are now under construction here.

The pipeline string is pulled through Castoro 6 vessel that, having partially completed laying the offshore part in Finnish and Swedish waters, anchored in about a kilometer away from the Russian coast. This distance allows assessing its tremendous size. Two 12-meter-long pipe sections are welded together onboard. Then they are welded to the pipeline string that is slowly pulled onshore with a heavy-duty winch and a steel rope (121 millimeters in diameter). The first string of the gas pipeline came onshore on Wednesday. The second one will appear onshore in a week. All shore pull operations are to be finished by August 8. Unlike the offshore operations when the second pipeline string is laid once the first one is completed, during the onshore and coastal operations both strings are laid simultaneously. This will allow reducing the environmental impact.

Record breakers

Sergey Serdyukov, Technical Director of Nord Stream AG who visited the site together with journalists stated that the vessel crew and the winch operators use maritime signal flags – the flag hoisted on Castoro 6 means the winch should be started. “This practice was introduced back in the 14th century by the Russian navy,” he said.

Sergey Serdyukov does not like the fashionable term “innovations” but prefers “reliability” instead. He says that despite expectations the project is primarily based on well-proven technologies. “We didn’t have a right to use innovations, we had no right to do that. Cause pipeline reliability as per international standards should be higher than 10–5 which means less than one failure over 10 thousand years. And if we accepted unproven innovations we would have exceeded this value,” he noted.

Nevertheless, it didn’t obstruct preparation for the project that could be treated as the breaker of many records. The nearest analogue to Nord Stream in terms of diameter is the Dolphin gas pipeline in the Persian Gulf and in terms of length – the Langeled gas pipeline linking Norway and the UK. In general, the Nord Stream gas pipeline equipped with no intermediate compressor stations and sustaining the pressure of up to 220 bars, with over 1,200 kilometers in length and 1,153 millimeters in diameter, is unprecedented. “They may undoubtedly put us in the Guinness Book of Records, or they may not. Anyway, there won’t be something similar to this project as there are no other offshore areas across the globe, which would allow for such a long pipeline route,” said Sergey Serdyukov.

As soon as both strings are commissioned, Nord Stream will attain the world’s highest throughput capacity. According to the pipeline operator, Nord Stream will be capable of conveying 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year which is equivalent to 280 extra oil tankers and 600–700 LNG carriers. In terms of power this is equal to 50 coal-fired power plants, 39 nuclear power plants, more than 10,000 square kilometers of wind power plants and 320,000 square kilometers of maize fields for bio-fuel production – 8 times as large as the Netherlands.

“And, of course, the winch pulling the gas pipeline onto Russian shore, with its pulling force of 600 tons, is the most powerful in the world,” Sergey Serdyukov added.

Looking ahead

After shore pull operations completion Castoro 6 will lay 6 kilometers of each pipeline string in the coastal area and then leave Russian waters to continue laying Nord Stream in the Finnish waters. Late in August Castoro 6 will be substituted in the Gulf of Finland for the largest pipe-laying vessel in the world, Solitaire, to raise the first string and proceed with pipe laying. The second string is be completed by the spring of 2012.

Upon completion of pipe pulling onshore the contractors promise to reclaim the land to the initial state – the trenches dedicated for pipe laying are to be backfilled up to the sea bottom level. This will allow gas pipeline protection primarily against ice exaration, or, as Sergey Serdyukov clarified in scientific terms, potential damages as a result of ice movement.

The gas pipeline has already come to the German coast when shore pull operations were completed on July 16 there.

Construction of all onshore facilities is scheduled for completion at the Portovaya Bay later this year. The first string of Nord Stream will be ready for water tightness test by next spring. Each of three parts of the offshore pipeline is going to be filled with water under the required pressure. This test is intended to warrant integrity and strength of welded joints and pipes. After the water tightness test the three parts of the pipeline are to be welded together. After water removal and prior to gas supply the pipeline will be kept filled with nitrogen.

According to the schedule the first Nord Stream string has to be put into operation in late September 2011. Sergey Serdyukov has no doubt that everything will be done in time. “We’ll ignite the flare in Germany on September 30 at 2 p.m. Come over!” he said. The second string is scheduled for commissioning a year later on nearly the same date.

Answering journalists’ questions about the Nord Stream lifetime Sergey Serdyukov noted: “During the Soviet era there were regulations stipulating the 33-year lifetime for a gas pipeline. Then it came clear that a pipeline could stay operational longer. Therefore, new regulations were adopted allowing extension of the gas pipeline lifetime for up to 50 years.” However, the Technical Director is sure that Nord Stream will stay operational 2 times longer. “Our project assumes that 10 years in advance of the 50-year period end its shareholders and the government will decide on the pipeline’s further destiny,” he declares.

The project operator will start monitoring the pipeline condition as soon as it’s laid. For this purpose a special test tool will be designed in order to travel from Russia to Germany through the pipes. Stuffed with electronic instruments and terabytes of memory it will keep creeping throughout the pipeline at the speed of approximately 7 kilometers per hour, i.e. nearly walking. All the acquired data will be decoded by experts then. Such checks are to be regular – once in a few years.

From the very beginning of the project operations Nord Stream is subject to the most stringent safety requirements. Sergey Serdyukov links it with the fact that the Baltic Sea is shared by 9 states and features a unique ecological system. “It’s like a shared apartment with the common kitchen. That’s why the rules should be the same for all,” he says.

Gazprom website Editorial Board