A mile of darkness

But whereas the main threat in coal mines is methane explosions, Norilsk’s nickel miners are mostly afraid of tunnel collapses. Source: RIA Novosti

But whereas the main threat in coal mines is methane explosions, Norilsk’s nickel miners are mostly afraid of tunnel collapses. Source: RIA Novosti

An RIR correspondent travels beyond the Arctic Circle to find out first-hand who mines Russia’s nickel and how.

If Norilsk isn’t on Mars, then it’s definitely somewhere very near. Scenes from Total Recall (the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) appear every other minute. Plus, this town was founded for a similar reason: Back in the 1930s, the Soviet Union badly needed nickel and other metals to use in its defence industry. Norilsk, one of the largest towns beyond the Arctic Circle, was built to extract them.

Descent into the Norilsk mine starts out in a very Martian way: I get up at 7am, when it is pitch black outside, drink two cups of strong tea and start the painstaking process of climbing into whatever warm clothes I have brought with me; it’s minus 28 degrees Celsius outside.

Ready, Set, Go

It’s near the Taymyrsky mine’s administrative building that I see the first Martian artifact: shrouded in the predawn darkness is the menacing bulk of some kind of a machine with wheels one metre high and a huge scoop attached to the end of its iron brontosaur-like nose. It looks heavy and threatening. However, I just can’t shake off the impression that I have seen it before. Maybe it was in Arnie’s movie? I ask Rostislav, a Norilsk Nickel employee who is accompanying me:


“What kind of military grade equipment is this?”


“It’s the Atlas Copco, a loading and delivery machine with a capacity of 14 tonnes.”


I will learn later on that Norilsk miners regularly hold “underground slalom” races driving those machines, and will regret that I didn’t have a chance to see it with my own eyes. A rodeo on 25-tonne, 400 horsepower dinosaurs must be spectacular.


But I have a meeting with the mine’s director, Sergei Gorbachev, and make my first ever foray into the Arctic Moria.

I submissively put on the full miner’s outfit and hang a one-kilogram torch over my shoulder. We march in single file through a long underground corridor linking the administrative and recreation building with the mine itself, and get into the anteroom of an elevator shaft. A cage behind the lattice doors should take us one kilometre below. Meanwhile, Rostislav points to a row of sinks lining the wall.

“Go ahead, try it.”


I turn the tap and a red-brownish liquid starts dripping. The mine water looks unappealing, to put it mildly.

“Try it,” Rostislav repeats.

Turns out, this is not rusty water after all – it’s actually tea. Miners fill their flasks and thermoses with it.

“Each click is one man going underground,” explains the mine’s chief production engineer, Aleksei Bylkov. “In addition, the miners’ torches have special built-in microchips; it is our backup headcount system. We count people using torches. If even a single person is missing at the end of a shift, we will look for them; we will shut the whole mine down.” I touch my flashlight automatically – it’s my ID for today – and enter the cage.

The elevator is a giant platform. In addition to miners, it takes all the mining equipment underground, so its size is appropriate.

You load 16 tonnes

The elevator makes its first stop at the 1050-metre mark. The mine is a web of different tunnels, mining galleries, crosscuts and other underground passages with funny German names. The horizon where I am located is slightly higher than the ore body. There’s one more above it, which serves mainly for ventilation. They also pour concrete through it to fill in cavities remaining after rock has been removed.

The horizon is a tunnel about four metres wide and four metres high; it looks like a subway tunnel or an underground nuclear missile control bunker. It is quite well lit by powerful lamps that diligently disperse the darkness. Breathing is surprisingly easy. Several minutes later, after a bumpy bus ride, we come to a stop. The picture outside the windows has changed dramatically: there are no lamps on the walls, our torches struggle to shed light through the darkness and the unusual smell is stifling.

“We are now inside the ore body,” Aleksei explains.

Miners have two main kinds of tools: drilling machinery and explosives. Special machines are used to drill narrow wells 10–15 metres deep, in which the explosives are placed. The resulting cavities are deepened further. The ore itself is mined using the room and pillar method. Miners use explosives to cut out “rooms” from tunnel walls with an area of five by five metres and up to 15 metres high. Then it’s the turn of the “brontosaur” I’ve already met – the loading and delivery machine.

“Sergei, show the guys how you do your job,” Aleksei asks one of his colleagues.

Sergei exits the cabin and stands a couple of metres away from the machine. Then with a well-trained move he presses two buttons on the remote control and all the lights on the machine turn on, cutting through the mine’s pitch-black darkness. At the same time, the engine roars to life, and the iron brontosaur lowers its 14-tonne scoop, ready to eat into the rock. The first bite is enough to chop off some ten tonnes of ore, but the miners want more. The machine growls and come back for seconds.


“It will now fill its scoop and travel to the ore chute. It doesn’t make sense for it to go back and forth half-empty: productivity would decline, and the equipment’s service life is limited.”

Loading and delivery machines serve for four or five years on average. After that, the “brontosaurs” are written off and taken apart for spare parts. Norilsk miners are more resilient; some of them have been working here for 20 or 30 years, spending shift after shift underground. The mine operates 24/7. Each of the three shifts consists of around 300 workers. Miners spend seven hours underground, producing up to 10,000 tonnes of rich ore every day.

“There’s almost no manual labour these days, unlike in the past,” mine director Sergei Gorbachev reminisces.

The work is still dangerous, though. But whereas the main threat in coal mines is methane explosions, Norilsk’s nickel miners are mostly afraid of tunnel collapses. To mitigate the risk, offloading wells are drilled that take on excessive pressure and reduce the risk of collapse in cavity areas where people are working. Plus, each room is filled with concrete after ore is removed: The fewer cavities there are underground, the safer it is for people.

Jack and Jill went up the hill

The Taymyrsky is a real underground city: hundreds of kilometres of passages up to one mile deep, with electric trains, mine buses and loaders running through wide tunnels. An ore collector is located 1300 metres deep. The ore is prepared, crushed and lifted to the surface using a skip hoist. It is then sent to an enrichment plant, and then to nickel or copper smelters, depending on which metal prevails in the ore.

I also start my climb back to the surface from the -1300 mark. I’m already used to my ears popping in the elevator. The miners are too. We are talking about what it’s like to be a journalist and salaries in Moscow. Mining workers smile discreetly upon hearing how much a reporter makes in the capital; as far as I could understand from talking to mine managers, they earn more than I do.

The elevator’s cage will take those guys 1300 metres underground again tomorrow, and I will board a flight back to Moscow. I will keep a copper ball smelted from the ore extracted at this mine in my pocket. I still don’t know how it got past airport security. Must have been my good luck.

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