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NS Savannah – the First Nuclear-Powered Merchant Ship

Written by Matthew Copes 

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Known as the Golden Age of television, the Jet Age and the Atomic Age, the 1950s was a decade of amazing technological advancements, many of which would’ve seemed downright impossible just a few years before. 

After the Second World War the major powers poured tons of money into nuclear research and development.  

In America the first nuclear power plants began generating electricity in the late ‘50s, but with the advent of weapons that were exponentially more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the resulting arms race threatened to reduce the world to a toxic rubble heap if common ground couldn’t be found. 

To counter the atom’s frightening military applications, in 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the Atoms for Peace program, ostensibly to show the world that there were abundant non-threatening commercial uses for atomic energy as well.

The following year the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Commerce and the Maritime Administration commissioned the building of a nuclear powered merchant ship, and shortly thereafter Congress earmarked nearly $47 million USD for the project, or about $450 million USD in today’s money.    

Of this, about 1/3 would be for the ship which was designed by renowned New York naval architecture firm George G. Sharp Incorporated and built in Camden, New Jersey.   

The rest would cover the cost of the revolutionary nuclear power plant built by Babcock and Wilcox.

Named after SS Savannah – the first steamship to cross the Atlantic – the ship was one of only four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built.

She sailed between 1962 and 1972, but whereas other merchant vessels were built with efficiency and profit in mind, Savannah was primarily a technology testbed, goodwill ambassador, and PR vessel, and as such she wouldn’t be burdened with proving herself commercially viable.

Specifications

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Measuring nearly 600 feet (182 m) long from bow to stern and tipping the scales at more than 13,000 tons, NS Savanna was about 30% longer than the Liberty Ships that transported men and material to beleaguered Europe during the Second World War. 

Liberty Ships were powered by 2,500 horsepower steam engines and had ranges of approximately 17,000 miles, but Savannah’s combination of 74 MW Babcock & Wilcox reactor and twin De Laval steam turbines collectively thumped out more than 20,000 shaft horsepower.

By comparison Nazi Germany’s Bismarck-class battleships had 150,000 shaft horsepower. 

Of course they were significantly heavier, but for merchant ships efficiency is far more important than speed. 

Designers estimated that Savannah would be able to cruise for nearly 350,000 miles on the energy contained in its 32 individual fuel elements, and top speed was a hearty 24 knots (28 mph / 44 km/h), or between 25 and 40% faster than most similar non-military vessels. 

Crewed by more than 120 seamen, officers, mechanics and nuclear engineers, Savannah could also carry 60 additional passengers in comfort.

Accommodations included a posh lounge, thirty air-conditioned staterooms with private bathrooms, separate dining facilities for crew and guests, as well as a movie theater, swimming pool and library. 

The kitchen was even equipped with newfangled microwave ovens manufactured by Raytheon, now one of the world’s largest defense contractors. 

In addition to functionality Savannah was designed to be visually impressive, and she was among the first vessels to incorporate a raked or swept superstructure that gave her a sleek contemporary appearance. 

The rear ⅓ of the ship resembled modern cruise ships, while the expensive area in front of the superstructure was similar to those on traditional merchant vessels. 

On the downside, her streamlined hull was narrower and less angular than those on other merchant ships.

Despite having an internal cargo capacity of approximately 650,000 cubic feet (18,500 cubic meters), she could only haul about 7,000 tons of freight, or about half that of her contemporaries.  

Though power was originally to come from a beefed-up version of the reactor found in the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, this was scrapped early on because it was imperative that Savannah had no direct ties to the military.  

Instead, her reactor was designed from the ground up and built to civilian standards with an eye toward compactness, efficiency, safety and reliability, with much less emphasis placed on shock resistance, since she wouldn’t need to contend with missiles, torpedoes and mines.

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Reactor 

Savannah’s reactor was a slim cylinder about 17 feet (5.2 m) tall set over a 5-foot (1.5 m) diameter core containing 32 fuel elements and 164 uranium oxide pellets enriched to between 4.2 and 4.6%.

Suspended overhead, 21 control rods could be inserted into the core in less than two seconds by an electric drive. 

Along with the reactor components, the steam generator and cooling equipment were housed in a robust 50 foot long (15 m) steel containment vessel with walls between about 2 and 4 inches (65-100 mm) thick. 

The entire containment vessel was also shielded by various layers of concrete, lead and redwood planks, all of which added more than a hundred tons to overall weight

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In the event that the ship sunk in depths exceeding 100 feet (30 m), the containment vessel had four manhole-sized ports that would open automatically to admit seawater, which would equalize pressure and prevent a catastrophic implosion. 

When the reactor was running the containment vessel was sealed off and unoccupied, though for routine maintenance and repairs it could be entered less than an hour after shutdown. 

The machinery room measured 55 feet (17 m) long, 78 ft (24 m) wide and 32 ft (10 m) high. 

From the main control room located immediately behind it, engineers could remotely control the reactor and steam propulsion plant.

The steam generating system was similar to those used on the Navy’s nuclear carriers and submarines, and power was delivered to the ship’s single shaft and propeller via two turbines – one a 9-stage high-pressure unit, the other a 7-stage low-pressure unit.  

For docking in tight quarters and emergency situations when the ship’s nuclear propulsion was inoperable, Savannah could rely on power from a 750-horsepower auxiliary electric motor. 

Service

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Savanna was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower on July 21, 1959, but it took nearly three more years before the reactor was up and running and initial sea trials were completed, after which she was moved to Yorktown, Virginia. 

It wasn’t until the spring of 1962 when full reactor power was achieved, and the Maritime Administration contracted States Marine Lines to operate the ship. 

Her maiden voyage began on August 20, 1962, when Savannah sailed to her home port of Savannah, Georgia.  

But though the short trip was relatively uneventful, the ship did experience an automatic reactor shutdown due to faulty instruments, which the press incorrectly reported as a major accident. 

Once the issue had been resolved, Savannah proceeded around Florida and through the Panama Canal enroute to a number of engagements at West Coast ports before steaming across the Pacific to Hawaii. 

Then by early 1963 she’d made her way to Galveston, Texas for routine repairs and system checks, but during this scheduled downtime the crew became embroiled in an embarrassing public dispute over the disparity in compensation between the crewmen and nuclear engineers, the latter of which shut down the reactor and officially went on strike.

It goes without saying that disgruntled workers and nuclear reactors are a really bad combination, and as a result the contract with States Marine Lines was abruptly terminated.

American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines ultimately took control of the ship, and new non-union crew members were hired and trained. 

With these problems behind her, Savannah embarked on another world tour, crossing the Atlantic enroute to stops in England, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, but she was prohibited from continuing on to Japan and Australia due to pressure from environmentalists and the fear of lethal leaks and accidents.   

On the return leg of the voyage she became the first nuclear-powered ship to dock in New York City as the centerpiece of Nuclear Week in New York that included educational demonstrations, special events, children’s programs, and a cameo on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  

Now with the PR part of the endeavor out of the way passenger service was discontinued, and the ship was converted to hauling cargo exclusively.

Between 1965 and 1969 Savannah traveled 350,000 nautical miles (650,000 km) before returning to Galveston for refueling and reactor maintenance. 

Of the 32 fuel elements four were replaced, while the rest were rearranged to even out usage, after which the ship set out for another three years before being deactivated in 1971.

All told, from the time she’d launched Savannah had racked up 450,000 nautical miles (830,000 km) of safe travel, transported nearly 900 passengers, visited nearly four dozen foreign countries and more than 30 domestic ports, and had been visited by almost 1.5 million people. 

Economics

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While at sea Savannah performed well and had a nearly immaculate safety record, and unlike her coal and fuel oil-powered counterparts, her glistening white paint was never marred by unsightly exhaust stains. 

But from an economic standpoint, even when exclusively engaging in cargo service with American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines, she was to put it bluntly, a huge money pit. 

Her streamlined hull made her fast and aesthetically pleasing, but as more of the world’s ports were transitioning to automation and containerized freight she became increasingly inefficient and unsuitable as a cargo carrier. 

In addition, her crew was significantly larger than other merchant ships and was composed largely of well-educated and high-paid nuclear engineers, whose salaries pushed operating costs into the stratosphere. 

Of course she was never meant to compete with dedicated cargo vessels, but her glaring deficiencies were evident, and by the end of the program the will to spend huge sums of money subsidizing a losing proposition was waning.

By some accounts, Savannah cost approximately 2 million USD more per year to operate than similarly sized merchant-class ships with conventional power plants. 

For much of the ‘60s heavy fuel oil cost as little as $20 per ton, and though this later ballooned to nearly $80 a ton Savannah just couldn’t compete, despite her range. 

Nuclear Waste 

Various federal agencies constantly touted the project’s successes, but years later it would come to light that during her service life she’d dumped more than 100,000 US gallons of low-level radioactive waste into the sea.

The ship did have a 10,000 gallon tank for holding radioactive waste, but output far exceeded initial estimates, and after just 100 days into her first trip the reinforced reservoir had reached capacity.  

Savannah was also supported by an unpowered barge called the Atomic Servant which could theoretically be towed anywhere in the world to offload waste, but not surprisingly, getting the 600-ton engineless barge where it needed to be proved to be slow, tedious and prohibitively expensive. 

Museum Ship

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After being officially decommissioned, the lengthy process of preparing Savannah for her new non-active life began. 

Though she was defueled and her contaminated components were removed, the reactor itself was left inside the ship.  

For a short period during the ‘70s she resided in Galveston Harbor near the Talmadge Memorial Bridge while plans to turn her into a hotel were mulled over. 

However, due largely to concerns over residual radiation and liability, private investors weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to fork over big bucks for a potentially costly headache.

Since the early ‘80s the ship has remained under the ownership of the Maritime Administration, and since her decommissioning she’s been passed around like a proverbial hotcake, spending time as a museum ship in Patriots Point, South Carolina and undergoing extensive repairs in various East Coast ports like Baltimore, Maryland, Norfolk, Virginia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

As of early 2020, she’d been returned to Baltimore, and though by some estimates her radioactive footprint has decreased by nearly 90% since the ‘70s, she’s never drawn visitors like the retired warships alongside which she rests. 

As the most notable and well-known icons of the Atoms for Peace program, the ship was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in late 1982, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in the summer of 1991, nearly a decade ahead of schedule. 

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