The Nuclear Ship Savannah is a boldly-styled passenger/cargo vessel powered by a nuclear reactor. NS Savannah was one of a kind, the ultimate in break bulk merchant ship design. She was meant to light the way toward a brave new world of oceangoing commerce: Proud freighters ploughing the seas as their nuclear reactors silently, cleanly, and efficiently converted water to steam to turn banks of mighty turbines. That was the vision embodied by the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear cargo ship ever built. Among maritime history buffs, Savannah has assumed legendary status.
The N.S. SAVANNAH (NSS) is the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship. In 1955, President Eisenhower proposed that the United States build the world's first atomic-powered merchant vessel to demonstrate America's peaceful use of the atom. In 1956, Congress authorized construction of the Nuclear Ship SAVANNAH as a joint project of the Maritime Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission. She was built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey between 1958 and 1962. The N.S. SAVANNAH is 600 feet long with a displacement of 22,000 tons. She was designed as a combination cargo-passenger vessel, with a capacity of 9,400 tons of general cargo, 60 passengers and 124 crew.
The N.S. SAVANNAH is equipped with a pressurized light water moderated and cooled low enrichment uranium dioxide (U-235 4.4%) fueled reactor with a maximum power rating of 80 Megawatts (thermal). The reactor-supplied steam was employed in the ship's propulsion system (geared steam turbine), which was capable of delivering in excess of 22,000 shaft horsepower to a single propeller, with a designed ship's service speed of 21 knots.
The Savannah -- a showcase for the Eisenhower Administration's "Atoms for Peace" initiative -- was christened in 1959 by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. After the ship was commissioned, MARAD took title to and responsibility for the ship. MARAD's contribution was the ship, the AEC's was the reactor and related nuclear systems. The reactor was first brought to power in 1961, with seagoing trials following in 1962. The AEC ended its participation in the project in about 1965, transferring liability and title of the reactor to MARAD.
The ship proved to be a technically brilliant but commercially unviable exercise. On the positive side of the ledger, Savannah steamed more than 450,000 miles from 1959 to 1971. In her five years of cargo operation (1965-1970, following several years of at-sea shakedown tests), she generated some $12 million in revenue -- real money back then. The 163 pounds of uranium she consumed is estimated to have provided the equivalent power of nearly 29 million gallons of fuel oil. She was a wonder of the sea lanes, not surprising given that this was the era when Detroit was toying with the idea of nuclear-powered concept cars and aircraft makers were designing atomic planes. In a day when nuclear power was synonymous with the highest of high technology, some 1.4 million people visited Savannah at her ports of call. She was quite a goodwill ambassador.
There was a downside to the Savannah story, though. In commerce, the bottom line is the bottom line, and on those terms, Savannah just didn't measure up. She required a crew of more than 100 highly trained sailors, including nuclear technologists and engineers. Comparable conventional ships required only 20 to 30 hands. The death knell for the Savannah -- and for commercial nuclear shipping -- came when the DoD, a major customer of US-flagged shipping, inevitably and appropriately concluded that oil-fired freighters were more cost-effective than nuclear ships.
NSS was operated in experimental and commercial demonstration service throughout the 1960's. Having completed its research and development objectives, the ship was removed from service in mid-1970. When alternative uses for the ship failed to materialize, its nuclear power plant was defueled, partially decommissioned, and prepared for long-term lay-up under contemporary best practices.
The SAVANNAH was maintained in lay-up status until defueled in late 1971. From 1973 onwards the ship was permanently removed from service, and the nuclear facility was partially decommissioned in 1975-76. From 1981 to 1994 the vessel was bareboat chartered to the Patriots Point Development Authority, Charleston, SC for public display as a museum ship. During that period the PPDA was designated a "co-licensee" for the reactor and exercised custody of the ship - but ownership remained with MARAD. The NSS charter was terminated by mutual agreement in 1994. SAVANNAH was removed from Patriots Point in May 1994; drydocked at Baltimore, Maryland in June-July 1994.
After drydocking, the NSS was placed in MARAD's James River Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Virginiafor long-term retention in accordance with the circa 1970 lay-up plan. The NSS is currently moored along side the Nuclear Barge STURGIS in the James River Reserve Fleet (JRRF) near Fort Eustis, Virginia. MARAD has no present plans to dispose of the ship itself. The NSS is a registered National Historic Landmark, and in the future MARAD hopes to develop a program for its long-term preservation.
Although less than fifty years old, N.S. Savannah possesses exceptional national significance as the first application of nuclear power to a commercial ship; and as the structure most associated with President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative. The combination passenger/cargo ship demonstrated to the world the safe and reliable operation of this new technology, resulted in the establishing of a nuclear ship training program for civilian crew members, established procedures for commercial nuclear ships to enter domestic and foreign ports, and identified a series of issues which would require resolution in a second generation of commercial nuclear ships (disputes over crew pay scales, liability, and commercial viability). In addition to her important role in maritime history, Savannah served a unique public relations role as a floating exhibit on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In this context, she traveled more than 450,000 miles to 32 domestic ports and 45 foreign ports, and was visited by more than 1.4 million people. This level of public exposure was unprecedented for a nuclear facility. A concurrent benefit of this favorable exposure was the acceptance of naval nuclear ships in foreign ports. N.S. Savannah became a symbol of Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative.
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