NS Savannah - Initial Planning
Decades before scientists learned how to harness nuclear power, a popular notion foresaw that a small amount of radioactive material could propel a ship for months. After the power of the atom was unleashed many believed that the best test of commercial nuclear propulsion viability would be in the form of a single-function trade ship, such as an oil tanker. President Eisenhower, however, had other ideas. He wanted to build a nuclear-powered "peace ship," or roving goodwill ship, to build world-wide support for the non-military benefits of nuclear power. According to a top administration official: "The President seeks no return on this vessel except the goodwill of men everywhere. Neither will the vessel be burdened by proving itself commercially feasible by carrying goods exclusively." This proposal, however, did not get underway until two elements of Eisenhower's plan were modified. First, the "peace ship" was recast as a combination passenger/cargo merchant vessel to serve as a roving goodwill ship as well as to demonstrate the application of nuclear propulsion to commercial shipping. Second, the proposal to copy the Navy's Nautilus reactor was replaced by a plan to develop anew reactor design, untainted by any direct association with military technology and designed to meet commercial requirements.
Although these modifications increased the demonstration value of the ship, they also contributed to one of her shortfalls. The combination of the public relations mission with that of cargo vessel resulted in unfortunate design compromises. During the ship's passenger/cargo vessel demonstration phase, these compromises posed few problems. However, once she began her cargo demonstration phase, it became clear that the wasteful inclusion of luxurious passenger facilities, inefficient cargo hatch locations, and inadequate cargo cranes hampered her commercial competitiveness. On April 25, 1955, (less than seven months after launching the first nuclear vessel, the submarine USS Nautilus,) President Eisenhower announced his plans to build a nuclear-powered merchant ship. The development of Nuclear Ship Savannah was authorized by Congress in July of 1956, and put under the joint direction of the Maritime Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission.
N.S. Savannah was named after S.S. Savannah, the first steamship to make a transatlantic voyage in 1819. This 110'-long paddle steamer contained a one-cylinder, 90 hp steam engine as well as three full-rigged masts of sail. Burdened with as much fuel as she could stow (75 tons of coal, and 25 cords of wood), she carried virtually no cargo. Yet, during much of her four-week voyage from New York to Liverpool, she was under sail to conserve fuel. Despite S.S. Savannah's accomplishment, she was not soon followed by other ocean going steamships. In fact, her own steam engine was later removed and she was operated as a sailing vessel for her remaining years. Those who meant to honor the name of this ship hoped the new vessel, with another revolutionary propulsion system, would be more appreciated than its namesake had been. Unfortunately, in this regard, N.S. Savannah would have much in common with her predecessor.
It was noted from the outset that the design for the ship's nuclear plant placed safety and reliability above efficiency and economics. A primary goal was to design and operate a nuclear maritime vessel which was safe to the crew, the passengers, and the public. Duplication of components and backup systems were utilized to enhance the ship's safety. Savannah's design and construction resulted in a vessel with an unprecedented concern over safety. She was built to the requirements of the applicable codes of the U.S. Coast Guard, the American Bureau of Shipping, the Maritime Administration, the U.S. Public Health Service, the AIEE Marine Code, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
In a 1955 Maritime Administration study, it was noted that the reactors developed by the Navy were designed to withstand greater shocks, perform with greater control, and meet stricter size and weight requirements than necessary in merchant ships. The report concluded that rather than following unnecessarily expensive military precedents, the Maritime Administration's project should produce a reactor specifically designed for merchant ship propulsion. The decision to depart from previous practice and utilize the less costly low-enriched uranium reactor, however, introduced other design challenges. Nevertheless, the Maritime Administration did not plan to develop a fully-competitive commercial vessel. Instead, they proposed a "floating laboratory to study design, operation and manning of nuclear ships, not a vessel to 'prove or disprove the economics' of nuclear propulsion."
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