NS Savannah -
By the time Savannah completed her trials, the United States had added more than a dozen nuclear submarines to join USS Nautilus, as well as the guided missile cruiser Long Beach (the Navy's first nuclear surface ship), and the first nuclear aircraft carrier, Enterprise. The Soviet Union also had nuclear submarines, as well a nuclear icebreaker.
On the first leg of her voyage, the proud ship and crew suffered embarrassment after a faulty pressure indicator initiated a reactor "scam." Unfortunately, this caused the media to mistakenly report that she had suffered a major nuclear failure. Based on performance, Savannah's operators were pleased that the power plant exceeded the projected 20,000 shaft horsepower by more than ten percent; and, instead of a speed of 20 knots, she cruised steadily at 24 knots. The ship's operators boasted: The response of the power plant in meeting changes in steam demand has been excellent. While it is difficult to compare performance qualitatively with that of a conventional ship, it can be said that the Savannah reactor can meet large changes in load demand in roughly one half to one quarter of the time required for a conventional power plant.
As the first of her kind, Savannah broke new ground in establishing various types of operating procedures. New rules governing the operation and docking of commercial nuclear vessels at domestic and foreign ports emphasized safety from potential nuclear hazards. In each port she visited, arrangements were made to have stand-by tug services to move the ship out to sea in the event of a nuclear accident. Of concern to foreign authorities was the potential liability associated with nuclear-ship operation. While no private insurance was provided for Savannah, the U.S. Government bolstered the ship's acceptability to foreign authorities by extending the provisions of the Price-Anderson Act. This Act provided a $500,000,000 indemnification to cover claims filed against AEC-licensed facilities by victims of nuclear accidents.
Savannah's accomplishments in securing permission to enter foreign ports had implications beyond future prospects for a nuclear maritime fleet. Breaking ground with a ship of such benign intentions, which was engineered under rigorous safety guidelines, undoubtedly facilitated the world-wide acceptance of America's growing nuclear Navy fleet as well. After cruising through the Panama Canal, and port visits along the West Coast and Hawaii, Savannah became a popular exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair during a three week visit. In early 1963 she returned to her special facilities at Galveston for a 30,000-mile check-up, which included general system upgrading and miscellaneous repair work. In addition, she underwent her annual U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping certifications.
While this work was underway a labor dispute erupted. Savannah's engineering officers had been allotted extra pay in compensation for their additional nuclear training. The deck officers, however, cited the tradition that they receive higher pay than engineering officers. After a labor arbitrator ruled in favor of the traditional pay scale, the engineers shut the reactor down in protest in May of 1963. When the engineers refused to go back to work, the Maritime Administration canceled its contract with States Marine Lines and selected American Export Isbrandtsen Lines as the new ship operator. The resulting need to train a new crew interrupted Savannah's demonstration schedule for nearly a year.
Although the change in operators alleviated the immediate labor problem, the failure to resolve this dispute would forever cloud the feasibility of nuclear merchant ships. Many feared that abandoning the Masters, Mates, and pilots (M.M.& P.) and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) trade unions merely deferred the necessary resolution of this conflict. After all, these two unions represented deck and engineering officers on a majority of all other U.S.-flag operated ships.
In the spring of 1964 Savannah was again underway with a tour of Gulf Coast and East Coast ports. She began her maiden transatlantic voyage later that summer (New York to Bremerhaven in ten days). At her first four European port visits (Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Dublin, Southampton), 150,000 people toured the ship. Before these foreign port visits, representatives from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the ship's operating company traveled to meet with officials at each port. Permission to dock was not authorized until all three parties were satisfied with the ship's projected operations while in port.
After travelling a total of 90,000 miles, and hosting 1.4 million visitors, Savannah's passenger/cargo demonstration phase was completed in 1965. She had visited 28 domestic and 18 foreign ports in 13 countries. She had carried 848 passengers, and 4,800 tons of cargo.48 In preparation for Savannah's commercial demonstration phase, her passenger spaces were sealed and 1,800 tons of solid ballast were removed. First Atomic Ship Transport, Inc. (FAST), a subsidiary of American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines, was licensed to operate the ship for three years as a cargo vessel. To compensate for the expense of operating a demonstration vessel, FAST was given a one dollar per year lease on the ship, with no charge for the fuel.49 Despite delays caused by the replacement of the main coolant pumps, on August 5, 1965, the Atomic Energy Authority issued to the operator nuclear reactor operator's license, serial number NS-1.
In September, 1965 Savannah departed New York for her first commercial voyage with a capacity load of 10,000 tons of general cargo. During 1967 her cargo activity generated $2,600,000 in revenue. Furthermore, while performing as a cargo vessel, Savannah continued to fulfill her responsibilities as goodwill ambassador in visits to ports in Europe, Africa, and the Far East.
After travelling 350,000 miles (or the equivalent of nearly 14 times around the world), Savannah returned to Galveston in late 1968 for maintenance and her first refueling. Although a complete reactor core was ready for installation, it was not needed. Only four of the original 32 fuel bundles required replacement. The remaining bundles were rearranged to compensate for variations in fissioning activity depending on their original proximity to the core's center.
Just when the momentum for an enlarged U.S. nuclear merchant fleet should have been greatest, the single largest client for such a fleet decided to use traditionally powered vessels exclusively. The Defense Department, a major customer of U.S. shipping, concluded that oil-fired freighters were more cost- effective than nuclear ships. Furthermore, with budgetary priorities of the mid 1960s shaped by the Vietnam Conflict, funding for the nuclear merchant program was at risk. Later, the Maritime Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission initiated significant cutbacks in funding for the merchant ship reactor program. Even though the ship's operators described her as "the most reliable ship we have operating," the Maritime Administration decided that little more could be gained by adding to the $90,000,000 thus far invested in the Savannah project. A last-minute suggestion for the Army to use the nuclear ship as a floating emergency power plant was not acted upon.
By late 1970, Savannah had traveled more than 450,000 miles to 32 domestic ports, and 45 foreign ports in 26 countries. The 163 pounds of uranium she consumed was estimated to have provided the equivalent power of nearly 29,000,000 gallons of fuel oil. Included among Savannah's accomplishments, was the production of nearly $12,000,000 in revenue during her first five years of cargo operation (1965 to 1970).
Savannah was deactivated in late 1971, and presented to Savannah, Georgia, in early 1972 as part of a proposed Eisenhower Peace Memorial. Adequate support for the peace memorial never materialized. Several years later, Congress passed public law 96-331, which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to transfer the ship (under a bare boat charter) to the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in South Carolina. Since late 1981, she has served as a floating exhibit in Charleston Harbor. N.S. Savannah was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 14, 1982. In 1983 Savannah was dedicated as an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
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