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NS Savannah - Legacy

Several nations considered developing their own nuclear merchant ships. Yet, despite expectations for a second generation of smaller, lighter, more powerful and less expensive reactors, very few nuclear merchant ships were produced. The Soviet's quasi-military nuclear icebreaker Lenin, was in operation at least a year before Savannah. Three other Soviet nuclear ice breakers were in operation during the 1980s (Arktika, Sibiri, and Russia). In 1968, West Germany produced the nuclear-propelled ore carrier Otto Hahn. Although less glamorous than Savannah, she proved to be far more cost effective. The only other commercial nuclear vessel was Japan's small, "special cargo" Mutsu, built in 1971.

The failure of the US. nuclear merchant ship program is important to the history of nuclear energy, but does not nullify the significance of N.S. Savannah. The absence of subsequent nuclear ships may be attributed to several contributing factors, but not to a failure of Savannah to carry out her defined objectives. The development and operation of its lowenriched uranium reactor was a technological success. Following modifications made during her first year in operation, the reactor proved safe, reliable, and more powerful and responsive than expected. Nevertheless, toward the latter part of her operation, many viewed Savannah as a failure.58 Such appraisals, however, were usually based upon factors beyond the scope of the ship's design and operation.

Supporters of the program correctly refer to preconstruct ion statements that the goals of Savannah were limited to a few specific areas: 1) To demonstrate to the world the employment of nuclear power in an instrument of peace for the benefit of mankind, 2) To bring the power of the atom into the market places of the world in peaceful trade and commerce, 3) To enlighten the public to the fact that nuclear-powered ships are entirely dependable and safe, 4) To stimulate early solutions to such problems as international liability and indemnification, and, win for nuclear ships, acceptance in the world's ports, 5) To give the Maritime Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission the opportunity for prudently assessing the possible contributions of atomic power to the progress of the American Merchant Marine in providing shipping services on routes essential for maintaining the flow of the foreign commerce of the United States. These goals were met.

Among the more frequent criticisms of the Savannah are those which refer to her inability to sustain commercial competitiveness with traditional merchant vessels. Such comparison is unfair, and ignores the history of the ship's early design phase. Once the Eisenhower administration decided to add the public relations component by combining a passenger and cargo ship, Savannah was removed from commercial viability. Concern over appearance and passenger comfort was not without expense, and resulted in design compromises. For example, the passengers' swimming pool was located over one of the cargo holds, prohibiting the most efficient access to that hold.60 Other compromises included: the tilt-back design of the ship's masts (adopted to improve her appearance) which impeded operation of the forward end of the hatches; the shorter than normal length of Savannah's booms, coupled with her broad beam (necessary to accommodate the reactor and its shielding), made the maximum onshore reach four to six feet less than desirable; the less-than-standard lift capacity of booms and cargo gear required doubling and tripling of cranes when handling heavyweight cargoes; and, the lightly constructed hydraulic hatch covers leaked and were easily damaged.

In addition to specific design elements which contributed to Savannah's lack of commercial viability, several external factors contributed to the absence of additional U.S. nuclear merchant ships. Some of these factors are also linked to the general decline in the development of land-based nuclear energy projects.

Despite warnings that the aging U.S. Merchant Marine fleet was in danger of being eclipsed by competing nations, the federal subsidies required by the maritime industry for development of nuclear merchant vessels were not appropriated. While the industry had expected to benefit from the nation's pride in Savannah, the nuclear merchant program proved to be a dead end. Rather than emphasizing this new propulsion technology to keep up with foreign competition, the U.S. maritime industry responded by overcoming the burden of costly loading and unloading expenses (three to ten times that of foreign costs) by building larger and faster containerized cargo ships. On this point, the timing of the Savannah program was unfortunate. Although she was designed as a bulk-type cargo ship prior to the industry's conversion to more efficient containerized ships, Savannah's designers have been unfairly criticized for the ship's conventional cargo storage and handling features.

The merchant marine industry's reluctance to develop a fleet of truly commercial nuclear ships no doubt rests heavily with the lack of sufficient federal subsidy. Even with the ground broken by Savannah, private industry was not willing to absorb the costs and risks inherent in this type of research and development. Furthermore, as concern over the safety of nuclear reactors increased, the time and money expended on securing and maintaining operating licensing became even more burdensome. Finally, operating expenses remained high. In addition to the larger and more highly trained on-board crew, nuclear ship operation required the staffing of specially trained shore staff to service nuclear reactor repair, maintenance, and storage of radioactive materials. Even with soaring fuel costs during the 1970s the presumed economy of nuclear-powered ships failed to fulfill expectations. The once-popular notion of an inexpensive, "thimble-size" amount of nuclear material to power a ship proved overly optimistic.

While the success or failure of the Atoms for Peace initiative may be debated endlessly, its historical significance is firmly grounded in its representation as an unprecedentedly bold foreign policy venture. The initiative served as recognition of the solemn responsibilities of nuclear-nation status during the Cold War. Even if one accepts the critical appraisal that this policy produced few tangible results, the Atoms for Peace initiative had a broad psychological impact. It was perceived by most during the mid-1950s as a call for caution and reason during tense and anxious days.

At least for the present, the shifting attitudes about nuclear safety and the uncertain economics of nuclear energy have tabled the dreams of those who believed Savannah would lead to a fleet of nuclear merchant ships. While, this anticipated outgrowth of the nuclear merchant ship program has not been realized, the larger demonstration to the world of the peaceful potential of atomic energy was accomplished.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:20 ZULU