LATEST
Home > CRUISING THE PAST > N.S. SAVANNAH – America’s first and only luxury passenger nuclear powered ship.

N.S. SAVANNAH – America’s first and only luxury passenger nuclear powered ship.

Cruise History: N.S. SAVANNAH – America’s first and only nuclear powered merchant ship failed in many ways but may have been a solution to present self-sufficiency problems.

The N.S. Savannah was the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo/passenger ship, built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey.

The NS Savannah was one of only three nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built (the others are the NS Otto Hahn and the Russian container ship Sevmorput).

Youtube video on the N.S. Savannah.

First proposed in 1955, the Savannah was part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. Congress authorized the construction in 1956 as a joint project between the Maritime Administration of the Department of Commerce and the Atomic Energy Commission. Savannah was launched in March, 1962.

Passenger lounge.  While it looks like typical decor of the fifties, it is not an I Love Lucy set. This is the passenger lounge of NS Savannah shot when she was displayed at Patriot’s Point in Charleston, SC. Note the ultra-modern built-in color television and the model of her reactor. The view is through the starboard entrance looking to port (The bow is to the right). NS Savannah, the first of only three existing nuclear powered merchant vessels and launched in 1958, has since been removed from public view and there is even talk of scrapping her.

Passenger dining room from American Export brochure.

Designed to carry 9,400 tons of cargo, 60 first class passengers and 124 crew, NS Savannah was capable of cruising at 21 knots and traveling 336,000 miles on a single fuel load.

NS Savannah demonstrated the technical feasibility of nuclear propulsion for merchant ships and was not expected to be commercially competitive.

Savannah was designed to be visually impressive. The hull was streamlined to look more like a luxury yacht than a bulk cargo vessel.

The NS Savannah was equipped with 30 air conditioned staterooms, each with an individual bath, a dining facility that could seat 100 passengers, a lounge that could double as a movie theater, a veranda, a swimming pool and a library.

Launching party, NS Savannah, First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower, sponsor, July 21, 1959.  New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey.

With a savings of over 29 million gallons of fuel oil during her short 5 year service life (1965-1970) she might have been a solution to present environmental and self-sufficiency problems. Her high maintenance cost however, led to her downfall.

Re-fueling of the Nuclear Ship Savannah.

But by many measures, the ship was a success. She performed well at sea, her safety record was impressive, her fuel economy was unsurpassed, and her gleaming white paint was never smudged by exhaust smoke. Even her cargo handling equipment was designed to look good. From 1965 to 1971, the Maritime Administration leased Savannah to American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines for revenue passenger-cargo service.

No ship with these disadvantages could hope to be commercially successful. Her passenger space was wasted while her cargo capacity was insufficient. As a result of her design handicaps, Savannah cost approximately US $2 million a year more in operating subsidies than a similarly sized Mariner-class ship with a conventional oil-fired steam plant. The Maritime Administration decommissioned her in 1972 to save costs, a decision that made sense when fuel oil cost US$20 per ton. In 1974, however, when fuel oil cost $80 per ton following an energy crisis, Savannah’s operating costs would have been no greater than a conventional cargo ship. (Maintenance and eventual disposal are other issues, of course.)

For a short period of time during the 1970s, after the Savannah was decommissioned, she was stored in Galveston, Texas, and was a familiar sight to many travelers on State Highway 87 as they crossed Boliver Roads on the free ferry service operated by the Texas Department of Highways.

In 1981, the Savannah was obtained via bareboat charter for display at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum near Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Although the museum had use of the vessel, ownership of Savannah remained with the Maritime Administration, and the Patriots Point Development Authority had to be designated a “co-licensee” for the ship’s reactor. Periodic radiological inspections were also necessary to ensure the continued safety of the ship. Once Savannah was open for display, visitors could tour the ship’s cargo holds, view the reactor spaces from an observation window, look into staterooms and passenger areas, and walk the ship’s decks.

The museum had hoped to recondition and improve the ship’s public spaces for visitors, but these plans never materialized. Savannah never drew the visitors that the museum’s other ships, notably the aircraft carrier Yorktown, did. When a periodic MARAD inspection in 1993 indicated the need for dry docking the Savannah, Patriots Point and the Maritime Administration agreed to terminate the ship’s charter in 1994. The ship was moved from the museum and dry docked in Baltimore, Maryland in 1994 for the repairs, after which she was moved to the James River Merchant Marine Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Virginia. The fuel in her nuclear power plant was removed upon retirement, though parts of the system that still contain radioactivity are on board.

Massachusetts Maritime Academy Honor Guard Members at 50th anniversary of the keel laying of the N.S. Savannah in Maryland.

The Maritime Administration has funded decommissioning and removal of the ship’s nuclear systems. The Savannah had undergone work at Colonna’s Shipyard of Norfolk, Virginia, beginning 15 August 2006. That $995,000 job included exterior structural and lighting repairs, removing shipboard cranes and wiring, refurbishing water-damaged interior spaces, and removing mold, mildew and painting some of the interior. On 30 January 2007, she was towed to Pier 23, which is owned by the City of Newport News.

On 8 May 2008, the NS Savannah arrived in Baltimore under tow from Norfolk, for removal of the vessel’s remaining radioactive material. The Savannah is expected to remain in Baltimore for up to 3 years under a $588,380 U.S. Maritime Administration contract with the Vane Brothers’ shipyard at the Canton Marine Terminal in the Canton section of Baltimore.

Since the NS Savannah is historically significant and has been designated a National Historic Landmark, MARAD has expressed interest in offering the ship for preservation once Savannah’s DDR (Decommissioning, Decontamination and Radiological) work is completed. A MARAD spokesman told The Baltimore Sun in May 2008 that the maritime agency envisions the ship’s eventual conversion into a museum, but that no investors have yet offered to undertake the project.

There is still debate as to state of the vessel and if the radioactive material has been completely removed.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration made efforts to identify all sources of radioactive materials that could be used by terrorists to manufacture “dirty bombs” containing radioactive materials.

Someone finally thought of checking the Savannah.

The ship was found to contain thousands of pounds of intensely radioactive material, including the reactor, the core cooling system, the fuel rod handling devices, and the entire reactor room, the ship was a floating radiological hazard of the first magnitude. Immediately the ship was towed to the Vane brothers shipyard in Baltimore, where they intend to spend the next three years trying to figure out a way to do something that’s never been accomplished before.  They will try to decontaminate a fifty year old, rotting ship that contains  an ancient nuclear reactor.

Amazingly, there are still plans to convert the ship to a museum, if and when they invent a way to actually decontaminate the ship!

So, when the ship is repainted and restored, the government will once again announce that the ship is safe, they will tell us that there is no radiation left on board, once more they will mount an intensive publicity campaign to convince the public that the “background level” of contamination is “within safe limits.” And that ship will be on public display again.

Savannah was the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo and passenger ship, built as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. Although not meant to be profitable, its economic inefficiency destined it to a short career.