President Dwight Eisenhower desired a “peace ship” that would serve as an ambassador for the peaceful use of atomic power.
Thus in 1955, Eisenhower proposed building a nuclear-powered merchant ship as a showcase for his “Atoms for Peace” initiative.
According to an Eisenhower administration statement to Congress
“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.”
Although initial proposals used a copy of USS Nautilus’s power plant, a conscious decision was made to design a propulsion system with no connection to military programs, to commercial design standards.
In 1956, Congress authorized NS Savannah as a joint project of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and the Department of Commerce.
The Soviet Union had already begun construction of the first nuclear-powered civil icebreaker ship “Lenin” (launched December 5, 1957).
The name Savannah was an historical nod to the SS Savannah, which in 1819 became the first steam powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Savannah was designed by George G. Sharp, Incorporated, of New York City, a prominent naval architecture firm founded in 1920.
George G. Sharp was responsible for Savannah’s design in all respects apart from the nuclear reactor, which was designed and manufactured by Babcock and Wilcox.
Savannah’s reactor was designed to civilian standards using low-enriched uranium with less emphasis on shock resistance and compactness of design than that seen in comparable military propulsion reactors, but with considerable emphasis on safety and reliability.
The reactor was placed to allow for access from above for refueling. The 74-MW reactor is a tall, narrow cylinder, housed in an cylindrical containment vessel with rounded ends and a 14-foot diameter vertical cylindrical projection housing the control rods and refueling equipment.
The containment vessel was not to be occupied under operational conditions, but could be accessed within 30 minutes of reactor shut-down. The lower half of the containment vessel was to be shielded by a 4-foot concrete barrier. The upper half was shielded by 6 inches of lead and 6 inches of polyethylene.
A collision mat shielded the sides of the vessel with alternating layers of 1-inch steel and 3-inches of redwood in a 24-inch assembly.
Since the reactor occupied the center of the ship, and because the reactor required clear overhead access for a crane during refueling, the superstructure was set far back on the hull.
Savannah was even designed to have fin stabilizers, intended to enhance the safety of the reactor and to improve passenger comfort.
The raked, teardrop-shaped structure was specifically designed by George G. Sharp’s ship design consultant Jack Heaney and Associates of Wilton, Connecticut for a futuristic appearance, decorated with stylized atom graphics on either side.
Heaney was responsible for the interiors, which featured sleek modern styling appropriate for the atomic age.
Savannah was designed to be visually impressive, looking more like a luxury yacht than a bulk cargo vessel, and was equipped with thirty air-conditioned staterooms (each with an individual bathroom), a dining facility for 100 passengers, a lounge that could double as a movie theater, a veranda, a swimming pool and a library. Even her cargo handling equipment was designed to look good.
Savannah’s keel was laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey.
She was christened by US First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at the ship’s launching on July 21, 1959.
Savannah’s final cost was $46.9 million, which included $28.3 million for the nuclear reactor and fuel core, funded entirely by United States government agencies.
After christening, it took another 2 1⁄2 years to complete the reactor installation and initial trials before the ship was moved to Yorktown, Virginia under temporary oil-fired power, where the reactor was started and tested.
Full reactor power was achieved in April 1962. Savannah was delivered on May 1, 1962 to the Maritime Administration and turned over to her operators, the States Marine Lines.
Then on August 20, 1962, NS Savannah undertook demonstrations, first sailing to Savannah, her home port.
During this trip a faulty instrument initiated a reactor shutdown, which was misreported as a major accident in the press.
From there she passed through the Panama Canal and visited Hawaii and ports on the west coast of the United States, becoming a popular exhibit for three weeks at the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle.
By early 1963, the NS Savannah arrived in Galveston, Texas for repair and system checks. There, a dispute over the compensation of nuclear-qualified engineering officers led to a reactor shutdown and strike by the nuclear engineering crew. The contract with States Marine Lines was canceled and a new operator, American Export Isbrandtsen, was selected, requiring a new crew to be trained. This involved a switch to non-union crew, which became a lingering issue in the staffing of proposed future nuclear ships.
During her initial year of operation, Savannah released over 115,000 gallons of very low-level radioactive waste at sea, having substantially exceeded her storage capacity of 10,000 US gallons. The Nuclear Servicing Vessel Atomic Servant was built to receive waste from Savannah. The unpowered barge featured a fuel storage pit for a replacement fuel and control rod assembly, lined by 12 inches of lead. Atomic Servant was made available to service Savannah anywhere in the world.
By 1964, Savannah started a tour of the US Gulf and east coast ports. During the summer she crossed the Atlantic for the first time, visiting Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Dublin and Southampton. 150,000 people toured the ship during this tour.
Savannah served as a passenger-cargo liner until 1965, when passenger service was discontinued.
By this time a total of 848 passengers had been carried along with 4,800 tons of cargo. The ship was converted to all-cargo use, with the removal of 1,800 tons of ballast. Passenger spaces were closed.
Savannah operated for three years and traveled 350,000 miles before returning to Galveston for refueling.
Four of the 32 fuel assemblies were replaced and the remaining units rearranged to even out fuel usage.
By many measures, the ship was a success. She performed well at sea, her safety record was impressive, and her gleaming white paint was never smudged by exhaust smoke.
In 1969, Savannah became the first nuclear-powered ship to dock in New York City. She was a centerpiece for a city-wide information festival called Nuclear Week In New York. Thousands of persons toured Savannah and the other special events of Nuclear Week In New York. These events included demonstrations of advancements in peaceful uses of atomic energy—such as food products purified by radiation, new applications for technology and many information and education programs.
The Johnny Carson “Tonight” TV show featured Nuclear Week In New York on two programs.
Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission was the featured speaker and President Eisenhower was honored for his introduction of the global Atoms for Peace program.
The appearance of Savannah and the Nuclear Week In New York program was designed and implemented by Charles Yulish Associates and supported by contributions from leading energy companies.
The Maritime Administration then leased Savannah to American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines for revenue cargo service.
However, Savannah’s cargo space was limited to 8,500 tons of freight in 652,000 cubic feet. Many of her competitors could accommodate several times as much. Her streamlined hull made loading the forward holds laborious, which became a significant disadvantage as ports became more and more automated. Her crew was a third larger than comparable oil-fired ships and received special training in addition to that required for conventional maritime licenses.
As a result of her design handicaps, training requirements, and additional crew members, 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 placed her out of service in 1971 to save costs, a decision that made sense when fuel oil cost US$20 per ton.
In a note of historical parallel, the ship’s namesake, SS Savannah, which in 1819 became the first steam powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, was also a commercial failure despite the innovation in marine propulsion technology.
In a note of historical parallel, the ship’s namesake, SS Savannah, was also a commercial failure despite the innovation in marine propulsion technology.
During her active career, Savannah traveled 450,000 miles, visiting 45 foreign and 32 domestic ports and was visited by 1.4 million people in her function as an Atoms for Peace project.
Savannah’s presence also eased access for nuclear-powered naval ships in foreign ports, though the ship was excluded from ports in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Following her removal from active service, Savannah was first obtained by the City of Savannah and was docked at the end of River Street (near the Talmadge Memorial Bridge), with plans for eventually making her a floating hotel.
However, investors could not be found.
For a short period of time during the late 1970s she was stored in Galveston, Texas, and was a familiar sight to many travelers on State Highway 87 as they crossed Bolivar Roads on the free ferry service operated by the Texas Department of Highways.
Her reactor was de-fueled in 1975, but the reactor remains in place.
The radioactive primary coolant loop water was removed at the time of shut-down, as were some of the more radioactive components within the reactor system. The secondary loop water was removed at the same time.
Residual radioactivity in 1976 was variously estimated as between 168,000 and 60,000 curies, mostly iron 55 (2.4 year half life) and cobalt 60 (5.2 year half life).
By 2005, the residual radioactivity had declined to 4,800 curies.
Residual radiation in 2011 was stated to be very low.
The reactor and the ship will be regulated until 2031.
In 1981, 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 engine room from an observation area, 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 a need to dry dock 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 repairs, after which she was moved to the James River Merchant Marine Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Virginia.
The Maritime Administration has not funded decommissioning and removal of the ship’s nuclear systems. Savannah had undergone work at Colonna’s Shipyard of Norfolk, Virginia, beginning August 15, 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 January 30, 2007, she was towed to Pier 23, which is owned by the City of Newport News.
On May 8, 2008, Savannah arrived in Baltimore under tow. Savannah may remain in Baltimore through 2016 under a US Maritime Administration contract with the Vane Brothers’ Co. at the Canton Marine Terminal in the Canton section of Baltimore.
Since 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 decommissioning, decontamination and radiological work is completed.
A MARAD spokesman told The Baltimore Sun in May of 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.
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