Little Bits of History

350,000 Miles on One “Tank”

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 20, 2015
NS Savannah's control room*

NS Savannah’s control room*

August 20, 1962: The NS Savannah begins her maiden voyage. The ship was the first American nuclear powered merchant ship. It was owned by the US Maritime Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Transportation. The ship was built by New York Shipbuilding Corporation. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed building a nuclear powered ship as a showcase for his “Atoms for Peace” initiative. Congress authorized the project in 1956. George Sharp, Incorporated designed the ship. The nuclear reactor was made by Babcock and Wilcox. Mamie Eisenhower christened the ship at launch on July 21, 1959. She was named for the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The ship itself cost $18.6 million to build and the nuclear reactor and fuel cost another $23.3 million for a total cost of $46.9 million. Savannah was completed in December 1961 and acquired on May 1, 1962. She was 596 feet in length and 78 feet at the beam. The cargo ship weighed 9,900 long tons deadweight. The nuclear reactor powered two De Laval steam turbines which gave her a service speed of 21 knots (24 mph) and a top speed of 24 knots (28 mph). Her range at 20 knots was 350,000 miles on one single load of 32 fuel elements. She could carry 60 passengers and had a crew of 124. Her cargo capacity was 14,040 tons. There were only four nuclear powered cargo ships ever built.

The hope was to show that nuclear power could be put to useful service. The ship was not expected to be commercially competitive since the price of her engine was greater than the cost of building the ship itself. She was designed to be visually impressive and even had a Raytheon Radarange included in 1961, when microwave ovens were still quite large and not built for home use. Savannah looked more like a luxury yacht than a cargo ship. There were 30 air-conditioned staterooms, each with an individual bathroom. The dining room could seat 100 and there was a lounge that could double as a movie theater. Included was a swimming pool and a library. By some measures, she was a success. She handled well at sea and her safety record was impressive. Painted gleaming white, the exterior was never smudged by exhaust smoke.

But it was not all peaches and cream. The ship was not designed for ease of loading or unleading the cargo, especially from the forward holds. She was limited to carrying 8,500 tons of freight in 652,000 cubic feet of space. The crews were a third larger than for other cargo ships and they needed special training. There was a dispute over pay aboard ship with the deck officers and nuclear engineer officers at odds. Savannah cost about $2 million more to operate (per year) than a similarly sized oil-fired steam plant ship. She remained in service until 1972. She was originally docked at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina and remained there until 1994. She moved to Baltimore for repairs after which she went to Newport News, Virginia. She returned to Baltimore in 2006. She is a National Historic Landmark.

Even before ascending to the presidency, America’s only General/President of the twentieth century understood the risks inherent in the escalation of nuclear arsenals. – NS

The N.S. Savannah Association’s mission is to take whatever action is necessary to preserve and protect the N.S. Savannah, a non-functional one-of-a-kind nuclear cargo-liner ship. – NS

Savannah was a signature element of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. She was constructed as a joint project of the former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Maritime Administration. –

The defueling, active clean up work and natural decay over 30 years has left only small amounts of radioactive material aboard ship. –

Also on this day: Boom Record – In 1882, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture premiered.
Floyd’s Bluff – in 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition suffered its only fatality.
Disgruntled Worker – In 1986, Patrick Sherrill killed 14 at the Edmond post office.
Thar She Blows – In 1910, the Big Blowup took place.
Intrigue and Mystery – In 14 AD, Agrippa Postumus was killed.

* “NS Savannah control room MD1” by Acroterion – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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