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).
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. Designed to carry
9,400 tons of cargo, 60 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.
||President Eisenhower proposes
building nuclear powered merchant ship.
||Congress authorizes building
of NS Savannah as a joint project of the Atomic Energy Commission, Maritime
Administration and the Department of Commerce
||NS Savannah christened by
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower as a showcase for President Eisenhower's
"Atoms of Peace" Initiative.
||NS Savannah launched on
||NS Savannah in revenue cargo
||NS Savannah decomissioned
in an effort to reduce spending by the Martime Administration
||NS Savannah stored near
Patriot's Point Naval Museum, South Carolina
||NS Savannah moved to James
River Merchant Marine Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Virginia
NS Savannah Technical
|Load carrying capacity
||Babcock & Wilcox
||New York Shipbuilding, Camden,
Savannah's Planned Mission
Most people who are aware
of the experiment do not understand what the N.S. Savannah was designed
to do. Her planned mission was to prove to the world that the United States
was committed to the proposition of using atomic power for peace and to
show that a nuclear reactor could be used to power a commercial ship. She
was never intended to be profitable. The details of Savannah's design and
operational history offer some valuable lessons for future nuclear ship
By technical 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.
A Lady at Sea
Savannah was visually impressive.
Her hull was streamlined, looking more like a luxury yacht than a bulk
cargo vessel. Even her cargo handling equipment was designed to look good.
Maritime historians often comment that she was "the prettiest merchant
ship ever built."
Her interior was also not
typical of bulk freighters; she was endowed 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 well stocked library.
She was a fast ship with
incredible range. With her 20,000 horsepower nuclear engine her top speed
was 23 knots. Savannah was capable of circling the earth 14 times at 20
knots without refueling.
Savannah was not well endowed
with cargo space. Her holds could accommodate just 8,500 tons of freight
in a total space of 652,000 cubic feet. Many of her competitors were able
to transport several times as much cargo. Her streamlined hull made loading
the forward holds a labor intensive proposition, which became a significant
disadvantage as ports became more and more automated.
Her crew was larger than
comparable oil powered ships (67 compared to about 50). Her budget included
the maintenance of a separate shore organization for negotiating her port
visits and a personalized shipyard facility for completing any needed repairs.
The crew was trained in special
schools after completing all training requirements for conventional maritime
licenses. The number of people sent through the training and attributed
to the Savannah's books indicates a plan for the eventual construction
of additional nuclear steam ships.
Anyone familiar with the
bulk shipping market could immediately recognize that a ship with Savannah's
characteristics could not be a commercial proposition. Her passenger space
was wasted while her cargo capacity was insufficient.
Having a unique propulsion
plant increased the cost of repairs and spare parts relative to machines
with a larger installed base of customers. The large crew of hand-picked
people added even more costs. Expecting her to make money as a bulk freighter
was like expecting an auto show concept car to make money as a jitney taxi.
Condemned to a Short Life
In the words of Robert J.
Bosnak, a former officer in charge of the Marine Inspection team that regulated
the Savannah, "The Savannah performed well from an operational point of
view, but in my opinion her designers condemned her to a short life by
her hybrid design as a passenger-cargo vessel. Neither function of the
ship proved to be economically viable, and MARAD (Maritime Administration)
chose not to spend additional monies to convert her to an all cargo, or
an all passenger vessel, but instead removed her from service. I regret
that this happened."
As a result of her design
handicaps, Savannah consumed approximately $2 million more per year in
operating subsidies during her four year career in international trade
than a similarly sized Mariner class ship with an oil heated steam plant.
This extra subsidy became a target for economy-minded legislators.
In 1972, when Savannah was
laid up, the cost of a ton of oil was about $20.00. A ship with a 20,000
horsepower engine using 1970s technology would have burned about 120 tons
per day for a daily fuel cost of about $2,400. By early 1974, following
the Arab Oil Embargo, a ton of bunker fuel cost about $80.00. That same
ship's daily fuel bill would have suddenly increased to more than $9,000.
Savannah's fuel cost would not have changed as a result of the Oil Embargo.
If the oil-burning ship operated for 330 days per year (which is common
in the world of merchant shipping), the increase in its annual fuel expenditure
would have more than eliminated the difference in Savannah's operating
costs, even with all of her inherent disadvantages