NS Savannah

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.

NS Savannah

1955 President Eisenhower proposes building nuclear powered merchant ship.
1956 Congress authorizes building of NS Savannah as a joint project of the Atomic Energy Commission, Maritime Administration and the Department of Commerce
1959 NS Savannah christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower as a showcase for  President Eisenhower's "Atoms of Peace" Initiative.
1962 NS Savannah launched on March 23rd
1965-1971 NS Savannah in revenue cargo service
1972 NS Savannah decomissioned in an effort to reduce spending by the Martime Administration
~1985 NS Savannah stored near Patriot's Point Naval Museum, South Carolina
~1999 NS Savannah moved to James River Merchant Marine Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Virginia

NS Savannah Technical Specifications

Overall length 596 feet
Width 78 feet
Displacement 22,000 tons
Load carrying capacity 14,040 tons
Waterproof compartmetns 14
Loading spaces 6
Crew 124
Passengers 60
Top speed 21 knots
Shaft Horsepower 20,300
Reactor 74 MW
Reactor Manufacturer Babcock & Wilcox
Builders New York Shipbuilding, Camden, NJ

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 programs.

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

Marketing materials for the NS Savannah - 1964
[Click thumbnails for larger image.]
NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 1NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 2

NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 3NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 4
NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 6

Photo from 1962 National Geographic
(Click for larger image)
NS Otto Hahn - Article Page 5

Refueling the NS Savannah

NS Savannah Schematic

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