Friday, January 3, 2014

Savannah - the atomic cruise ship

SAVANNAH – beautiful lines for a cargo-passenger ship, but dysfunctional.
STATEROOMS were luxurious for the time and included full-size baths
THE dining room inexplicably had seating for 100, even
though Savannah carried just sixty guests.
THE pool verandah was another innovation.
PLAQUE honouring Savannah as a National Historic Landmark
where she is tied up at Baltimore still awaiting her ultimate future.

David Ellis

A SHIP that's seemed lost in the passage of time is America's NS Savannah, the world's first and only nuclear-powered vessel designed to revolutionise shipping by carrying both cruise passengers and freight world-wide, but in fact doing neither with much success.

While the Russians were already taking passengers on their converted nuclear-powered ice-breaker Lenin to the North Pole as the world's first nuclear-powered "cruise ship," and there were three atomic cargo vessels operating around the same time, Savannah was conceived in the late 1950s by US President Eisenhower as a combination of both cruise and passenger vessel to showcase his so-called "Atoms for Peace" program.

Eisenhower trumpeted his concept as "a platform for sharing the nuclear knowledge-bank." His opponents labelled it Cold War propaganda.

Whatever, Savannah had her admirers to whom she was "a beautifully-lined luxury cruise ship," and her detractors who wrote her off as "a pretty and highly dysfunctional cargo ship."

Marrying her two roles did not come with the success Eisenhower and Savannah's designers had hoped. For starters, she wasn't really a cruise ship because she could carry just sixty passengers in thirty staterooms. And then she wasn't a conventional cargo ship either, because her streamlined design meant she could carry a mere 8,500 tonnes of freight, and required much manual labour at a time when ports were dumping workers and automising.

But from a technical point of view she was brilliantly innovative, her 20,000 hp nuclear engine fed by low-enriched uranium giving her a top speed of 23 knots, and a capability to circle the earth an extraordinary 14 times without refuelling.

Costing nearly US$50m which came from the US Atomic Energy Commission, the Maritime Administration and the Department of Commerce, Savannah quickly ran into trouble over the size of her crew – and their pay.

To begin, she needed 33% more technical and engineering crew than conventional ships of her size, and as these crew had to be specially trained to handle their nuclear responsibilities, they demanded and received higher than normal wages.

But this irked Savannah's deck officers who cited a tradition that ensured they received higher pay than engineering officers, and after an arbitrator ruled in their favour, the three government departments cancelled their agreement with Savannah's contracted operating company and appointed another. This meant Savannah was laid-up for a whole year while a complete new crew was trained – and a new pay scale sorted out that meant it would cost US$2m a year more to run Savannah that a similar-sized oil-fired ship.

But despite all this, there were no complaints from the few passengers that Savannah carried: their luxury facilities included air-conditioned staterooms with private facilities (including full-size bathtubs,) the dining-room could seat 100-guests (for some strange reason, forty more than the number of passengers she could carry,) there was a swimming pool, library, and lounge that converted into a cinema.

But her passenger carrying days came to an abrupt end after just three years when it was decided that to cut costs, Savannah would become a purely cargo vessel. Yet even this proved economically disastrous, with one shipping industry newspaper at the time summing up: "She required $2m a year in government subsidies, she had vast unused passenger spaces, and by contrast her cargo capacity was insufficient…"

Finally in 1970, just eight years and 725,000km from her first sailing, Savannah was pulled out of service and laid-up.

Ironically bunker fuel for conventionally-powered ships was just $20/ton at the time – but within a few months this had spiralled 400% to $80 with the world Energy Crisis.

Had somebody had a crystal ball, maybe it could have been a different story for Savannah – and indeed the future of nuclear shipping.

For 40-odd years its been proposed that Savannah become a museum ship for the inquisitive to explore what was another world of luxury for passengers in the 1950s and '60s, and to peer into her-once nuclear heart.

With this in mind she was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991, and her nuclear fuel removed at a cost of over US$1m. She now sits at the Canton Marine Terminal in Baltimore waiting for someone to adopt and convert her into that museum ship.

Visit her at or see

(Photos: Courtesy N/S Savannah Association and US Historical Naval Ships Association.)

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