April 28, 2012

Atomic Cruising - The NS Savannah story

NS Savannah
by Roderick Eime

A story that seems long lost in the passage of time is the saga of NS Savannah, the world’s first and only nuclear powered cruise ship.

Discounting the re-purposed Russian icebreakers taking adventurers to the North Pole and three purely cargo vessels built around the same time, this technical and political folly was conceived at the height of the Cold War as a showcase for Eisenhower’s so-called “Atoms for Peace” program devised to share the nuclear knowledgebank for altruistic purposes. In other words, propaganda.

As such, the NS Savannah was designed as a multipurpose vessel with a 14,000 ton cargo capacity and luxury cabins for 60 passengers. Her lines were superb and she certainly looked every bit the space-age vessel that would carry the great nation into the future. But almost as soon as construction began in 1959, her shortcomings and flaws became apparent, yet was a star at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Technically impressive with her 20,000 hp nuclear engine, her top speed was 23 knots and was capable of circling the earth 14 times at 20 knots without refuelling. Despite grandiose intentions and the successful operation of a new type of pressurized water reactor, utilizing low-enriched uranium, the commercial market for such a vessel never materialized.

Named after the similarly innovative SS Savannah, the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic in 1819, the new nuclear ship would also prove to be far ahead of its time and just as economically disastrous. Costing the best part of US$50million to build and with several million dollars annual running costs coupled to specialised wharf and port requirements, crew training and engineering, the project was never going to be a financial success.

Although ungainly and compromised as a functioning cargo vessel, her passenger and public spaces were superb. With accommodation for just 60 guests in fully air-conditioned suites with private facilities, there was certainly a feel of exclusivity and luxury about travelling aboard the NS Savannah. A luxury 100-seat dining room, swimming pool, library and theatre all looked good on the brochure, but her passenger carrying days came to an abrupt end in 1965, just three years into her service life.

From then on, NS Savannah continued as a cargo ship, a role she did not fulfil well due to the many compromises in her design, and she ceased all revenue services in 1971 and has been laid up ever since. Coincidently, when taken out of service, bunker fuel was $20/ton, but with Energy Crisis just months away, fuel quickly rose to $80/ton. Bad timing.

It has been proposed to maintain her as a museum ship and as such NS Savannah was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991. After a decommissioning cost of over $1million, she now resides at the Canton Marine Terminal in Baltimore awaiting an uncertain fate.

Visit her website at: www.nssavannah.net

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