Aboard the NS Savannah, America’s first (and last) nuclear merchant ship
BALTIMORE—Alongside a former grain pier in a strangely quiet corner of this cargo port, there’s a ship straight out of the future—the future, that is, as seen from the 1950s. Featuring sleek, modern lines and a giant insignia of an atom, the Nuclear Ship Savannah once sailed the world to demonstrate the peaceful potential of atomic energy.
Constructed at a cost of $46.9 million ($386.8 million in 2016 dollars) and launched on July 21, 1959, the Savannah was the world’s first nuclear cargo ship and the second nuclear-powered civilian ship (coming just two years after the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Lenin). Owned by the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) and operated by commercial cargo companies, for nearly a decade she carried cargo and passengers around the world. She also acted as a floating herald for America’s seemingly inevitable, cool Atomic Age future. Savannah boasted all the latest conveniences, including one of the world’s first microwave ovens.
Many critics have since called the Savannah an expensive Cold War-era boondoggle, but she was in many ways a success. The ship was never intended to turn a profit; rather, Savannah was intended to demonstrate what was possible with nuclear power. Design compromises made to get her into service as a showcase ship with passenger service handicapped her value as a cargo ship, but Savannah did demonstrate the advantages of nuclear propulsion. There was no need to refuel or to take on ballast water as fuel was expended, which meant less time in port and less pollution. Ironically, the Arab oil embargo arrived about two years after her tenure, but Savannah could have turned a profit during the situation despite these compromises.