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Aug. 22, 1962: First Nuke-Powered Cargo Ship Docks

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Old 08-23-2008
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Aug. 22, 1962: First Nuke-Powered Cargo Ship Docks
1962: NS Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship, completes its maiden voyage.
In a world terrified by the prospect of nuclear war, the Savannah was meant to demonstrate the peaceful use and positive potential of nuclear power. President Eisenhower conceived the idea as part of his "Atoms for Peace" program in 1955, a time when the United States and Soviet Union were routinely testing increasingly powerful nuclear weapons.
Four nuclear-powered merchant ships were eventually built.
The Savannah, named for the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819, was in every sense of the word a showcase. The ship was given a sleek, streamlined design that wasn't really compatible with stowing large amounts of cargo, a fact that would eventually shorten its career.
Passenger accommodation was comparable to many conventional liners of the day. There were 30 air-conditioned staterooms, a dining room for 100 people, a swimming pool, a library and a lounge that could be converted into a cinema.
But the heart of the Savannah was its nuclear propulsion system, which at $28 million ($203 million in today's money) cost more than the ship itself, a mere $18.5 million ($134 million today). The Babcock and Wilcox nuclear reactor drove Savannah's two steam-turbine engines cheaply and efficiently.
In the end, though, it wasn't economical enough to offset the tight forward cargo area and other deficiencies that made the ship too expensive to operate commercially. Its tapered bow not only limited the cargo capacity to 8,500 tons -- well below that of contemporary vessels -- but also made loading difficult, especially as ports became more automated.
The Savannah also required a crew of 124, one-third again as large as conventionally powered ships, and those crew members required additional training to work with the propulsion system.
The Maritime Administration, which owned Savannah, leased her in 1965 to American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines for cargo-passenger service. But the ship never turned a profit and was laid up in January 1972. The Savannah spent most of the 1970s tied up in Galveston, Texas, where it underwent regular inspections of its nuclear plant.
Since then, the ship, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, has become a museum piece in search of a home. Following decommissioning, the nuclear fuel was removed; the process of cleaning out all remaining nuclear contamination continues in a Baltimore shipyard.
When that job is completed sometime in 2011, the Maritime Administration hopes to see Savannah converted into a floating museum. So far, there have been no takers.
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