The Savannah had beautiful lines - more resembling a very large yacht than a bulk cargo ship. She carried thirty spacious passenger cabins, a swimming pool, a public lounge, and had luxurious dining facilities for a hundred people. Her cargo handling equipment was designed and placed for beauty, not function. Considering the Savannah's size, her holds had a quite small capacity. But what made the ship really significant was her powerplant: the NS Savannah was the world's first nuclear powered merchant ship.
A technological success, the NS Savannah was never intended to be commercially competitive - and was not. The NS Savannah was instead intended to serve as the trail blazer for future generations of nuclear-powered merchant vessels. It demonstrated to the world the interest of the United States in the peaceful application of nuclear power and provided a vehicle which would establish the procedures and precedents for the future operation of commercial nuclear ships.
In April 1955, in a speech before the Associated Press in New York, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced plans for a nuclear-powered merchant ship. The ship would be based on specifications developed by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Maritime Administration that he would submit to Congress. Authorization to build the ship was given by Congress on July 30, 1956.
The ship was designed by George G. Sharp, Inc. of New York and was built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New Jersey. The Babcock and Wilcox Company, as prime contractor for the power plant, designed and built the 74 thermal megawatt pressurized water reactor.
In a ceremony on July 21, 1959, Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the NS Savannah which then slipped down the building ways into the Delaware River.
Construction took longer than planned, but was essentially completed in the spring of 1961.
After public hearings on the safety of the ship’s nuclear system and following extensive tests of the reactor and propulsion plant, the reactor was loaded with uranium oxide fuel in the fall of 1961. It took less than thirty hours to insert all thirty-two fuel bundles which would supply 3½ years’ power for the historic ship.
During her sea trials, the captain showed that the Savannah’s reactor could actually surpass its original operating objectives. Instead of delivering 20,000 shaft horsepower to a single propeller, the plant easily produced more than 22,300. Instead of being limited to about 20 knots, Savannah surged along at 24.
Considered by some marine engineers the most beautiful ship ever built, the sleek white Savannah was shown off to the crowds at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
Then, suddenly, in Galveston, Texas, the triumphant cruises were interrupted by an argument over salaries!
The engineering officers on the Savannah had been granted extra pay from the outset because of the needed nuclear training in addition to their other qualifications. However, the deck officers insisted that they should be paid more than the engineering officers because a deck officer’s duties were traditionally more demanding. An arbitrator agreed with the deck officers, but the engineers refused to accept the ruling. In May 1963, the engineers shut down the ship’s reactor in protest.
No one could persuade the engineers to return to work so long as they were being paid less than the deck officers. Finally, the Federal Maritime Administration cancelled its contract with States Marine Lines and picked American Export Isbrandtsen Lines to operate the ship. This meant that an entirely new crew (from a different union) would have to be trained. So, for almost a year, the world’s first nuclear powered merchant ship sat at the dock in perfect condition but going nowhere.
When the crew was ready, the Savannah steamed back into the spotlight. More than 150,000 visitors boarded her at the first four European ports she visited.
In mid-1965, the luxurious cabins were stripped out and the passenger spaces sealed off and 1,800 tons of solid ballast were removed in preparation for the ship carrying nothing but cargo. In September, 1965, the Savannah left New York for the first time with a capacity load of 10,000 tons of general cargo.
Even in her new role, the Savannah continued to serve as a goodwill ambassador and a cruising exhibit for the peaceful use of nuclear power in visits to Africa, the Far East, the Mediterranean, and Northern Europe.
In the fall of 1968, the Savannah spent two months at a Galveston shipyard for refuelling and maintenance. The actual refuelling took only two weeks. After nearly 350,000 miles, only four of the original thirty-two fuel bundles had to be replaced.
A second complete core was built for the Savannah, but never installed. Since there were no plans for future ships, the Maritime Administration decided that little more research and development information could be gained from the $90 million-plus which had been invested in the entire Savannah project.
In the fall of 1971, the historic ship was retired.