Why Did The NS Savannah Fail? Can She Really be Called a Failure? 1


  1. That’s a great looking ship. Maybe it wasn’t a commercial success but it was a great showcase for the possibilities.

  2. Any thoughts on why the Savannah ended up being an only-of-its-kind ship instead of the first-of-its-kind that it was intended to be?

    That is, presumably this was supposed to be the first ship of many, and the U.S. was intending to launch a commercial nuclear shipping industry. Any idea why that failed to happen?

    1. @Jeff S – there are many reasons why the NS Savannah did not lead to an immediate effort to build a fleet of nuclear powered commercial vessels. I produced an abbreviated summary of the reasons back in the mid 1990s when I was trying to convince commercial shippers to give the technology another try. http://www.atomicengines.com/ships.html.

      I have recently detected a growing interest in the topic as fuel costs increase and as regulations that govern pollution from sulfur dioxide get ever more challenging. Up until just a year or so ago, ships were one of the few remaining markets for high sulfur residual oil – aka bunker C. That fuel was far cheaper than the low sulfur distillates that ships are now required to burn almost all of the time, but it was also found to be damaging the global environment.

      As recent, widely reported radiation detections have shown, stuff that gets airborne can often be distributed all around the world via the jet stream. It should be pretty logical to recognize that if Xe-133 or I-131 can be found in the US and sourced to an event in Japan, that acid rain in Europe or America can result from sulfur dioxide pumped into the atmosphere from a ship at sea.

      1. @Rod,

        I noticed on the page you linked to, that you have a comment that “At current prices, reactor fuel costs 85 percent less than bunker fuel.”

        I’d like to ask for a clarification – what are you comparing, price by weight (pound/ton/tonne), or price by energy (watt/horsepower)?

        In either case, 85% is a great discount, but if it’s pound-for-pound 85% cheaper, that ends up being a huge, huge difference since each pound of fuel gives, what, hundreds of thousands or a million times more energy? But, I suspect that 85% figure already reflects the math of calculating the energy difference?

        1. @Jeff – the price comparison is on a per unit energy basis. It is probably time to do a new calculation using more up to date cost numbers for both commercial nuclear fuel and distillate fuel oil.

  3. The NS Savannah as you pointed out, was a technology demonstrator, but the bottom line is that it was just too soon. Unfortunately, now that the time has come, she will be held up as a failure by antinuclear forces, which is a shame.

  4. Bunker fuel is about the nastiest fuel imaginable. Ports around the world are tightening their emissions standards. Shipping companies have to respond. They may install expensive filters. They may in the future have ships that run on CNG. But this all sounds more complicated and expensive than building a nuclear ship.

    Rod, I am sure you know this: the Germans built a nuclear ship, the Otto Hahn.
    I actually saw this ship when I was a kid in 1977, that time in the harbour of Hamburg.

  5. Savannah was not designed with cargo carrying economic parameters in mind. She demonstrated that nuclear propulsion in a semi-military environment was possible and safe. [Subs had already shown that full-military operation of nuclear propulsion was both safe and naval-operations reliable.]
    Government frequently authorizes work-start and fully expresses design requirements much later.
    A publicity-oriented project such as nuclear propulsion had its own goals and imperatives; economic cargo-operation was obviously not one of Eisenhower’s prime concerns.

  6. nuclear ship is bad idea. what if ship sink at sea? nuclear material at the bottom of ocean! this is bad for everyone. you cannot risk putting anti-life nuclear waste at the deepest core of water on earth. water is the source of life on this planet. there must be respect for this instead of just ‘get more go faster’ attitude all the time.

    1. @henry

      We already know what happens if a nuclear powered ship sinks. There are at least 5 reactors on the bottom of the ocean already with no ill effects – other than the tragic effects of the sunken ship for the crew members.

  7. Whilst visiting a friend in Baltimore I noticed the Savannah moored up on pier 9. Went on line and got a number and called up to see if I could visit her. “don’t normally do visit but tomorrow we have ten guests visiting you’re welcome to join them”. So I finally got to visit a ship that I consider the USA’s maritime Concorde moment. THE most beautiful of ships a real ‘purdy girl’ . Wow what a visit would love to discuss with folk on line my thoughts about NS Savannah

  8. As the mission was – it was never made to be profitable, only to show that nuclear/atomic power could be used for peace, as the program was “Atoms for Peace”. This is a magnificent ship that I myself have toured, at the age of 14. I toured it earlier this year (April, 2012) and it was a very rewarding experience, the people who currently staff the ship are wonderful people and I thank them very much for the experience – and I hope that other people would be willing to make the ship a museum ship as I, and they do. I really hope it does. I am currently working on a model of the NS Savannah that I had to buy on ebay since it is not sold in stores.

  9. Looking at some old photos got me to wondering what the Savannah was doing these days. That ship fascinated me once, when I was a tin can sailor stationed at Charleston. I remember wondering why the US Navy couldn’t have taken her and operated it in some worthy mission. I don’t think anyone could worry too much about its safety then. I’m glad to see her being preserved but would rather it was being actually used!

  10. Rod, I spent a number of years as a Coast Guard radioman. Copied the Savannah on several occasions. Believe her call sign was KSAV.
    Regards, Dale

  11. I am a retired Master of Towing Vessels. This was the news when I was a younger mariner, but I remember it! There are risks with nuculear power, but beyond that a tremendous investment. It was cutting edge technology, but its downfall from general acceptance was money! A vessel like that had to be built and operated by nuculear scientists! Operating cost of it vs. traditional engine crews and large diesel engines was not able to compete in the market place competitively. The cost of crewing a nuculear ship is best left to the government. They can afford it and don’t have to count the cost with us paying for it. Merchant mariners can’t afford the luxury!

    1. @David

      Savannah was operated by merchant mariners, not nuclear scientists. It’s high operating costs were driven by its unique status as a one of a kind ship that had to support a special shore maintenance facility by itself. It was also declared uneconomical in 1971, when crude oil cost less than $3 per barrel. Two years later, the price had risen to $11.55 and would have made Savannah close to economical, even with the one of a kind disadvantage.

  12. Savannah was a sucess. She was built to demonstrate atoms for peace. Unknown to many she was a floating Laboratory . She was not a commercial enterprise, her reactor was a Naval reactor. The defence department used her to build upon.

    CVN 65 was built at the same time with eight of the same nuclear reactors. CVN-65 was not experimental, but commissioned into the U. S. Naval Forces. The defence department does not experiment with commission war ships ready for battle.

    The success of Savannah is the result of the nuclear ships built in the 70’s and 80’s, Nimitz class carriers. Savannah was a huge success in the infancy of nuclear engineering.

  13. With the advent of electric cars, cost comparisons have been done between gasoline and electric vehicles by looking at the full life cycle costs (and greenhouse gas emissions) from the point of manufacturing to the end recycling of the vehicle after the normal service life. They include the costs of fuels such as generating the electricity from different fuel types or pumping the oil out of the ground. For a commercial nuclear powered ship, these full life cycle costs would have to be calculated for a valid comparison between nuclear power and conventional fuel oil power. Would it be a valid comparison if the government subsidized part of the total nuclear power cost such as providing long term disposal of the nuclear waste? Certainly the nuclear ship could be profitable if enough subsidies were given but would they be reliable for decades of political wind shifts? I don’t believe a full life cycle comparison would favor nuclear power for a commercial ship.

    1. @Gordon Quickstad

      You wrote:

      I don’t believe a full life cycle comparison would favor nuclear power for a commercial ship. (Emphasis added.)

      Decisions should not be made on beliefs, especially when there is sufficient information available. The US Navy, for example, conducted several direct cost comparisons and determined that there were oil price points and operating profiles for which nuclear – with complete life cycle costing using conservative assumptions based on real world cost information – was substantially more economical than diesel fuel.

      The chosen operational profile was not particularly advantageous to nuclear; it only assumed that the ship would achieve a 20% capacity factor when all low power and port time is included. Commercial shipping routinely achieves a far higher capacity factor and that makes nuclear even more economical.

  14. Popular Mechanics ran an unusual build article in the early 60’s that gave a 3 view drawing of the NS Savannah showing the hull sections for the purpose of constructing a model. I enlarged the plans from the small page and built the ship with frames and planking and then fiberglassed it. I made it as a 36″ model with a removable superstructure in order to eventually power it. Moves, etc. interrupted the project and I stalled after fitting it with superstructure, deck cranes, and lifeboats and added no further details. Since it was incomplete, many years later I sold it at a garage sale for cheap after deciding that I would probably never fully finish it. That Popular Mechanics article confirmed that the ship had a lot of interest at that time and I entered the Navy with an interest in ships that the Savannah model helped inspire.

    I served 1-1/2 years on the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65.) I was aboard in 1964 for Operation Sea Orbit where three nuclear powered ships circled the earth with no additional support vessels. The only negative thing about not having close naval support was ending the voyage with powdered eggs and milk. The purpose was to convince congress that nuclear power was the only way to go. I suspect the Navy must include the cost of supporting and following a conventional fleet with Oilers in the analysis of conventional vs. nuclear power, something that oil-fired commercial vessels don’t incur.

  15. All this discussion of the freighter mode shortcomings, yet zero mention of Savannah’s initial passenger role. It’s so easy to forget that she was never designed as a freighter in the first place.

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