Historic nuclear ship gets makeover, but future remains in doubt

Savannah in Baltimore showing off its gleaming new paint. The colors are in accordance with the scheme from 1959, and were matched to contemporary color charts found in MarAd program records. (Photos courtesy U.S. Maritime Administration)

The first time you hear it, it sounds like a terrible idea, a sort of floating Chernobyl or Three Mile Island taking to the high seas. But at second glance, in light of today’s volatile fuel prices and concerns about pollution and global warming, an ultra-efficient, easily maintained nuclear propulsion system begins to look kind of nice.

Today, the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship — the only such commercial vessel constructed in the United States — sits at a Baltimore layberth. Its nuclear fuel removed some 30 years ago, Savannah has recently garnered a new coat of paint and plans are in place for cleaning up much of the remaining radioactive materials.

Still, the ship’s future remains uncertain. Savannah has a reputation as something of a failure both as a commercial enterprise and later as an exhibit. Will anyone be interested in turning it into a museum, given its history? Or will the government-owned ship be sent to slowly deteriorate in a reserve fleet graveyard?

For the moment, Savannah is waiting for an organization that might have a place to exhibit the ship and the funds to maintain it. While the federal government remains hopeful of finding such a home for the ship, time is running out.

The ship in a Norfolk dry dock before its repainting. It sits next to USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier named after the president who approved the Savannah project. The ship’s nuclear fuel was revoved over 30 years ago, but the decommissioned nuclear reactor remains in place.

Launched in 1959 as part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, Savannah was a joint project of the Maritime Administration (MarAd) and the Atomic Energy Commission. The vessel frequented commercial shipping lanes for American Export Lines for 10 years.

While Eisenhower and company conceived Savannah as a cargo-passenger ship, George G. Sharp Inc. designed it to look more like a mega-yacht. Its amenities included a movie theater, veranda, swimming pool, library, 30 air-conditioned staterooms complete with individual baths and a dining room for 100 guests.

Unfortunately, the vessel could hold only 10,000 tons of cargo in 652,000 cubic feet of space — a puny load of freight for a cargo ship. Furthermore, many aspects of the ship’s design that made it so visually appealing actually hindered its functionality.

“She had two big problems,” said Mike Diaz, president of American Export Lines during the 1950s and 1960s. “First of all, her gear was too light. She had five-ton gear at the most, so you were very limited in what you could do in heavy lifts. Secondly, not everyone would accept her. Everyone would accept her at least once, like Italy and Spain, but it was difficult to put her on a normal run, because she couldn’t be (repeatedly) accepted. … There was no place you could run her, really.”

The ship was launched in 1959 as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s Atoms for Peace program.

Not everyone agrees with the idea that the ship was a commercial failure. Erhard W. Koehler, MarAd’s manager of Savannah programs, explained that the vessel was never designed to compete successfully with conventional merchant ships. Rather it was meant to be a showpiece demonstrating to the world the potential of nuclear propulsion.

“The ship was designed and built for demonstrating the feasibility of a nuclear-powered merchant ship; establishing the marine infrastructure necessary for such ships to operate worldwide; and to demonstrate to the world the potential for peaceful applications of nuclear power,” Koehler explained. “It was never intended to be economic … The aesthetics, not cost, led to the ship being equipped with only half as much cargo gear as necessary, and is the true source of its reputation as a poor cargo ship.”

The reluctance of other countries to accept a nuclear-powered ship in their ports, combined with the vessel’s cargo limitations, led MarAd to decommission the ship in 1971.

“From an operational standpoint, she was not a particularly big success,” Diaz said. “But she ran extremely well. Fuel economy was the best part about her.”

At the time of Savannah’s retirement, a barrel of crude oil cost approximately $3. In 2008, prices peaked at over $140 before falling below $40 in early 2009. But the crew of Savannah did not have to worry much about where or when to refuel. The ship could cruise at 21 knots and go 336,000 miles on one load of fuel. It traveled more than 450,000 miles, visiting 77 ports — 32 domestic, 45 foreign — in 26 countries. Savannah used 163 pounds of uranium, the equivalent of approximately 29 million gallons of fuel, during that span.

In 1981, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, S.C., acquired Savannah via bareboat charter and displayed the ship until 1994.

“The Savannah was one of the least popular ships here,” said Eleanor Wimett, director of museum collections.

Patriots Point is also home to the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, the destroyer USS Laffey, the Balao class submarine USS Clamagore and the Treasury class U.S. Coast Guard cutter Ingham. It seems Savannah paled in popularity to these heroes of World War II. “The destroyer, the submarine, the smaller Coast Guard cutter and aircraft carrier were, generally speaking, of more interest to more people because of their naval history,” Wimett said. “Savannah is a technical marvel, but didn’t have some of the curb appeal of things that had guns and aircraft, and the heroic deeds of World War II.”

Patriots Point terminated the charter in 1994 when Savannah was due for a periodic MarAd inspection.

The plaque aboard the ship indicating its status as a National Historic Landmark.

“It became obvious that it needed specialized dry-docking because of its nuclear power plant, and that’s the point at which Patriots Point gave it up and returned it to MarAd,” Wimett said.

It does not appear that Savannah lacked popularity because of the low-level radiation it emitted.

From Patriots Point, Savannah spent time dry-docked in Baltimore before being relocated to MarAd’s Reserve Fleet near Newport News, Va. In the winter of 2008, Savannah was taken to BAE Norfolk Ship Repair, where it was repainted.

May 7, 2008, Savannah left Virginia after 14 years in residence for a layberth at Canton Marine Terminals in Baltimore. The Vane Brothers Co. submitted the lowest bid and won a contract to berth the ship for $588,380 a year for three years. The contract has four six-month option periods. MarAd can renew or extend the contract at the end of each of those periods.

“This is a government project,” said Elizabeth Hughes, vice president of Vane Bros. “We are the landlord. They hope someday, somebody will step up and help create a museum.”

MarAd confirmed Hughes’ assessment. “The vessel is on the National Historic Register,” said Shannon Russell, who until recently was the director of MarAd’s Office of Congressional and Public Affairs. “Everyone would like to see the vessel stay in tip-top shape to be a museum someday.”

This may seem confusing to some. If Savannah failed to succeed as an exhibit at Patriots Point, why would it do any better as its own museum? After all, Savannah’s nuclear reactor is what made it unique, and as Wimett made clear, “The parts of the power plant that made it different from more traditional turbine/diesel power plants aren’t really that visible. It is a very interesting history, (but) as you walk around the ship itself, there is a lot of stuff you would find on any conventionally powered steam vessel.”

Despite Savannah’s ordinary appearance, Wimett seemed to believe that if presented well and placed in the correct location, the ship could be successful as a museum. Future marketers of Savannah would have to play up the vessel’s history to attract visitors. Furthermore, while the fuel and other particularly contaminated parts of the reactor were removed in the 1970s, the reactor itself is still aboard the vessel.

“Having it on display by itself, not in the context of World War II warships, might have very different appeal,” Wimett said.

Still, a radiation-emitting ship as a museum visited by school groups? Is this a marketing concept with a future?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given MarAd until 2031 to complete the cleanup of Savannah.

“If they do intend to turn the ship into a museum piece and have the ship available for public viewing, we want to ensure that no matter where you go on the ship that a member of the public is not going to be exposed to radiation beyond the stringent limits which we set,” said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.

When MarAd mothballed Savannah in 1971, it removed all of its nuclear fuel and the radioactive water from the reactor’s primary and secondary systems. MarAd’s Russell compared the radiation currently emanating from Savannah to that of a dental X-ray.

The NRC seemed to disagree. “Without speaking to MarAd, I would say there are areas on the ship where you would get more than a dental X-ray if you lingered very long,” Burnell said. “They are off-limits and are controlled areas. We do tend to be fairly strict when it comes to decommissioning or cleaning up a site.”

Whatever the current levels of radiation, plans are in place to control and reduce them.

In the near term, MarAd hopes to secure $8 million for this program and expects to take two years to complete it. The scope of the work is broad, and involves both nuclear and non-nuclear systems, according to Koehler. The work will include replacing the 50-year-old switchboards with a new shore power load center, improving ventilation, providing fire detection/suppression systems for the occupied areas of the ship and for the reactor compartment and containment vessel.

Plans also call for accurately surveying radiological conditions and removing contaminated equipment and piping systems located close to the hull to prevent the release of radioactive material in the event the ship were damaged or attacked. Also to be removed are contaminated sink drains, over 1,400 gallons of primary system water from the nuclear power plant systems and residual hydraulic fluids from the control-rod-drive system, which could pose a fire hazard.

“An industrial layberth such as the one we are now using could be a suitable location for this scope of work,” Koehler said. “However, we have not yet determined if we will perform the work at the current berth.”

The less immediate problem remains that no one has volunteered funds to make Savannah into a museum.

“There is no money in MarAd to turn this into a museum,” Russell said. “Someone else would have to turn it into a museum. There are various individuals as well as local officials from certain cities who have been very interested in the Savannah, but no one has officially approached us with a business plan to turn it into a museum.”

For now, Savannah sits in its Baltimore layberth, recently painted, still looking every bit as impressive as it did 50 years ago. In the coming years, the vessel will be cleaned of radiation. Still, a fundamental question remains for this well-traveled vessel: Where next?

By Professional Mariner Staff