The nation’s first and last commercial nuclear ship rests on the James River, a silent witness to American nuclear ambitions during the Cold War. Both a passenger and cargo vessel, the N.S. Savannah made history—and then was overtaken by it.
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Illustration by Bob Scott
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NS Savannah under way.
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The NS Savannah became the first nuclear merchant ship at sea in 1962.
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The NS Savannah became an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1983.
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The first Savannah began her maiden voyage for her namesake port on March 28, 1819.
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Pressurized water reactor on board.
In 1962, young America knew the future had arrived.
The brand-new, super-sleek nuclear cruise ship/freighter, the N.S. (that’s for Nuclear Ship) Savannah, showed the sparkling, perhaps even glowing, future of atomic energy. Children who might have found the Disney documentary Our Friend the Atom stimulating could read Atoms Afloat!, a book about the Savannah filled with the era’s optimism. Never mind the tiny note at the beginning of the book, which read, “Names of persons in this book are fiction and their backgrounds are imagined.” Kids could grasp the wonder with passages such as, “This is the ship that will give man mastery of the sea,” or an anecdote from the made-up engineer George Andrews: “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to work on something new and different, and this fits the bill!” Even Andrews’ invented son, Billy, was in on the act, keeping his room full of old radio parts and model ships. If this seems a bit too perfect, consider that perhaps little Billy found inspiration from another faux engineer, Ed Cooper, who as a kid drew up blueprints and an authority figure responded with, “This is great, Ed! Keep it up and one day you might be an engineer or architect.”
A 1962 National Geographic feature on the Savannah set the stage for the nation. The piece began with the craft running under its new power source, just fueled up off Yorktown’s Naval Weapons Station. The imagery seemed perfect. The vessel was named after the first steam-powered ship that crossed the Atlantic, and as it passed by the site of the War of Independence’s last great battle, it seemed a new revolution was afoot. The great nautical writer Alan Villiers, National Geographic’s man on the scene, set up the craft’s switch to its new power source. “The sun quietly shone; the York River flowed quietly past familiar landmarks, just as on any other morning,” and then he marveled: “This was a great moment in the long history of man and sea.” The Savannah served as a key part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, such a large part of Ike’s plan for the world’s acceptance of nuclear energy that Vice President Richard Nixon’s wife Pat presided over the keel-laying ceremony, and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower later christened the ship.
Today, largely forgotten, the Savannah sits a couple of crow’s flights away from its crowning moment. These days, it rests in the James River Reserve Fleet off Fort Eustis. It serves as a monument, if nothing else, to the conflict between America’s sunny Eisenhower-era vision and 1960s reality. The great ship generated another book, a scholarly one at that, but its hundreds of pages covered the vessel’s crippling union woes that laid it in a Galveston, Texas dry dock for nearly a year. Congress and the United States Maritime Administration constantly bickered as the project hemorrhaged money for over a decade. Nations and port authorities hammered out complex agreements to merely let her dock and either unload cargo or let interested bystanders marvel at American ingenuity and peaceful intentions. When the ship began its trial run, people hoped the power of the atom would rekindle America’s dwindling merchant marine fleet, but its small cargo space, costliness, instant bureaucratic wrangling and the shipping industry’s transition to container vessels defused any nationwide maritime comeback.
After its second career as an attraction in a South Carolina park fizzled, the N.S. Savannah floats along with other, more humdrum, ships awaiting a scrap dealer to take them away. The Maritime Administration is now soliciting bids for her decommissioning—complete removal of all nuclear materials and a final stage off the seas—and, it is hoped, another term as a tourist attraction. A few enthusiasts, some of whom were veterans of the vessel’s career, hope to memorialize the landmark of a revolution that fizzled, giving a new angle to an era that future generations see with a mixture of fear and kitsch.
Now retired in North Carolina, Joe Seelinger remembers his brief days aboard the N.S. Savannah. “It was wonderful. It was clean. Good food. On the trip I made, I think they carried 60 passengers,” he says, recalling his 1964 Baltic voyage as a reactor operator. “Advance teams went to the ports we visited [and people wanted] to find out what the hell the whole thing was about. … The port I went to, the fireboats were out. The lines at the ports seemed like a quarter-mile long.” Everything seemed so sleek in the early days. With no exhaust-spewing smokestacks, the engine ran quietly aboard the speedy ship, and a unique set of fins kept her from rolling in heavy seas.
The lucky passengers and visitors availed themselves of color television, air conditioning and a beauty salon. The public saw futuristic décor in blue and green shades, and plans existed for displays of American art. An 8-foot marble table and petrified-wood coffee tables helped anchor the lounge. Even an early microwave sat on B deck. She could travel nearly 14 times around the globe on 110 pounds of Uranium 235. Administrators worked themselves through stacks and stacks of passenger requests for future luxury travel with extraordinary engineering and nautical speed. For a shining moment it seemed the showboat of the age had arrived. “I admired her grace of line and ease of motion,” Villiers wrote. “All 600 feet of her, she is an exciting ship.”
Everything seemed sunny even before Seelinger joined the project. Seeing the success of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, Eisenhower’s Republican administration saw a way to further America’s image abroad and invigorate private enterprise at home, by commissioning a civilian nuclear ship in 1955. Given congressional approval in 1956 and under the joint auspices of the Maritime Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission, the new venture received the name Savannah in honor of the S.S. Savannah, the first steamboat that crossed the Atlantic and helped spark the steamship revolution in the process. When Pat Nixon laid the keel, she waved an atomic wand that set off a Geiger counter, which in turn cued the start of construction. Engineers began taking classes at Lynchburg College, readying themselves for their future task. The venerable Virginia boiler company Babcock and Wilcox began constructing a nuclear reactor at their new Lynchburg plant. Things moved in a hurry, and with good reason, too. The Soviet Union’s first atomic ice breaker, the Lenin, began plying its trade in 1957. Let the communists toil away anonymously in those cold, Arctic seas—America will do it better and in high style.
Despite all the optimism and fanfare, key, nearly fatal problems struck the Savannah from the beginning and actually led to Seelinger’s days aboard her and all his fond memories. Labor troubles with the Masters, Mates and Pilots Association along with the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association kept her tied up and forced the government to switch leasing the ship from States Marines Lines to American Export - Isbrandtsen Lines, which had different unions. The troubles continued when contracts included provisions for no strikes on the ship. This forced the government to call in Maritime Administration employees such as Seelinger to begin nine months of training as backup personnel in Kings Point, N.Y., home of the Merchant Marine Academy, and Galveston. After all that, a few, such as Seelinger, volunteered to take the vessel onto the seas. “I remember the deck union went on strike … because the engineers were making more money,” Seelinger says. “In reality, the engineers went through intensive training to become nuclear operators. That’s why they got the additional money.”
American Export - Isbrandtsen Lines hoped the vessel could give it a competitive edge. The company realized that for every three knots per hour it added to its fleet’s speed, it spent 14 more days out of port. On paper, nuclear fuel created an amazingly inexpensive way to boost the line’s swiftness. With an aging group of vessels, the Savannah would serve as a prototype for the firm’s, and America’s, next generation of shipping. “You didn’t burn a lot of fuel, and your ship would be designed to carry freight rather than fuel,” says line owner Jakob Isbrandtsen, now retired in Florida. “We could reduce the ships carrying to 45 or 46 ships to 6 or 7 ships,” he recalls. “Atomic power might be [the future], and I wanted to know all about it. When we operated the Savannah, I saw the possibilities of it.”
Unfortunately for the government, the sailors, boat enthusiasts and tax payers, additional revenue kept flowing into nothing. The Savannah cost $89 million to the government, and its initial two years on the seas racked up $33.8 million in expenditures. Advocates pointed out that she was merely a prototype and meant more for goodwill, but in the face of the costly and almost infinitely higher-profile space program, the vessel quickly became a white elephant. A year after its first high-profile voyage to Europe, Isbrandtsen shut away the sleek passenger section. Japan, perhaps wary from World War II’s atomic attacks and the nuclear fallout that had contaminated the fishing ship Lucky Dragon No. 5 in 1954, refused to allow the vessel in its ports. By 1970, people began talking about retiring her. A wire-service story in Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot, headlined “Savannah: Fame to Nuisance,” captured the mood of the small fraction of the public that knew about her: “If the ship is laid up, not many people will miss her.”
After years of debate, the Maritime Administration, in a cost-cutting measure, decommissioned the ship, taking out the reactor and other materials. “I think that there’s a lot of visceral fears about nuclear power and nuclear radiation in general that have to be overcome,” says Virginia Tech professor Mark Barrow, who has taught classes on the history of America in the Nuclear Age. “If [people] had to choose between a cruise ship on oil from the Middle East or a ship on nuclear power, they’d choose the oil ship,” says Barrow.
Isbrandtsen felt the Savannah was a first-class operation and that people went overboard with their fears. “The problems were not from the technical side, but from the emotional and public side. The public was just absolutely like cavemen with their attitudes toward it. It was just strange,” he says. He recalls that the ship couldn’t even dock at an Isbrandtsen pier in New York until the company went through extensive negotiations, which included placing the ship backwards, though this put the reactor only 80 feet further away from the West Side highway. When he waited for the ship to show up in Copenhagen, his father’s hometown, the Savannah showed up a day late. The Norwegian government wanted the ship’s reactor temperature so low that it had to spend a day running at a half knot per hour.
The company’s troubles continued. Plans for faster nuclear freighters were developed but needed approval from Admiral Hyman Rickover. Isbrandtsen couldn’t even set up a meeting. “They would have to be fossil fuels,” Isbrandtsen says, recalling his plans for 32-knot ships. “We couldn’t afford a tanker to follow it and furnish it with oil. I guess the whole atomic program got sat on.”
Enthusiasts point out that the N.S. Savannah left the seas just as it reached the cusp of possible profitability, spurred by the Middle Eastern “oil shocks” that began in the mid-1970s. A 1995 article in Adams Atomic Engines’ journal Atomic Energy Insights addressed the ship’s failure, speculating that spiraling oil costs, factored with the Savannah’s high speed compared to the average freighter and the number of days an oil-burning carrier would need on the seas, would have made the vessel break even by early 1974. Another enthusiast posted online that she would have been profitable between 1979 and 1986—though this same person believes the old “Duck and Cover” method of shielding oneself from an atomic blast would be effective.
But a counter argument can be made that nuclear energy had already begun a sharp decline during the decade and was more about cost than safety. “Some industrialized nations embraced nuclear energy … but costs to build these things grew exponentially. There were a series of debacles, the most famous in the Pacific Northwest,” Barrow says. “The cost overruns, they were eating hundreds of billions of dollars. People think it has to do with Three Mile Island, but it came earlier in the ’70s.” The era’s smattering of other commercial nuclear ships ran into problems. The Japanese entry, the Mutsu, was planned for a 1972 commission, but technical problems that began with reactor’s radiation shield delayed events until 1990. Germany’s Otto Hahn came closest to success, beginning sea trials in 1968 and lasting until 1979 as an atomic ship. She returned to service in 1983 as a typical container carrier and has undergone a variety of name changes since. The Lenin, the longest of the era’s civil endeavors, plied the seas until 1989. She suffered an unknown reactor problem in the mid-1960s, dumping her reactor into the Kara Sea. Many believe she suffered a meltdown. Around 30 sailors lost their lives.
The Savannah happily produced a much safer run, but she found no real success, even in her second career. The Maritime Administration removed fuel, cooling water and the reactor in 1975, and then, beginning in 1981, the vessel spent 13 years as an exhibit at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum near Charleston, S.C. Once again, visitors clambered about the vessel, walking the decks and poking through its cabins, but the second generation of viewers saw something far removed from the ship’s glory days. An improvement plan to spruce her up never materialized. Visitors preferred other ships at Patriots Point, and for the facility, the large annual maintenance fee was too much. Still owned by the Maritime Administration, the ship entered a dry dock for some renovations and ultimately the James River Reserve Fleet for long-term storage. And yet even that modest move became a government money issue, since then-South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings attached the $1.5 million for the repairs to an earthquake-relief bill, angering budget watchdogs.
The Savannah’s destination, usually known as the “Ghost Fleet,” dates back to 1925, but over the past decade the ships had come to be seen as an ecological disaster waiting to happen. Once observers began noticing leaks from the largely polluted vessels, scrutiny increased. In 2002, a major newspaper article for Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot chronicled the fleet’s woes and the possibility of an ecological disaster that would spread from the mouth of the river and well upstream of Jamestown within 48 hours. Environmental advocates began using the term “ticking time bomb” when they described the fleet. The government set up a Sept. 30, 2006 deadline to remove the ships, though the Maritime Administration announced it wouldn’t be met. Scrap dealers began acquiring the ships, though even that caused trouble. When four rusty ships arrived in Hartlepool, England, too toxic to dismantle and too feeble for a return trip, environmentalists were enraged. In 2005, the quartet still sat on Teeside, waiting for their date with death.
The contrast between sea junk and the landmark Savannah—worth $800,000 to $1 million in scrap, according to a 1994 article—stood out like a rose in a pigpen. “The last 15 years before I retired, that was one of the ships that was under my jurisdiction,” says Seelinger, who served a long career with the Maritime Administration, including managing the reserve fleet and chairing the committee that audited nuclear ships yearly. Under Maritime Administration ownership, they had her listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While it offers no landmark for the ship, it does offer recognition of the vessel’s history.
Realizing the situation, the Maritime Administration began the process of fully decommissioning the vessel, including removing all traces of radioactive equipment on board, as no fuel’s been on the ship for over 35 years. This would be toward a final, more prosperous turn as a museum in either 2007 or 2008. The agency is soliciting bids for technical consulting, but overall plans are still unclear. “There’s been some interest, [but] we don’t define interest. And at the moment we don’t have any offer or anyone on our doorstep with money in hand,” says Maritime Administration spokesperson Susan Clark.
According to the department’s website, the Savannah will leave the reserve fleet, undergo its decommissioning and, people hope, ultimately retire for display. But, assuming one wants to save it, that still begs the next question of what city will take it, who will actually pay to see it and then how this would be accomplished. For its part, the Maritime Administration is not standing in the way of anyone with a good plan for any of the dozens of vessels in reserve fleets around the U.S., some of which played historic roles in World War II. Theoretically, anyone with a good, sound plan to save a ship can. Some, like the ARS-40 Hoist, a Navy rescue ship, are on “Historic Hold,” and others, like the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, are destined to become artificial reefs in Florida.
Even as there are no official tours, the James River Reserve Fleet is a floating museum in spite of itself. While Greenpeace activists fear the ships and Virginia environmentalists want them removed, the collection of vessels floating off Newport News is an attraction of the most spectacular kind, and has been since the Navy started keeping ships there in 1925. While the public cannot go on board the ships, they can be viewed by tourists visiting Fort Eustis and anyone with a boat. The rusting vessels make fascinating ruins and even appear on the Virginia tourism website as an attraction.
In the case of the Savannah, the Atomic Age’s legacy seems to slip away more each day. In a 29-day span in early 2005, three of the ship’s alumni passed away: Richard Goodwin, the original project developer; Bill Hoefert, a ship superintendent; and Joseph Smith, a staff engineer for States Marine Lines when it ran the vessel. The ship’s pop culture legacy lives on in odd ways, such as plastic models of the ship that remained on the stores shelves even into the 1980s. Sadly, the great Savannah lives next to other, cornier examples of nuclear artifacts. On one website, the model appears on the same page as comic books (“Dagwood Splits the Atom” and “Atomic Bunny”), board games (“Uranium Rush” and “Nuclear War,” the “comical cataclysmic card game of global destruction”) and other toys (“Atomic Robot Man” and, oddly touching, A Simpsons Nuclear Waste Truck). (And don’t forget the classic “Atomic Fireball” candy.)
And yet the mixture of American ingenuity and government squabbles, stylish cabins and goofy toys with atomic power’s overwhelming costs, potential for disaster and genuine promise for a clean future captures the Savannah. It stands as a monument to the Atomic Age’s rare moments of true progress and optimism. As Villiers wrote, “It seemed to me that they [the sailors] were in the direct line from the American boys who used to ship out in the clippers.”
The stylish ship with the red, white and blue hull deserves to glisten for admiring crowds once again. “My interest is because I loved the ship,” Seelinger says. “I sailed on it, and I had responsibility for the ship the last 16 years before I retired. I know a lot of people who sailed on it. I’d hate to see it go to a scrap dealer. … And I think it rightly belongs as a museum,”
“The world’s first nuclear-powered commercial ship—I think that’s very significant.”
596 feet long
78 feet across at the beam
29 foot draft
60 passenger capacity
Top speed 21 knots
Built by New York Shipbuilding Corp, Camden, NJ
Design by George G. Sharp Inc. of New York
Control panel by Westinghouse
Had early “Radarange” oven built by Raytheon Co.
Uranium 235 reactor fuel
NSV Atomic Servant barge kept nuclear waste
The Promenade Deck was a terrace of blue and green ceramic tile
The lounge had tables of petrified wood and Vermont white statuary marble
Parabolic mural “Fission” sculpted by Pierre Bourdelle decorated dining room
Interior styling by Jack Heaney and Associates, Wilton, Conn.
C Deck included viewing gallery of reactor control room
March 28, 1819 First Savannah begins her maiden voyage for her namesake port.
December 8, 1953 Eisenhower makes Atoms for Peace speech at United Nations, followed by Operation Candor, which would talk soberly of nuclear issues.
April 25, 1955 Eisenhower proposes building nuclear-powered “peace ship.”
July 1956 Congress authorizes ship.
Sept 1958 13 engineers begin nuclear training in Lynchburg College.
July 21, 1959 Ship launched.
March 23, 1962 Becomes first nuclear merchant ship at sea.
May 1, 1962 Accepted by Maritime Administration, becomes popular exhibit at Seattle World’s Fair.
1965 U.S. leases to American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines subsidiary First Atomic Ship Transport.
1967 Cargo generates $2,600,000 in revenue.
1967 New York Shipyards in Camden NJ closes.
1972 Presented to Georgia as part of Eisenhower Peace Memorial.
1981 Becomes part of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, South Carolina.
Nov 14, 1982 Listed on National Register of Historic Places.
1983 Becomes International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
1994 Savannah leaves Patriots Point for Virginia.