Podcast: The N.S. Savannah

The N.S. Savannah is the only nuclear powered civilian ship the United States built. Born out of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in the 1950s, its builders hoped it to be the harbinger of the nuclear powered future. Instead, it’s now mostly idle, an artifact of another era.

Today, the N.S. Savannah is docked in Baltimore Harbor. Walking up to it, there’s no immediate indication that it’s powered by an atomic reactor at its heart.

However, it’s hard to miss the giant, stylized atom emblazoned on the side of the ship while walking up the gangway.

The ship’s reception hall has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. It was designed to remind people boarding the Savannah that this was going be the luxury liner of tomorrow.

The reactor takes up several floors at the center of the ship, right between the butcher shop and main laundry.

Everything on board the ship was designed to look futuristic and scientific, including the dining room. The abstract artwork along the concave wall in the back is titled “fission” by artist Pierre Bourdelle.

Even the light fixtures look like atoms.

In the ship’s galley is a piece of history. The Raytheon RadaRange oven is the first commercially availably microwave oven.

When the ship was first brought up from Texas, a lot of it was badly damaged from years of neglect and Hurricane Hugo. This crew compartment is what most of the ship looked like when it first arrived in Baltimore.

Though funds have been limited, the Maritime Administration fixed up a couple of the cabins to what they would have looked like while the ship was in service. Passenger compartments would have been bigger and much more luxurious with full sized beds and more furniture.

The bar in the ship’s veranda is another great example of 1950s design. Behind the bar, the slots holding the champagne is patterned after a isotope periodic table of the elements.

The bridge of the Savannah.

The ship’s medical bay.

The whole point of the Savannah was to show off what nuclear energy could do, so the designers included windows for passengers to peer down into the engine room.

Peeking through the orange steam turbines and yellow reduction gears is the control room where engineers would operate the nuclear reactor itself.

 Inside the control room.

Dials and indicators display radiation and pressure readings from all over the ship.

A scram is an emergency shutdown of the reactor. If disaster struck, the engineers would hit the big red button, dropping the control rods into the reactor core and terminating the nuclear reactions before it gets out of control.

The colorful panels are actually a miniature diagram of the nuclear propulsion system itself. Here, the red pipes pump water over the white hot reactor core at the center. It boils the water and more pipes carry the searingly hot and radioactive water to the blue “secondary” system, essentially another big tank of water. There, heat sinks transfer the heat and boil the secondary’s water without letting the radioactive water from the “primary” contaminate it. This steam turns the yellow turbine system that powers the ship’s propellor.

Access to the core itself is restricted, but there’s actually very little radioactive materials left on the ship. All the uranium fuel was removed in the 1970s along with several other “hot” parts of the reactor.

Image: National Archives

The Savannah passesunder the Golden Gate Bride in 1962. Efforts by the official N.S. Savannah Association in conjunction with the Maritime Administration are underway to restore the ship, hopefully to turn it into a museum. However funding is lean and there’s a lot of work to be done.

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