On This Day: World's first nuclear-powered passenger ship sets sail

On This Day: World's first nuclear-powered passenger ship sets sail

AUGUST 20, 1962: The world’s first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship made her maiden voyage on this day in 1962.

NS Savannah, a U.S. government-owned vessel conceived as an “Atoms for Peace” ambassador, sailed from Yorktown, Virginia to her home port of Savannah, Georgia.

The £30million ship travelled 450,000 miles, docked at 45 foreign ports and was visited by 1.4million people before her nuclear reactor was decommissioned in 1971.

A British Pathé newsreel filmed the Savannah in Southampton following her first transatlantic voyage in 1964.

It showed her state-of-the-art control room - with hundreds of buttons and gauges – as well as luxurious cabins.

She was equipped with 30 air-conditioned staterooms, a dining room that could comfortably fit 100 people, a cinema and a swimming pool.

And, despite looking more like a luxury yacht, the vessel which would still look futuristic today also had a cargo space capable of carrying 8,000 tons of freight.


She was named after the 1818-built SS Savannah, the first steam ship to cross the Atlantic.

But, unlike her forbear which used 75 tons of coal to make the voyage, the Nuclear Ship Savannah used just 4oz of uranium during the 3,500-mile crossing.

Furthermore, the 596ft-long vessel, which was capable of speeds of up to 24 knots (28mph), could travel an additional 300,000 miles before needing a refill.


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Its 74 mega-watt power plant could use uranium to produce a nuclear reaction capable of heating enough steam to drive a 23,000 horsepower engine and propel the ship.

But despite her impressive efficiency, she could not compete with more conventional steam or diesel-powered vessels, which cost significantly less to build and maintain.

Instead, she was built by the U.S. Maritime Administration to demonstrate how atomic power could transform the world.

U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower, who commissioned the project in 1955, described the vessel as a “peace ship” that would be the first of many.

Yet nuclear-powered civil ships have not developed beyond a few experimental ships from the 1960s due to environmental and security fears.


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Savannah, although one of the safest atomic vessels, still released over 115,000 gallons of low-level nuclear waste into the sea during her nine-year service.

Other civil nuclear ships suffered more substantial problems – including radiation leakage and the near meltdowns of their reactors.

Such vessels are also difficult and costly to decommission.

And, despite being using low-enriched uranium – rather than missile-grade fuel – as fuel, there remains a risk that terrorists or rogue states could use it as a weapon.

One area where nuclear-powered civil ships have flourished, however, is as use as ice-breakers in the Russian Arctic.

The Soviet ice-breaker Lenin, built in 1959, was the first civil ship to use atomic power.

But today, just as in the 1960s, the majority of nuclear vessels are military submarines.

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