By Tammy Thueringer & Justin Parkinson
Fifty years ago the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship sailed from the US to Europe on a publicity tour to persuade the world to embrace the atomic age. It didn’t quite work out like that.
Sleek in shape, painted red and white, its interior decorated in what was then ultra-modern chrome, the NS Savannah wasn’t quite like any other cargo ship.
It had facilities for passengers. The 600ft, 12,000-ton ship boasted a cinema, veranda bar and swimming pool. The cabins had no curtains. Instead, “polarised” windows, designed to cut glare, lined the sides of staterooms.
The ship was one of the few to spring directly from the imagination of a US president. In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower had made his famous Atoms for Peace speech, attempting to balance the growing fear of nuclear apocalypse with optimism about the possibility of civilian use of atomic energy.
And he wanted an atomic ship. A civilian one.
“A very attractive ship”: The NS Savannah, pictured in 1962
The NS Savannah, which cost $50m, was launched 55 years ago this week. It was to be an ambassador of sorts – the world’s first nuclear-propelled merchant ship and a symbol of safety and faith in the fuel of the future.
Stan Wheatley was one of those who was excited to be working on the ship. He was in the shipyard while the Savannah was built and served as the chief engineer on its maiden voyage. “The nuclear power system was a prototype, no question, but we were all trained well.”
Everyone was aware the ship was supposed to be a beautiful advertisement for nuclear energy.
“It represented the best-looking ship around and it still is a very attractive ship,” says Wheatley, now a member of the Savannah Association which works to preserve and protect the decommissioned ship that now sits at a port in Baltimore, Maryland.
Inside the NS Savannah’s stateroom
The Savannah’s control room
View from the Savannah’s bridge Continue reading