Fifty years ago the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship, the 600-foot, 12,000-ton NS Savannah, sailed from the US to Europe on a publicity tour to persuade the world to embrace Atoms for Peace. It was the ship that totally failed to change the world:
Just three other nuclear merchant ships were built — the German oil transporter Otto Hahn; Japan’s freighter Mutsu; and the Russian ice-breaking container vessel Sevmorput. Like the Savannah, they are no longer in service.
The nuclear ship pioneers suffered problems. On its maiden voyage in 1974, the Mutsu started leaking radioactive material 500 miles (800km) off the coast of Japan. It was allowed to return to the port of Ohminato for repairs despite lengthy protests by fishermen and residents. A faulty reactor shield was blamed amid a wave of global publicity.
The Savannah itself experienced similar problems. It was set up to store a volume of radioactive waste that was quickly surpassed. Just in its first year, 115,000 gallons of low-level waste was released into the sea. Storage space was subsequently increased but small volumes of waste continued to be released.
The spectre of environmental damage would always count against nuclear ships. “What can float, can sink and as we have learnt with oil spills, it is not if, but when. And when it does happen, it could be an environmental catastrophe,” says Dr Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group and senior researcher at the University College London’s Energy Institute.
Cost was another downside. A ship with a nuclear reactor is always going to cost more. While the US’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are all nuclear-powered, it was decided that the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth super-carrier would use a combination of gas turbines — fuelled with kerosene — as well as diesel engines instead for cost reasons.
The cost concerns of nuclear are obvious. The reactor costs much more to build than a diesel engine. But on top of that, maintenance and eventual disposal of redundant reactors present unpredictable costs.