The ship that totally failed to change the world

Monday, August 11th, 2014

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.

Savannah Control Room

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.


  1. The accidents seem a little odd, considering that naval reactors were a pretty mature technology at the time and many had been operating for years without incident.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Yeah, from the way that this article is written, you’d think that there had been no successful nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, etc. Kind of odd.

  3. Bill says:

    Nuclear materials seem to be difficult to handle safely, in spite of all the available technology and experience. In a recent NPR interview on his book Command and Control, writer Eric Schlosser reported on the problems that the US military has had over the years in using nuclear materials in missiles and bombs.

    He was provided with the Pentagon’s official list of 32 instances of ‘Broken Arrows’ — nuclear materials accidents in the US military. Using the Freedom of Information act, however, he was able to ascertain that between 1950 and 1968 alone, there were more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons.

    Although I was exposed to high levels of pro-nuclear propaganda as a child (who remembers ‘Our Friend The Atom’?), I’ve had less confidence in the idea of anything nuclear that moves around as time goes on…

  4. After reading the garbled mess Schlosser made of the Goldsboro incident, among others, I’m inclined to the position that you’ve simply made a switch in inaccuracies from pro-nuclear propaganda to anti-nuclear propaganda, Bill.

    Also, what about the thousands of times each year there are accidents with highly dangerous industrial chemicals, frequently ones vastly more deadly than the sort of nuclear material used in weapons or power plants?

  5. Bill says:

    S. Americanus, you may be right.

    However, the point I was trying to make is that the Pentagon has obviously lied by omission as far as nuclear weapon safety is concerned, and so assertions like “naval reactors… had been operating for years without incident” are suspect. I’m wondering if that is a result of the government lying by omission. We’re not told about accidents or problems, so we assume it’s safe.

    Also, I’m not anti-nuclear; I’d like to see more nuclear power added to our mix of coal-oil-natural gas. But governments (and big organizations in general) tend to hide their faults, and this is a case where complete transparency is necessary for public safety.

  6. Oh, I agree that there are probably plenty of incidents that have been covered up and such. I think complete transparency is sadly impossible for large organizations like governments and big-businesses, but improvement is certainly possible.

    That said, in general there’s a bit of a double standard with regards to nuclear technology about what we consider “safe,” hence why I brought up industrial chemical accidents.

    People seem very willing to accept (or more often simply ignore) a certain low level of dangerous and even deadly accidents in most other industries while still considering them generally “safe,” but even very minor accidents involving nuclear technology are harped upon as proof for all time that the atom is too dangerous for man to tamper with.

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