John G. Roberts
Atomic Power Review
Stories of the NS Savannah
The World's First Nuclear Powered Merchant Ship
Once Upon A Nuclear Ship, a new documentary by filmmaker Thomas Michael Conner, tells the story of the NS Savannah the world’s first nuclear powered merchant ship that was once the diamond in the crown of the US merchant fleet.
Imagined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955 and built by the New York Shipbuilding Corp in Camden NJ from 1957 to 1962, the Savannah sailed the oceans of the world for 9 years before being taken out of service. In her brief lifetime she visited 77 ports of call around the world hosting 1.4 million visitors and proved that a nuclear powered merchant ship carrying cargo and passengers was a viable option to conventional ship smokestacks spewing soot and other contaminants into the air and laid the ground work for a future that never came to be.
Once Upon A Nuclear Ship follows the Savannah through all of her trials and tribulations from the keel laying
to her decommissioning and abandonment to her resurrection in 2006.
It’s a story best told by the men who “were there when it happened” and although many of these pioneering seamen have sailed into the sunset, Conner tracked down some key players and let them tell the story in their own words. It’s a story he too knows well because he was a member of the health physics (radiation protection) staff and was there from the day the reactor split it’s first atom then sailed on the ship until the end of 1964. The Savannah was the only ship requiring a special department for the assessment of radiological hazards.
Today, a small group of passionate people led by Erhard Koehler and Jon Stouky of the US Maritime Administration are preserving the history and technological know how that produced the Savannah in the first place. Stouky like Conner was involved with the Savannah since the New York Ship days in Camden and is currently the project’s Nuclear Advisor. (Sadly, Stouky passed away in October of 2012.)
There is hope for the future though and a small handful of engineers and researchers are planning the next fleet of nuclear ships. This effort is being led by Stan Wheatley who was the Chief Engineer on the NS Savannah from 1962 to 1964 and has been involved in promoting the idea nuclear ships all these years later and is currently the Managing Director of Center for the Commercial Deployment of Transportation Technologies at California State University Long Beach CA.
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