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Friday, January 4, 2013

"Once Upon A Nuclear Ship"

Long time readers of Atomic Power Review will have noticed the illustration of the nuclear powered ship NS Savannah in the right side bar, and links to the MARAD site section about the Savannah; these have been in place for a long time here because the Savannah was formative in my early exposure to nuclear energy, while it was at Patriot's Point in Charleston, South Carolina.  (That experience will soon appear on the Nuclear Literacy Project site, in a grade school level form so that even kids can read it, since I'm now a member of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios.)

Above, detail of poster from Patriot's Point Naval & Maritime Museum ca. 1989-1990 showing NS Savannah lower right.

As a result of my interest with the ship I became aware a while back of a documentary about the ship entitled "Once Upon A Nuclear Ship."  The website that explains this documentary can be found by clicking here.  The project is well worth examining - it's very thoroughly researched and employs first hand experiences on the ship.

Now that the documentary has been finished, the people behind it are trying to get the word out about it, and have launched a campaign to fund that effort.  They've launched this campaign using a site called Indiegogo, and you can find the page for the "Once Upon A Nuclear Ship" project by clicking here.  There are a range of donation amounts available for which one can receive various perks; however, it appears that the number of perks available is limited somewhat, so the early birds will get the worms as the saying goes.

(Full disclosure:  I put in $100, and selected the Master-Captain reward.  I also left a comment on the page as 'atomicpower.')

I would love to see this group hit its goal, and get the story of this ship out.  I have always recalled the feeling of walking the Savannah's decks, and touring her spaces and quarters.  I recall clearly feeling on board the ship a melancholy twinge of promise unfulfilled -- yet that promise has never been withdrawn.  Nuclear propulsion for commercial shipping is just as viable, technically and economically, as it ever has been; what is lacking is proper design, proper funding, and proper incentive.  Perhaps as we move toward a more carbon free and GHG free world, the emissions of the world's cargo shipping will become a significant enough point to at least put nuclear propulsion for such ships back on the table.

The groundwork for any such effort has already been laid - it was laid by the men and women who designed, built, and operated the NS Savannah.  The documentary which is the subject of this post should help at least to preserve the memory of that effort.

7:15 PM Eastern 1/4/2013


  1. Hi, Will! You mention, "Nuclear propulsion for commercial shipping is just as viable, technically and economically, as it ever has been; what is lacking is proper design, proper funding, and proper incentive." What's lacking in design, from your point of view? Thanks! Kelly

  2. In the specific case of the Savannah, the ship simply was not large enough. The cost of the crew was very high compared with conventional ships; however, the crew size would not have increased with, say, a doubling of reactor plant output and a ship perhaps half again as large, or twice as large. (Economy of scale.) That would have been more the size required to make money with the ship. All of the other studies I've seen for various nuclear powered commercial shipping from that time period focused on higher cargo capacity per MW of power and per crew member. In terms of safe operation, the Savannah never had any major issues; this means that all of the design principles were valid, but has no bearing on the ship's ability to make money. Coupling similar design (and, actually, the Otto Hahn which was German built later used a much more advanced reactor plant design) and a larger ship would have been the key to successful, profitable operation.

  3. Will, if a company like Royal Caribbean made a ship like the Oasis of the Seas - the largest cruise ship - would it be enough to make money? If I ran RC I might consider making a nuclear ship but keep it quiet about the fact that it is (shhhhh! nuclear powered). Surely, some people from the Navy could be hired to run the reactor. It would sure help to not burn all that oil for a ship and I believe we could see a nuclear-powered cruise ship in the future.

  4. Some in Washington use approximately $85/barrel to compare fossil to nuclear for ship propulsion purposes. Cruise ships rarely operate at full speed so I would think they good go for a number of years without refueling.