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Step inside the world's only nuclear-powered passenger ship — built in 1959

NPR correspondent Geoff Brumfiel boards the NS Savannah, a nuclear passenger ship built in the late 1950s as part of a U.S. program to illustrate the positive uses of nuclear energy.
Meredith Rizzo for NPR
NPR correspondent Geoff Brumfiel boards the NS Savannah, a nuclear passenger ship built in the late 1950s as part of a U.S. program to illustrate the positive uses of nuclear energy.

Deep inside the Port of Baltimore, past stacks of shipping containers and a plant that makes wallboard, sits the world's first, and only, nuclear-powered cruise ship – the NS Savannah.

The Savannah is the only nuclear-powered merchant ship the U.S. ever built, and the only nuclear vessel in the world designed with passengers in mind. As NPR's chief correspondent for all things atomic, I've wanted to see her for years.

So when the opportunity came up to take a tour recently, I climbed aboard.

The Savannah has been moored in a Baltimore port since 2008. Last fall, its nuclear reactor was removed as part of its decomissioning.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The Savannah has been moored in a Baltimore port since 2008. Last fall, its nuclear reactor was removed as part of its decomissioning.
The N.S. Savannah as it arrived in San Francisco on November 18th 1962.
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
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Bettmann Archive
The N.S. Savannah as it arrived in San Francisco on November 18th 1962.

Savannah's origin story began in the darkest days of the Cold War. In December of 1953, the very future of the world seemed to be in question. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first thermonuclear weapon. A year before, the United States had tested its own ten-megaton device on a remote Pacific island. The blast was so powerful, it wiped the island from the face of the Earth.

In a speech before the United Nations, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged the peril facing the world, but he refused to accept that the atom's only purpose was to vaporize mankind.

"The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future," Eisenhower told the assembled diplomats. "The capability, already proved, is here today."

By the end of the decade, the U.S. Government had built the Savannah as part of a program known as "Atoms for Peace," which sought to demonstrate the good that nuclear energy could do.

The ship was launched in 1959, and its 74-megawatt nuclear reactor was powered up in 1961.

Erhard Koehler, Senior Technical Advisor for the ship, climbs the passenger staircase from the lobby to the lounge area.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Erhard Koehler, Senior Technical Advisor for the ship, climbs the passenger staircase from the lobby to the lounge area.

"Anybody could buy a ticket," says Erhard Koehler, the Senior Technical Advisor for the Savannah at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration, which owns the ship.

The ship was more of a proof-of-concept than an actual cruise ship. It could carry just 60 passengers, and it also had cargo holds for transporting goods.

The ship's lounge overlooked a small swimming pool and sported a bar (top). The bar's wine rack was inspired by the chart of the nuclides (bottom left). Clocks gave the time in locations around the world, a nod to the Savannah's international mission (bottom right).
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The ship's lounge overlooked a small swimming pool and sported a bar (top). The bar's wine rack was inspired by the chart of the nuclides (bottom left). Clocks gave the time in locations around the world, a nod to the Savannah's international mission (bottom right).

Still, Koehler says, the ship was popular. "It was fully booked throughout its history." That history was brief – Savannah only carried passengers from 1962 to 1965.

Koehler says the decision to stop carrying passengers wasn't about safety. It was economic.

"If you stopped carrying passengers, you could reduce the number of stewards and reduce the cost of the program," he says.

A tight hallway leads to the passenger rooms. Also on the ship: a swimming pool, a hospital bay equipped to perform surgery, and a barber shop. Koehler says the Savannah was fully booked throughout its history.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
A tight hallway leads to the passenger rooms. Also on the ship: a swimming pool, a hospital bay equipped to perform surgery, and a barber shop. Koehler says the Savannah was fully booked throughout its history.
A passenger stateroom included a porthole with a view, as well as a sofa, desk, bed and bathroom.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
A passenger stateroom included a porthole with a view, as well as a sofa, desk, bed and bathroom.

The ship did see plenty of other visitors. Over its history, Savannah traveled to some 45 foreign ports in 26 countries. It's estimated that well over a million people boarded the ship to see its nuclear reactor at work. To facilitate the visitors, the Savannah sported an unusually large galley. "When it was in port, they would serve 500-700 people in a meal," Koehler says.

The Savannah's dining room (top) could serve passengers or visitors to the ship. It featured atomic light fixtures (bottom left) and atom-themed dinnerware (bottom right).
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The Savannah's dining room (top) could serve passengers or visitors to the ship. It featured atomic light fixtures (bottom left) and atom-themed dinnerware (bottom right).

While the Savannah's nuclear reactor was revolutionary, the rest of the ship was actually unremarkable for the time it was built. "It wasn't very state-of-the-art," he says. "It's really a time capsule of what was the norm in the U.S. Merchant Marine in the 1950s and 60s."

The bridge would send orders to the reactor control room, which could change the power output of the nuclear core as needed.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The bridge would send orders to the reactor control room, which could change the power output of the nuclear core as needed.

Koehler takes me down to the reactor control room. It's located below, in the forward section of the ship.

It controlled a pressurized water reactor that used low-enriched uranium to produce heat. That heat was turned into steam that could run the ship's turbines, spinning the propeller and also producing electricity. The Savannah could cruise at 20 knots, which is similar to the speed of most cruise ships today.

Entering the ship from the deck. The reactor was located below in the forward part of the vessel.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Entering the ship from the deck. The reactor was located below in the forward part of the vessel.
From an observation deck, passengers could look down into the engine room and watch the reactor control room operators at work.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
From an observation deck, passengers could look down into the engine room and watch the reactor control room operators at work.

We come down past the enormous turbines that once turned Savannah's propeller. The reactor control system is well lit. It's a small, one-of-a-kind system that allowed the ship's engineers to manage the reactor's power output as it plied the seas. Notably, the control room lacks any chairs: "By and large engineers in the 60s stood their watch; they didn't sit," Koehler says.

The ship's reactor control room sits next to the turbines that the nuclear reactor powers (top). An atomic motif adorns the floor (bottom left) where engineers stood watch and controlled the reactor using the panels (bottom right).
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The ship's reactor control room sits next to the turbines that the nuclear reactor powers (top). An atomic motif adorns the floor (bottom left) where engineers stood watch and controlled the reactor using the panels (bottom right).

The operators could also command an emergency shut-down, or scram, of the reactor core. Scrams were rare aboard the Savannah, but one did take place in 1964, when the ship passed through a hurricane. A backup auxiliary motor run off of diesel power kept the ship going while engineers restarted the reactor.

The scram button would shut down the reactor immediately. It could only be done from the reactor's control room (a similar button on the bridge would simply turn on a light below).
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
The scram button would shut down the reactor immediately. It could only be done from the reactor's control room (a similar button on the bridge would simply turn on a light below).

Back in the ship's main lobby, Koehler shows me a small wooden cube. It represents the volume of uranium fuel needed to let the Savannah travel 454,000 nautical miles– enough to circumnavigate the world well over a dozen times. Traveling the same distance with conventional fuel would have required approximately 28 million gallons of it.

A wooden block in the main lobby illustrates the amount of uranium fuel needed to sail around the world more than a dozen times.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
A wooden block in the main lobby illustrates the amount of uranium fuel needed to sail around the world more than a dozen times.

But despite its dazzling efficiency, Savannah was never economically viable. It required special fuel-handling facilities to load and unload its nuclear core. And decommissioning the ship has taken decades and cost far more than it could have ever made moving cargo or people.

In the early 1970s, the Savannah's reactor was shut down and de-fueled. By that time, the ship had done what it was supposed to do – demonstrate a peaceful use of nuclear energy. "The program was ended, rather than continue to spend money for no real net effect," he says.

Koehler and Brumfiel explore the deck of the ship.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Koehler and Brumfiel explore the deck of the ship.

The NS Savannah has never sailed again. In the 80s and 90s it was berthed at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in South Carolina, before being put into storage. Decommissioning of the ship's nuclear components began in 2017.

In November of last year, its reactor was removed and taken to Utah for disposal. Koehler says full decommissioning of the ship's nuclear components will take another two years or so. At that point the Maritime Administration can dispose of the Savannah, Koehler says, but he hopes it will be protected.

"Our objective is not to scrap the ship," he says. "Our objective is to see the ship preserved somehow."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Crews continue work on the deck of the Savannah as decommissioning continues.The ultimate fate of the ship is uncertain.
/ Meredith Rizzo for NPR
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Meredith Rizzo for NPR
Crews continue work on the deck of the Savannah as decommissioning continues.The ultimate fate of the ship is uncertain.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.