A decade after atomically bombing Japan into submission in August 1945, bringing at long last an end to the most destructive war in mankind’s enduring tradition of destructive war, the United States sought to rehabilitate the humble atom’s suddenly ferocious image.
Exploding two such bombs — the uranium-fueled Little Boy over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, and the plutonium-fired Fat Man over Nagasaki three days later — remains to this day a topic of debate: Was it in fact necessary to drop both bombs to bring about the achieved result? And is it ever justifiable to annihilate tens of thousands of noncombatant human beings even given the imperative need to end prolonged combat?
One answer, a dodge really, was to prove that radioactivity could be harnessed for mankind’s benefit — and let bygones be bygones.
So it was that Dwight Eisenhower, the nation’s only general elected president in the 20th century, unveiled in a Dec. 8, 1953, speech to the United Nations his “Atoms for Peace” program, which resulted in, among other things, the development of the Nuclear Ship Savannah, the world’s first merchant ship to employ atomic power.
And so it was that Galveston, in 1963, became the nation’s first and only nuclear-service port.
The Savannah — she was named in honor of the U.S. Savannah, which, in 1819, had become the first steamship to traverse the Atlantic — was at once both a luxurious passenger ship and a cargo vessel, a concept that would prove a failure.
From stem to stern she measured 595 and a half feet, just shy of two football fields laid end to end.
NS Savannah could carry 60 passengers in air-conditioned comfort along with 8,500 tons of cargo, all the while maintaining 21 knots. She was christened on July 21, 1959, although it wasn’t until three years later that her maiden voyage took her, like her namesake, across the Atlantic.
As a passenger ship, the Savannah was a delight, cosseting her passengers and offering such amenities as a pool and a library, a cinema, a nicely stocked lounge, the Veranda Bar on the aft end of the promenade deck. Her restaurant was a gourmand’s delight; there, diners sat beneath Pierre Bourdelle’s apt mural, “Fission.”
Yet, her streamlined hull provided insufficient cargo space — the ship’s anticipated true moneymaker — and as such she was retired less than a decade after entering service. Nor did it help that given the demands of maintaining her atomic core and tending to the whims of her pampered passengers the ship employed a crew a third as large as that needed for a conventional cargo vessel.
The Savannah’s Babcock & Wilcox nuclear reactor, on the other hand, was extremely efficient in driving her twin steam turbines.
In fact, when the Savannah in 1968 returned for her first refueling at Pelican Island — the site had been selected under terms of a contract with the Todd Shipyard Corp. for the purpose of servicing nuclear, commercial ships — engineers expecting to need to replace her atomic core discovered that after having traveled more than 350,000 miles the Savannah had consumed just four of her 32 uranium-oxide bundles.
The Pelican Island nuclear-service center, which lay at “the extreme east end” of Todd Shipyards facilities there and included a decontamination room for employees’ use in the event of an accident — such fortunately never occurred — had been expected “to serve 20 or more nuclear ships per year as well as handle most licensing, training, inspection, refueling, start-up, maintenance, and repair functions associated with nuclear ships,” according to the National Park Service’s 1991 declaration of the Savannah as a national historic landmark.
As it was, however, only four nuclear-powered merchant ships were ever built worldwide, none of which ply the seas today.
The Savannah was removed from service in late 1971, having expended just 163 pounds of uranium, the equivalent of 29 million gallons of diesel fuel, in traveling nearly half a million miles, after which she briefly sat alongside Pelican Island where passengers aboard the ferry service between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula ogled her sleek, laid-up hull.
Within months, though, she was offered for a token payment of $1 to the Georgia city for which her namesake had been named to serve as the centerpiece of what was to be the Eisenhower Peace Memorial, money for which never emerged.
Today, Nuclear Ship Savannah lies at an out-of-the-way pier in Baltimore’s Canton Marine Terminal, all but abandoned, her signature nuclear reactor long since removed.