N.S. Savannah: World’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship

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Photos and text by Amy Davis

Unlike Baltimore’s other National Historic Landmark vessels docked around the Inner Harbor, the sleek N.S. Savannah is hidden from public view at the Canton Marine Terminal. Completed in 1961 at a cost of $47 million, the N.S. Savannah was the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, and the only one built in the United States. It was conceived by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a nautical ambassador for his Atoms for Peace program, an initiative to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy as the Cold War raged.

For its first three years, the Savannah carried passengers as well as cargo on its global mission, but by 1965 the limited passenger service ended. Cargo service ceased in 1970, and the nuclear fuel was removed the next year. Its nuclear facility remains under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The reactor is no longer operable, and funding has been appropriated for the removal of all the nuclear components by 2031.

After 1970, the Savannah was in limbo for more than a decade. The peace flagship then became a museum in South Carolina until 1994, when serious deterioration required drydock repairs. The 595 ft. long, 78 ft. wide cargo liner was towed to Baltimore in 2008. The Savannah, owned by the Maritime Administration, has a small crew for its maintenance, restoration and decommissioning work. Dedicated volunteers from the N.S. Savannah Association support these efforts.

Inside and out, the Savannah is a marvel of streamlined mid-century futuristic design. Its furnishings and atomic motifs would make the perfect background for James Bond to mingle with the Star Trek crew. Perhaps some day, if funding can be found, it will become a museum again. For now, it can be toured only during the annual National Maritime Day and other special events, or by special request for groups.