Throwback Thursday – The Nuclear Savannah

14698777183_cbe50c4bb1_nNS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered cargo vessel, is seen here heading to the World’s Fair in Seattle. Built in the late 1950s at a cost of $47 million, including a $28 million nuclear reactor and fuel core, the Savannah was a demonstration project for the potential use of nuclear energy. She was launched in July 1959 and named for the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

NS Savannah was in service between 1962 and 1972 as one of only four nuclear-powered merchant ships ever built. Anyone know where she is moored today? Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

28 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday – The Nuclear Savannah”

  1. Alvin, I was fortunate to have been on the Savannah when she was docked in Boston. At the time I was in my first year of college which would have been 1963-4. Capt. Pete Block was related to me through marriage. He was indeed a wonderful man. I have a tie bar still in the original box depicting the ship. Thank you for remembering Pete.

  2. Our ADAMS database contains all our publicly-available documents pertaining to this license. It can be found here:

    Our documentation of the NS Savannah license can be accessed by selecting the Advance Search tab and under Document Properties, selecting “Docket Number” then inputting “05000238” for the value.

    Our project manager checked with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, which owns the NS Savannah, and reported that:

    • Liquids were drained from all rad systems early on in the layup/SAFSTOR process and are long gone from the ship.
    • During operational life, it was serviced at the Todd Shipyards, in Galveston, Texas
    • All liquid wastes were processed at the shipyards and residual low-level waste solids were disposed at an authorized facility, in accordance with Texas and federal regulations and standards. Primary system fluids were sent to the Barnwell low-level waste disposal facility.

    Maureen Conley

  3. The matter was covered at the NS Savannah Association website. Go to and look for the post entitled {NSSA Response to BBC Article “The Ship That Totally Failed to Change the World”} and you will find the press release on this subject.

  4. Perhaps our moderator can enlighten us Donna. 10 CFR Part 20 contains requirements for radiation record keeping. The only info that I could find there pertaining to privacy or confidentiality was with regard to personal radiation exposure information. I assume therefore that all other radiation info including waste disposal records are public information. Please address this Mr. Moderator. Could you provide some links to this information?

  5. I believe Will, Donna. I think he is a straight shooter and very knowledgeable. As I recall those early days of nuclear power, documentation was scarce. At most there was a ship’s or engineering log entry that cited date and time. No telling therefore how much or how radioactive any of the waste dumped into the sea was at the time. I hope record-keeping has vastly improved since then. But I am also quite sure that any documentation is “salted” away and even classified confidential or safeguards information. Can’t afford to let the truth out!

  6. Do you have some official technical documentation to substantiate that claim? If so, please link in this post for all to see.

  7. As others have said, the NS Savannah discharged some of its waste in accordance with the regulations, and disposed of other waste, again in accordance with the regulations. Our project manager is not available to respond at this time, but you may be able to get an answer from the licensee.

  8. The Russians have been operating nuclear powered ships in non-military service since 1959.

  9. The “waste” was WATER. Water which met the US AEC standards for overboard discharge in force at the time, as well as international limits.

  10. NS Savannah was most certainly not a failure. Her primary goals — to demonstrate that a reliable and safe nuclear merchant ship could be built, and to get agreements signed with foreign countries to allow nuclear ships into their waters — were both achieved admirably. In fact, the availability of the nuclear plant was 99% — surely one of the highest nuclear plant availabilities of any of the era.

  11. Alvin,

    Thanks for leaving a comment. I am glad you did, although I am about to as well. The ship will be open for tours on National Maritime Day – maybe we’ll see you there.

    Will Davis, Communications Director, NS Savannah Association, Inc.

  12. Please James don’t throw me under that nuclear bus of yours! Why should I have to choose between two poisons anyway?! Fossil or nuclear?! Big Nuclear or Big Oil?! Both are obscene, antiquated methods of producing electricity. All both produce is death and destruction. You know I have been off cigarettes now for over 30 years but I still love the smell of cigarette smoke. At least I can see and smell smoke. Radiation is that CO2 type-poison that none of your senses can detect. And I have to rely on you pro-nuclear folks to give me the “straight” scoop. And time and time again you have failed to do so. The nuclear world-the realm of secrecy and half-truths.

  13. Gosh, Dave, I did not know this was an anti-nuclear blog site either. I thought just the opposite Dave. I thought this was a pro-nuclear blog site. I even thought that NRC stood for “Nuclear Reactor Cheerleader”!

  14. If you are using Google Earth ( or any other ) She is at 39 deg 15 min North, 76 deg, 33 min west.

    I am honored to have been one of the Deck Officers to have served upon this ship. She was built as a demonstrator, and never intended to be an economical success on her own. That would be like expecting the Wright Brothers first airplane to be an economic success. We proved that the concept worked. We demonstrated a safety record and procedures of the highest standards.
    Yes, liquid nuclear waste was disposed of at sea, in full compliance with all regulations and laws. What is not mentioned is that the ” waste” was of very low concentration, in most cases barely detectable or with no radiation readings above background, but classed as waste just due to where that humidity had condensed. ( Believe it or not the humidity in the air condenses inside the hull below the water kine where the outside water is colder. ). It was interesting that monitoring the radiation exposures of the crew the Deck Officers who navigated the ship always had higher radiation exposures than the Reactor Operators, who were sitting about 75 feet from the reactor. They were inside a steel box, and we were exposed to sunlight. Just like international airline pilots who get more radiation exposure due to the altitudes they fly at. Measurable, yes, dangerous, No. ,

    And if you want to know what is going to happen to her, well, She is a National Landmark, and as such can not be significantly altered, so she can not have the reactor removed ( All of the fuel was removed in Galveston, Tx in 1971) and she still has a reactor license from the NRC ( Formerly the AEC), which can not be given up until the reactor is dismantled.

    I was very honored to have served with some of the greatest mariners who have ever sailed. RIP Capt. Arnold “Pete ” Block and Chief Engineer Eddie Rafelle. You were visionaries.

    Alvin R. Kempf, Jr.

  15. Do you have an answer yet as to where the waste is currently stored, or did all of it eventually end up in the ocean?
    “During her first year in operation, she released more than 115,000 gallons of radioactive waste at sea. Modifications were made later to bring the amount of waste resulting from valve leaks in line with the ship’s onboard storage capacity. When operating properly, radioactive wastes were stored in the ship until disposal could be arranged at a licensed facility, or it could be discharged to its special servicing barge, the N.S.V. (Nuclear Servicing Vessel) Atomic Servant.”

  16. I see. So just to placate one’s nuclear-phobia and prejudice and nuclear-conspiracy theories you’re willing to sacrifice tens of millions of lives in Japan (and Germany) to certain and traceable and recordable non-vaporware fossil fuel related health maladies and environmental pollution, not to mention occasional lethally horrific accidents. It just amazes me how anti-nukers strut the shallow conscience to sweep such mortal fossil casualties under the rug just because they’ve phantom fears and grievances against nuclear. Some need some SERIOUS education.
    Go Nuclear blog — You can pack ALL the _documented_ worker/public fatalities incurred by nuclear plant operations since the 1950s _worldwide_ on just ONE Greyhound bus. You couldn’t build enough ocean liners to accommodate victims of fossil fuel use that same period alone.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  17. The NS Savannah is indeed a pretty vessel and I had the opportunity to kayak around her when she was anchored with the “ghost fleet” in the James River Newport News, VA, back in 2006. But her beauty doesn’t make up for the fact that the project was a failure. Still under an NRC license, she languishes at dock in Baltimore, just sitting there until something happens…like a floating museum (but who pays for that?) or to the scrap heap. Tom Clements, Savannah River Site Watch, Columbia, SC, (born in Savannah, GA so that may explain a soft spot I have for the ship despite her failed mission)

  18. Where is this waste now you ask Donna? Our oceans have been the dumping ground for radioactive waste for decades. The nuke ship I was on had only one restriction on dumping radioactive resins into Davey Jones locker. The ship had to be at least 12 miles from the nearest land. Our vast nuclear submarine fleet had the same “restriction”. Lord knows what restrictions other countries had with regard to dumping waste into the sea. You never hear talk of all this nuclear dumping, all this littering of our planet. What you do hear is that the two nuclear subs we lost at sea, the Thresher and the Scorpion, are resting peacefully at the bottom of the sea and that there is no radioactive leakage from their nuclear reactors. You talk about us getting the mushroom treatment and not getting even half the truth. I guess if we knew the extent of this nuclear conspiracy, to keep the dark side of nuclear from us, the public would have rebelled years ago. This sad, sick nuclear industry has got to go.

  19. Donna – SALUTE for an awesome comment, one that I hope the NRC moderator actually responds to, since it is relevant to the ongoing dumping of ☢ waste at sea, not to mention what the Japanese are doing at Fukushima!

    Left unsaid is that the NS (Nuclear Ship) Savannah proved that using nuclear propulsion was far to expensive to pencil out, even back then, which is why the Navy is the only ones that can afford to have Nuclear powered vessels, since cost is not an issue despite what tax payers are told.

    Perhaps the NS Savannah was the tipping point for using Nuclear, the Nuclear Industry just has not accepted the fact since they, like the Navy, have friends in powerful positions that have pushed using Nuclear despite the risks and costs to mankind.

  20. The SAVANNAH is located at Canton Marine Terminal Pier 13, 4601 Newgate Ave, Baltimore, MD 21224

  21. The Savannah was designed to contain more than 10,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste (at least 100 days accumulation). However, actual waste output initially exceeded storage capacity. During her first year in operation, she released more than 115,000 gallons of radioactive waste at sea. Modifications were made later to bring the amount of waste resulting from valve leaks in line with the ship’s onboard storage capacity. When operating properly, radioactive wastes were stored in the ship until disposal could be arranged at a licensed facility, or it could be discharged to its special servicing barge, the N.S.V. (Nuclear Servicing Vessel) Atomic Servant.

    Where is this waste now?

  22. Other info on Nuclear Ship (NS) Savannah from Wikipedia…”She performed well, her safety record was impressive, and her gleaming white paint was never smudged by exhaust smoke.” It was also interesting to note that she visited many countries and ports of call during her 10 years of service from ’62 to ’72. However it was noted that “Savannah was excluded from ports in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.” Perhaps one could understand at the time Japan’s reluctance to have anything nuclear visiting their country. Then the [Japanese] turn around and built 40 or so nuke plants. Then the TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuke plant accidents. And all [Japanese] reactors have been shutdown since 3/11/11. Too bad Japan didn’t stick to “no nukes are good nukes” back then?!

    Moderator Note: Minor editing to adhere to comment guidelines

  23. Yes, the Savannah is located in the Port of Baltimore, Maryland, under a long-term lay berth contract with Canton Marine Terminals. According to its web site, the Maritime Administration intends to maintain the Savannah in protective storage for some years into the future. Under current law and regulation the decommissioning process must be completed and the Savannah’s operating license terminated by December 2031.


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