Retrotechtacular: The Nuclear Cruise Ship Of The Future Earns Glowing Reviews

The average modern cruise ship takes about 250 tons or 80,000 gallons of fuel daily. But can you imagine a cruise ship capable of circling the globe fourteen times before it needed to top off? That was the claim for the NS Savannah, a nuclear-powered cruise ship born out of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative.

The ship was a joint project of several government agencies, including the US Maritime Administration. With a maiden cruise in 1962, the vessel cost a little more than $18 million to build, but the 74-megawatt nuclear reactor added nearly $30 million to the price tag. The ship could carry 60 passengers, 124 crew, and over 14,000 tons of cargo around 300,000 nautical miles using one set of 32 fuel elements. What was it like onboard? The video below gives a glimpse of nuclear cruising in the 1960s.

If you want some more modern views of the vessel, NPR recently toured it at its current home in Baltimore and they have great photos.


Reactor Diagram

Nuclear propulsion for warships is nothing new, of course. But the Savannah is one of only a handful of civilian ships to carry a reactor, and most of those were either Russian icebreakers or cargo ships. Unlike a military reactor, Savannah’s power plant was not made to be especially compact or shock resistant but had safety and serviceability in mind.

The reactor compartment was near the center of the vessel. It was possible to refuel the reactor from access above the compartment. The reactor was a tall cylinder inside a 50-foot-long containment vessel that was 35 feet in diameter. The steel vessel was up to 4 inches thick and could handle up to 186 PSI. Shielding included four feet of concrete, six inches of lead, and six inches of polyethylene. There was also 24 inches of collision shielding built from steel and redwood.

The fuel was low-enriched uranium. Each of the 32 fuel elements had 164 uranium oxide pellets contained in helium. The elements around the edge of the array were enriched to 4.6%, but the central elements were at 4.2%. A set of 21 control rods could fully insert into the core with electric motors in less than two seconds. The entire thing was 17 feet high.

The ship’s screw runs on steam generated by the heat from the nuclear reactor. A 35 ton gear that drives the screw is a precision-machined beast you can see in the video below. Watching the ship being built in that same video, you’d hardly know the ship had a nuclear reactor onboard.


The ship had 30 staterooms for passengers. That seems small by today’s super ship standards, but at the time, that was a respectable number for a luxury cruise ship. The dining room could seat 100 passengers, and many rooms, like the library, could convert to a movie theater or pool. The ship was a demonstration and was heavy on style but short on cargo capacity.

One of the problems with the ship is that it required a larger crew, many with unusual special training. In fact, the normal deck officers became unhappy that the nuclear engineering staff were paid better, and a strike stopped the ship for a while in Galveston. This caused the Maritime Administration to select a new operator, leading to further delays as they had to train a new crew.

The ship was named after the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic. Both ships were not commercially successful but paved the way for new technology. In fact, as the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions, there is talk of civilian ships using nuclear power again.

Where Is It Now?

The Savannah traveled about 450,000 nautical miles during its lifetime. By 1965, passenger service ended after carrying a total of 848 passengers. For three more years, the ship carried cargo, being refueled once in Galveston, Texas. Once the ship was removed from service in 1972, it bounced around a bit. The city of Savannah was going to make it into a hotel. When that fell through, the ship rested in Galveston for a bit before winding up a museum ship in South Carolina. Eventually, the ship would need nearly a million dollars of renovation and wound up in Baltimore.

The fuel pellets left the ship in 1975, and the reactor found a final resting spot in Utah in 2022. Indeed, disposing of fuel and the power plant may be the largest expense of operating a ship like this.

Was the ship a success or a failure? It depends on your criteria. As a goodwill ambassador, it was a success. As a technology demonstrator, we think it worked well. It hasn’t ushered in the atomic age of shipping, but that may be just because it was a little too early. New smaller and safer reactors may well bring Savannah a lot of technological cousins in the future.

32 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Nuclear Cruise Ship Of The Future Earns Glowing Reviews

  1. I recall the promise that nook lee yar was going to make power generation so cheap it would be almost free while being perfectly safe. Must have missed it playing army in ‘Nam

  2. Let’s make it happen. It can just undock and forever cruise the world, founding a new civilization. When everything else collapses, it can be used as a base for pirate-raider descendants in search of Mount Everest.

  3. “Unlike a military reactor, Savannah’s power plant was not made to be especially compact or shock resistant but had safety and serviceability in mind”

    I think Admiral Hyman Rickover would viscerally disagree with you !

    1. Not to say USN’s reactors are not safe. But they are small and from what I understand not as easy to service. And certainly made to take more of a beating which is, of course, safe for its purpose.

      1. It takes some major cutting to open up US military nuclear ships for refueling. CVNs (nuclear aircraft carriers) were being designed for a 50 year lifetime with one mid-life refueling. But advancing technology used in the Ford class will be seeing off the Nimitz class ships before they get to 50 years old.

        Some wanted the first CVN, Enterprise, preserved as a museum ship since it was the first CVN. It had been refueled once and there shouldn’t have been any reason the reactor section couldn’t have been opened up the same way then given a cosmetic closing up after all the reactor parts had been pulled. But nope. Had to be scrapped. Enterprise was also a victim of advancing technology. Intended to be the first of a class of ships it ended up being a one-off with 8 small reactors when the next CVN, Nimitz, established a new class (that ultimately grew to 10 ships) with two, larger reactors. Nimitz was retired in 2017 and has begun the scrapping process.

        It seems unlikely that the Navy will allow any CVN to be made into a museum ship. :(

        1. The “Big-E” was at Newport News Shipbuilding a few months ago. She was moored next to CVN-79 (new Ford class under construction). No one there (Navy reps included) really wanted to go aboard her since several areas are still reportedly “hot”.

          Would’ve been nice to preserve her for posterity (given her storied history going back over half a century).

          However, in keeping with Captain Picard’s statement “Let’s make sure history, never forgets the name – Enterprise”, a new one is being built – CVN-80.

  4. Our scout troop visited it and the Yorktown a couple of times. It was pretty cool because you could see the goods in a circular window walk. Man we went all over that ship. Found old coast guard water and civil defense kinda blue fiberglass helmet liners from that era. I recall they had rad badges in the corridors. The food fight on the Yorktown was the thing of legends though. Yet another place our troop of idiots was not allowed to return to.

  5. It was defueled in 1971, not 1975…

    I’ve been visiting the NS Savannah every year since 2017 (excepting the pandemic). They know me as the guy with the old camera. My NS Savannah page is at . I got about a foot of documentation off ebay a few years ago, as well as two 16mm films (one documenting the construction, one documenting the defueling) which I have digitized. My cow orkers are really tired of Savannah trivia…

  6. Savannah’s fuel was reprocessed, not disposed-of.

    When the containment vessel was cut-open, in addition to the concrete and metal, there were some crushed beer-cans tossed-in as fill.

    Presently, I and a handful of other people are working on getting the reactor control-room powered up, and at least a few of the instruments working. We hope to have something to show by next Maritime Day. About half of the instruments in the control-room are pneumatic; there is a rat’s nest of copper tubing inside the instrument cabinets.

    Here’s a video of me pressing the “Lamp Test” buttons with the panel powered.

  7. NS Savannah was in part doomed by coming along too soon. Not long after she entered service, CONEX or containerized freight came along and rapidly made all break bulk freighters like NS Savannah obsolete.

    In short order there were four main types of cargo ships. Container. Bulk carrier (grains, ore, rock, dirt etc. Tankers (subtypes for liquids, gasses, or liquefied gasses). Obsolete, soon to be scrapped.

    Even if NS Savannah had been built for containers, her service life wouldn’t have lasted much longer due to the rapid size increase container ships went through, up to the Panamax size for the Panama Canal locks, and other *max sizes for the Suez and other major canals’ locks.

    Converting the ship to all passenger space would also have been a failure because by the mid 1970’s the trans-ocean cruise market was pretty much dead thanks to faster airliners, while the regional cruise market wasn’t yet a big thing. That didn’t really get going until the late 1970’s and that 9 year long TV commercial for Princess Cruise Lines called “The Love Boat” helped popularize it.

    The only hope for NS Savannah to have stayed in service would have been an all passenger conversion then taking advantage of having been a US built ship to be able to do direct revenue service between American ports without having to make stops in between at foreign ports. But other than one (IIRC some more may be built) ship cruising around Hawaii, there haven’t been any Jones Act compliant US built passenger ships in over 50 years. The SS United States could be refurbished for US to US passenger service but nobody wants to pony up the $$$$ to fix it up and there’d be fights over modernizing VS preserving its historic style, and the fact that it wouldn’t carry 5,000+ passengers and a thousand crew.

      1. They can’t carry passengers directly between two US ports without a stop in a foreign country, thanks to the Jones act. The act was intended to boost American building of ships but that didn’t happen.

    1. Recommissioning the reactor would also be a huge challenge as it would have to meet current safety standards, and then go through approval and licensing. The cost would far outweigh any potential revenue.

  8. That’s curious. I just read about these vessels a few weeks ago.
    From what I recall, one of the reasons it failed was that the ship was not allowed to “sail?” “drive?” … float? into most of the harbors.

  9. > that the nuclear engineering staff pay were paid better, engineering staff pay was better
    -> engineering staff were paid better

    Or is this some English turn of phrase I’m not aware of?

  10. >The Nuclear YACHT could carry 60 passengers, 124 crew, and over 14,000 tons
    The average Carnival ship includes 1,225 employees and has a passenger to staff ratio of 3.3 to 1 for ~4000 passengers.

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