The Final Phase
One of the early chapters in the history of nuclear power is about to enter its final phase. The N.S. Savannah, which was built as part of the Atoms for Peace program started by President Eisenhower to demonstrate peaceful uses of atomic energy, became the first nuclear-powered civilian cargo/passenger ship when it was put into operation in 1962. It is currently being readied for decontamination and final disposition.
The ship was operated until 1971, and the fuel rods were removed from the reactor core a few years later. It has been maintained in that state, and in recent years, has been berthed in Baltimore Harbor awaiting a final determination of its fate. The US Maritime Administration (MARAD) has maintained it, and over time, has even restored portions of the public areas of the ship. However, this has always been regarded as a temporary state.
Now, MARAD has begun the process of decontamination of the ship as a step towards its eventual disposition. The most exciting aspect of this process is that part of the containment has been cut away. This will enable the removal of asbestos and and the reactor core. In the meantime, the opening of the containment allows this rare panoramic view of the inside of a reactor containment:
The decontamination process is triggered by the fact that the ship still holds a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That license expires in 2031, and by law, decommissioning should be completed before the license expires. Decontamination is the first step in the decommissioning process, and expected to take several months.
For those who are interested, there is a great virtual tour that takes you to a number of locations on the ship, including around the outside of the containment (before the containment was opened). The website also has more information on the history of the ship.
In the meantime, the ultimate disposition of the ship is still under consideration. MARAD and a number of other interested organizations are actively discussing the next steps. Possibilities range from preservation of the entire ship to scrapping the hull and preserving only a few key components at a museum or other facility. Obviously, everyone is hoping the ship can be saved intact, but that depends on it finding a suitable home. I would be happy to pass on any offers to host this historic ship!