Updated: Jul 30
Tuesday 25 August, 1964
Off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark: A sleek, snow-white cargoliner makes its way South down the Øresund – the narrow sound between Sweden and Denmark. Along both coastlines people are lined up with binoculars and cameras, hoping for a closer look at this amazing new ship. Ship savants and amateur futurists enthusiastically rattle off ship stats or smugly point out the significance of the non-existent smokestack to anyone who will listen. But even to people with no idea of her special significance she does not fail to make an impression – The sleek yacht-like lines and raked masts, the teardrop-shaped superstructure, the snow-white color, the lines of colored signal flags, all making it abundantly clear that this is not your average merchant ship. Off Copenhagen harbor, the ship is met by the Danish training ship Georg Stage – a 213 long ton full-rigger – at full sail. Together, as envoys of past and future maritime history, they sail side by side towards Copenhagen harbor.
A Nuclear Non-starter
In my Pages from Cruise History I have detailed many a beginning of new cruise concepts and practice in history but there were some that ended up going nowhere, seemingly none more famously than the post-WWII dream of nuclear merchant and passenger shipping that would eventually have seen nuclear-powered cruise ships plying the world's oceans. Back in the 1950’s when nuclear power still seemed to promise a lot more than mutually assured destruction, the idea was floated to construct nuclear-powered merchant ships. To test that concept, the United States government constructed the experimental ship, the NS Savannah (Nuclear Ship).
A Cruise Ship by any other Name
‘Hey, that ain’t no cruise ship! What are you doing writing about that, Cruise Guy?’ Well, yes and no! While officially constructed as a cargo liner, her designers and operators clearly envisioned her passenger carrying image more akin to a ‘futuristic cruise experience’, taking elements and styles from contemporary cruising and mixing them up with a solid dash of ‘Space Age design’. Even just a casual glance at her exterior will tell you that she was definitely modelled more on the lines, style and vibe of a cruise yacht than any boxy, drab and utilitarian bulk cargo vessel of her day. She was meant to 'wow' people, from the outside and inside - in a way that was way more reminiscent of a flashy cruise ship than a workaday cargo ship. Thanks to her unique and prestigious nature and her roaming demonstration voyages, she ended up attracting mostly passengers travelling for leisure (or perhaps more aptly, for novelty and prestige), rather than any real transportation needs, so in that sense she really did embody both the looks and the vibe of an upscale cruise ship.
So while not a designated cruise ship by name, the Savannah was arguably meant to convey a sense of leisure, wonder and discovery – just like a cruise ship. And had she turned out commercially successful, she would have become the progenitor of an entirely new generation of merchant and passenger ships that would have included cruise ships. However, that was not the way that one went so consider this more of a glimpse of what could have been, rather than what was.
Atoms for Peace
It was none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower who in 1955 proposed the idea of building a nuclear-powered luxury cargo liner to show off his ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative - a program to highlight and boost the peaceful uses of atomic energy. That ship was meant to roam the earth's oceans, carrying passengers and cargo under nuclear power and acting as a showcase for the peaceful, commercial use of nuclear energy to visitors in every port she called in. The following year, Congress authorized the construction of the NS Savannah project - a joint project between the Atomic Energy Commission, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the Department of Commerce.
The NS Savannah was designed by prestigious marine design and naval architecture firm George G. Sharp, Inc. of New York and constructed at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey at a cost of $46.9 million (of which $28.3 million alone went to the 74 megawatt pressurized water reactor and fuel core). Design of the passenger interiors was assigned to Scottish-born marine interior designer John ‘Jack’ Heany who took his mandate for creating the ‘ship of the future’ quite literally. Dipping right into the ongoing evolution from Atomic Age design to Space Age design, Heany produced an interior design of the moment that was futuristic, sleek and smooth, influenced by high-tech motifs and materials, heavy on geometric designs and vibrant colors and eons apart from any other design style put to sea on a leisure vessel to date. Guests on the Savannah were meant to feel like they were boarding a space ship, rather than any conventional, stuffy and archaic liner or cruise ship.
Her keel was laid down in May of 1958 and she was launched in July of 1959. American First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower baptized the ship Savannah – named for the very first steamship in the world to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819. Upon final completion in 1961, she underwent extensive sea trails lasting until April 1962, before being officially delivered to State Maine Lines on May 1, 1962 and setting off on her maiden voyage on August 20, 1962. She cut a dashing figure in her gleaming all-white paint scheme – chosen perhaps not so much to emulate cruise ships, but rather to show off to the public that nuclear propulsion was completely emission-free and would not leave any undesirable stains of soot or oil on the hull. Ironically, the very reason why hulls were always painted in dark colors throughout history. One more exterior design feature (or rather the lack of one) also hinted at her special propulsion secret - she had no smokestack.
Her passenger accommodations were concentrated in the superstructure and divided over three decks – on the lowest passenger level on B-deck was her elegant dining room, seating up to 75 guests, and crowned at the entrance by a copper model of the original Savannah. One deck above, on A-deck were the passenger accommodations with 30 outside, airconditioned and well-appointed staterooms, designed for 1-3 guests, with the largest even featuring bath tubs and partitioned bedroom sections. Amidships on A-deck was the lobby – a rather bland, rectangular hall dominated by an enormous, curved and bright orange sofa in front of the Purser’s Office. Further forward on A was the ship’s medical facility as well as a barber/hairdresser’s salon and a unique Visitor’s Gallery, where guests could view the ship’s complex control center and reactor space. The uppermost passenger deck was the Promenade deck and featured the only public spaces with natural light sources – forward was the elliptical and rather traditional Main Lounge (capable of conversion into a movie theatre), flanked by a small library, card room and novelty shop. Aft was the very futuristic veranda lounge with ‘electroluminescent tables’, a dance floor and bar, opening up onto the outside promenade and the ship’s small 'pool deck'.
From 1962 to 1965 the Savannnah toured up and down both American seaboards and from 1964 onwards she coupled this with several Atlantic crossings for demo / goodwill visits to ports in Northern and Central Europe. It is a stretch to call the voyages itineraries because they did not have a hub (turnaround port), nor were they sold as package products. The Savannah was more of a roaming wanderer, calling wherever a destination seemed willing and able to host the nuclear ship and rarely visiting the same place twice. For that same reason passage on the Savannah could be purchased on a port-by-port basis, reflecting the (correct) anticipation that passengers would be more likely to book a short passage on her just for the first taste of the holiday / travel experience of the future, rather than for extended cruise experiences.
This is where it becomes a bit of a stretch to compare her guests to cruise guests. Savannah's guests travelled for the novelty, to be the first 'atomic age leisure travelers' and to experience what fresh miracle of science man had launched upon the sea. But once you had gotten past that futuristic novelty, her accommodations and facilities did not really measure up favorably to other modern liners. Yes, she was spacious and futuristic but beyond a limited variety of games, a pool, a bar and a movie screen there was not much to do onboard. One travel reporter on a Transatlantic crossing (at 10 days about the longest segment available for booking) felt the need to pad his list of onboard activities with such vapid activities as '..listen to recorded music, watch television, get books from the library, write letters ..' just to make the experience sound halfway worthwhile. And for that you paid up to $500 per person in a 2-berth stateroom for a long segment plus you had to agree to vacate the cabin / ship during daytime in port (calls would last for days) in order to make room for the many visiting sightseers taking tours throughout the ship.
Success and Failure
The Savannah earned the rare distinction of being both a success and a failure at the same time. In one sense she fulfilled every ambition her designers had set out for her; From an engineering standpoint she performed excellently, handled well at sea, never missed an ETA, kept an impeccable safety record and an unsurpassed fuel economy. As an ambassador of American technological supremacy she proudly and professionally represented the Stars 'n Stripes wherever she went. As a showcase for the peaceful and commercial use of atomic energy as marine propulsion, she proved beyond any doubt that this was absolutely feasible and within the reach of current nuclear technology. And yet in another sense, she did not trigger the revolution of nuclear-powered civilian ships - instead of becoming a revolutionary trailblazer she became a white elephant. No amount of convincing demonstrations of concept and tech could inspire anyone to follow her lead and that was basically down to three reasons.
Firstly, choosing a cargo liner format for the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, rather than say a designated freighter or pure passenger ship format, was meant to showcase her ability to carry cargo and passengers equally well. Unfortunately, when you task a highly specialized machine to perform two unequal functions at the same time, it often ends up falling short on both. Such was the case with the Savannah. Her passenger accommodations took up too much space for the amount of people she could carry, yet - as pointed out above - did very little with all that space. As a cargo ship she was similarly misproportioned. Her cargo holds were too small compared to what similar conventional cargo ships could carry and the ships sleek and curvy hull design made cargo handling and space optimization difficult. Even though as a 'proof of concept' she was never meant to turn a profit, the fact that she did not even seem able to (had her commercial existence depended on it) may have been a deterrant for commercial development. Though likely not as much as the other issues stacked against her.
The second big challenge to her success also had to do with her commercial viability but as it related to her unique means of propulsion. In terms of sheer physics, making nuclear marine propulsion work was never the issue. It worked very well, as demonstrated not only in the few civilian merchant vessels that were built, but most convincingly in the about 700 nuclear cruisers, supercarriers and submarines of the worlds major navies (primarily the US and USSR) – many of which continue to operate to this day. But national navies and merchant marines are not the same. The primary stumbling blocks on the civilian side of things lay in safety and cost. Navies can enforce the sort of strict discipline and diligence it takes to handle nuclear reactors safely and afford to disregard excessive operational costs in the name of national security and sovereignty – merchant marines cannot. The challenge was to see if civilian use of nuclear propulsion could be made to work commercially.
Cost vs efficiency was a piece of math that just never managed to work itself out in favor of nuclear ships. Yes, building, installing and maintaining a nuclear reactor on a ship is considerably more expensive than doing the same with a diesel engine. But on the other hand, you gain massive fuel savings in the long run. Commercial uranium is much cheaper than conventional fuels and you need much less of it - The Savannah was capable of circling the planet 14 times at 20 knots without refueling once. You would save a lot of money not having to manage and combat the noxious emissions of diesel engines but then you do incur considerable expense when it is time to safely dispose of the spent (and highly radioactive) fuel again. You do not need nearly as many engine crew, but the few that you do need are of such advanced specialization that they'll cost the same as an entire engine department. None of these pros and cons (and many more) managed to stack up convincingly to either one side or the other during Savannah’s lifespan but could perhaps have been overcome or worked out in time if people had been ‘onboard’ with nuclear ships (pardon!).
But that was the third hurdle - nuclear energy split public opinion just as effectively as it split atoms. To heady futurists it was the energy source of the future, to cautious sceptics it was a disaster waiting to happen. Ever since the Titanic, accepted maritime wisdom has been that whatever man puts to sea, Mother Nature or human folly will be able to wreck. So it was not a question of whether an accident will occur with a nuclear-powered ship, but when – especially if you turned a powerful energy source like nuclear power over to profit-driven, cost-cutting commercial companies. That same caution and apprehension prevailed in all the worldwide destination ports of the Savannah and added an extra layer of logistical difficulty to her journeys. For each stop the nuclear ship planned, a forward team of specialists, lawyers and emergency management staff had to fly there well in advance and conduct lengthy negotiations / contingency planning with national governments and port authorities to calm their nerves and establish standard / emergency protocols for dealing with the Savannah. No matter her flawless performance, the Savannah always sailed under a cloud of scepticism, wariness and fear.
The spectre of nuclear destruction loomed large in the 1960's. Hiroshima and Nagasaki lay barely 17 years in the past when the Savannah launched and the Cold War had been going for just about as long. While there was a lot of public curiosity and a general belief that atomic power was the future of mankind, it was curbed by the omnipresent fear of nuclear armageddon. Somehow, the thought of cruising around on top of a fuel source that could raze entire cities from the map or kill you painfully with invisible rays before you even knew it was not reconcilable with the sort of relaxed and carefree mindset a cruise should ideally engender. That plus the salty fares kept people from embracing the concept of nuclear cruising in the 1960's.
Atomic Pipe Dreams
The deadlocked cost/efficiency math and the lukewarm reception of nuclear-powered passenger shipping stopped further development of the concept in its tracks but that didn’t stop proponents from continuing to dream. Most of these dreams never got past the concept art stage and - like dreams – most of them showed only tenuous connections to reality. My personal favorite is the nuclear-powered hydrofoil express liner. One has to marvel at the starry-eyed optimism and spectacular lack of caution involved in dreaming up a vessel like this – as if launching a nuclear reactor out to sea wasn’t sufficiently perilous in and of itself, let’s also put it on stilts and send it off at 100 knots/hour.
But what if...
But let’s steer further into speculative territory for a moment; let’s say nuclear cruising, hypothetically, managed to overcome issues of efficiency, safety and public trust, what would actually have changed about the face of cruising if cruise ships had gone nuclear? Honestly, from a passenger perspective likely not much. Most of the revolutionary stuff about nuclear propulsion was confined to the engine spaces and did not really impact the design and functionality of passenger spaces, short of perhaps making Raygun Gothic the new benchmark for visual design (yes, that's a thing!). The elimination of fuel tanks and smokestacks would have freed up some interior space but likely not enough to trigger a complete revolution of layout as it was deep in the bowels of the ship. Sans the smokestack there would have been more deck space to recreationalize and monetize, which could potentially have kicked off the evolution of topside guest facilities a lot earlier. It is also not unlikely that the heady futurism of the sixties coupled with the power output and increased technological advances of nuclear energy, would have produced much more Jetson-style electrical installations for the comfort and enjoyment of passengers, like entertainment gadgetry, reactor-heated spa baths or more electrical appliances in the cabins - in keeping with a vision of the future where no human need was too trivial not to be met with technology. But apart from these hypotheticals, passengers would have noticed the inclusion of procedures for nuclear emergencies in their emergency drills, but not much else.
In fact, the one overriding advantage of nuclear propulsion appreciable by passengers was the immense power output of a nuclear reactor, which could translate to significantly higher cruising speeds. That might have been of use to ocean liners (had they not been in the midst of losing the contest for transatlantic passenger transport to airplanes for good) but for cruise ships that advantage was a disadvantage. Cruise ships are not meant to zoom across the seas – it would be antithetical to the entire relaxing vibe of cruising, would make activities out on deck much less enjoyable and would greatly shorten the valuable time at sea that cruise lines depend upon to make up their onboard revenue. With its fuel efficiency that came at a staggering cost, its power output that wasn't really of any commercial value, its risks that no one could abstract from and its zero emissions that no one really cared about in the sixities, it really seemed like nuclear propulsion had absolutely nothing to offer the cruise industry.
The Golden Years
Savannah’s passenger service was discontinued in 1965 and the passenger accommodations were sectioned off. Her meagre track record of only 848 passengers (and dwindling) carried over a period of 3 years just did not warrant a continuation of passenger service, not even as a demonstration ship. She did however continue to carry cargo until 1971 when she was retired. During her active career, Savannah traveled approx. 450,000 nautical miles (830,000 km), called in 45 foreign and 32 US ports and was visited by 1.4 million people in her role as an Atoms for Peace showcase.
Newspaper article, likely Chicago Tribune, Fall of 1964, oceanlinersmagazine.com
A Nuclear Landmark
Ever since her retirement the ship has bounced around from Savannah to Galveston to Mount Pleasant to Baltimore to Newport News while various plans for permanent exhibition or hotelification came and went. Along the way she underwent several gradual decommissioning and decontamination projects to continuously manage and safeguard her still radioactive engine systems and components – a process that is not scheduled to end until 2031 when her reactor will finally be fully removed. She was declared a National Historic Landmark in July 1991 – well in advance of the customary 50-year statute for such distinctions because of her exceptional significance as one of the last intact examples of the Atoms for Peace program. Since 2020 the ship has now been docked in Baltimore awaiting funding for an eventual conversion into a museum.
And thus ended the dream of nuclear-powered leisure cruising…
Or did it?...
50 Years of Victory
What if I told you that nuclear cruising eventually did come about and that at least one nuclear-powered ship is still cruising around out there? Or at least, it was until Russia decided it was a good idea to bring a land war back to Europe. If you know which one I’m thinking of, you might (again) argue that 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory) was never designed or intended as a cruise ship and you’d be right! But it’s never the less what she was doing every summer on a regular basis. The Russian-built and operated 23.440 GRT nuclear ice breaker 50 Let Pobedy (launched 1993) is one of the only civilian nuclear-powered ships still in operation and is a far cry from anyone’s notion of a luxurious cruise ship, but she never the less hosts some very exclusive and unique Arctic expedition cruises for a select few guests (max 128) under the banner of Poseidon Expeditions for a few months out of every summer. By virtue of being the only vessel that can penetrate the meter-thick ice cap of the North Pole and sail in compliance with the environmental requirements of the International Maritime Organization Polar Code, she is literally the only ship suited for this type of expedition cruising. She is therefore also concrete proof that the stigma of nuclear power in a leisure-context can now be overcome, at least if the lure is as powerful as exclusive expedition cruising on one of the last (and most awe-inspiring) natural frontiers of the planet.
With one nuclear ship prematurely retired for being ahead of its time and another sidelined by geopolitical strife, what is even still the relevance of talking about nuclear ships? Well, that’s where the winds have changed. The non-emissive nature of nuclear propulsion is now more important than ever, especially to cruising. Come 2026 Norway will close the UNESCO-designated Geiranger and Nærøy fjords to all ship traffic not running zero-emission propulsion, which at the moment means almost all cruise ships. This happens in response to a growing pollution issue, caused by the ever more and ever larger cruise ships frequenting the fjords. And Norway will likely only be the first destination to take such measures – other regions of the world with pristine and ecologically fragile environments and equal amounts of cruise traffic are very likely to follow. Glacier Bay in Alaska could be next or the fjords of Chile or the Greek archipelago or the atolls of the Pacific Ocean. A growing environmental awareness that we really need to take better care of our planet (and quit our fuel dependency on autocratic petrostates, while we are at it) means that time is running out for conventional maritime propulsion and fossil fuels and cruise lines that still want to be around a few decades from now had better come up with some clean, emission-free concepts soon.
And that’s where the lessons of Savannah and 50 Years of Victory come in – we know nuclear energy works as an emission-free propulsion type, we know it can be operated responsibly and safely and we know that public sentiment is now considerably less apprehensive towards nuclear energy than it used to be. Combine that with recent advances in safe, reliable and small-scale nuclear reactor tech and solid-state batteries and it feels like we are ramping up for a second go at the dream of atomic cruising - the one that began with the Savannah.
And if you read my previous article The Norwegian Connection, you will be absolutely unsurprised to learn that right up there on the glowing edge of nuclear cruise development, you'll find.. yes, that's right; Norwegians. Just this year, Norwegian shipbuilder Ulstein published a vision for a revolutionary dual set of expedition ships, powered by a molten salt reactor and solid-state batteries, and capable of long-range, emissions-free cruising with a near-inexhaustable fuel supply (link to CNN Travel article below). The only downside is that the technological realization of this vision is still another 10-15 years out. But hey, we've waited 60 years since the launch of the last nuclear ship of leisure - what's another 15?
This is the twenty-first article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.