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Mobtown Beat

Mothballed in Mobtown

Baltimore’s historic nuclear-powered ship is an overlooked gem

Photo: The City Paper Boat-Cam™, License: N/A

The City Paper Boat-Cam™

all of the NS Savannah’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive materials were removed in 1972.

Photo: The City Paper Boat-Cam™, License: N/A

The City Paper Boat-Cam™

The Savannah's distinctive atom-age insignia.


It’s generally not hard to find a historic ship in Baltimore, a city with such a strong penchant for celebrating its maritime legacy that it hosts six vessels dubbed National Historic Landmarks. Four of them—the USS Constellation, the USS Torsk, the USCGC Taney, and the Lightship Chesapeake—are familiar sights in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor tourist district. Another, the tugboat Baltimore, is less famous, but is easily spotted next to the Baltimore Museum of Industry. But the last, the nuclear ship (NS) Savannah, is pretty much out of sight and out of mind, despite its unique significance as the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo ship, one of only four ever built, and the only one made in the United States.

That the NS Savannah is now an obscure floating asset of the U.S. government, rather than a showpiece on prominent public display, is ironic. When it was launched from a New Jersey shipyard in 1959, after nearly $47 million in construction costs, it was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Her husband had ordered the vessel’s construction as part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative—a hopeful, diplomatic counterpoint to the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons. It served as an atomic exhibit, demonstrating the possibilities of nuclear-powered shipping while serving as a vanguard vessel to establish acceptance of nuclear ships at ports around the globe.

Before the NS Savannah was deactivated in 1970, it had visited 32 U.S. ports and 45 foreign ones, carrying both passengers and freight. Wherever it went, dignitaries boarded. Now, only a handful of people—mostly federal employees and contractors—ever mount its gangplank. For nearly three years, its home has been Pier 13 at the Canton Marine Terminal, and getting there involves navigating the potholes, truck traffic, and railroad crossings of industrial Newkirk Street to arrive at its desolate berth, in the shadows of an abandoned, hulking grain elevator.

Though plans are in the works to open the NS Savannah to the general public in observance of National Maritime Day this May, access to the ship is restricted. (This reporter, upon arriving for a prearranged April 4 tour by the ship’s senior technical advisor, Erhard Koehler, was informed that its owner, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration [MARAD], had not authorized Koehler to speak on the record.) But for those fortunate enough to gain access, the ship’s educational displays and retro décor—elements of the interior bring to mind the sets of 1960s-era James Bond flicks, with lots of colorful, curvy furniture and cool details, such as recessed lighting adorned with atomic symbols and a bar with a backlit wine rack designed to look like the periodic table—give a healthy dose of vintage modernism.

“I’ve been wondering why it hadn’t had more publicity since it’s been here,” says Nelson Bull Jr., a Towson resident and the shipping agent who handled European business for NS Savannah in the 1960s. Bull sits at his kitchen table, leafing through his file-folder of NS Savannah papers, and pulls out a May 2008 Baltimore Sun clipping, published when the ship was towed to Baltimore from South Norfolk, Va. “This is the only coverage I’ve seen” of the ship’s extended stay in Baltimore, Bull remarks. Noting that the NS Savannah “is the first of its kind,” he says it merits more public attention.

MARAD, though, seems far from hungry for press coverage. Prior to granting initial approval for the April 4 tour, MARAD’s public affairs director, Cheron Wicker, grilled City Paper over the phone about its motives for writing the piece and declared that “City Paper doesn’t normally do this kind of article.” In the end, MARAD Public Affairs Officer Kim Riddle provided timely and complete answers to e-mailed questions—though Koehler was never allowed to speak on the record.

Perhaps MARAD’s press-shy demeanor is explained by the fact that the NS Savannah is a nuclear ship, making it a potential source of controversy—especially given heightened concerns about nuclear-power risks in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled reactors there, causing ongoing releases of radioactivity.

Though the NS Savannah’s nuclear reactor last propelled it in 1970, and though all of its spent fuel and high-level radioactive materials were removed in 1972, according to government documents, there are sealed areas of the ship that still contain radioactivity. But as a government-owned ship with a licensed nuclear reactor, the NS Savannah is a thoroughly regulated and heavily documented vessel, and there’s nothing in the public record to suggest any danger. The remaining radioactivity on board is innocuous enough that, from 1981 to 1994, the ship was operated as a museum near Charleston, S.C.

Rather than radioactivity, the greatest potential for controversy over the NS Savannah may be its cost. Federal budget documents show that maintaining it in “protective storage”—its current status—costs about $3 million a year. Plans to fully decommission the ship’s power plant have been delayed due to funding constraints, and are currently estimated to cost about $90 million. To do so, MARAD’s Riddle writes in an e-mail, “all of the remaining equipment and piping will be dismantled and removed, processed, and transported to a licensed waste repository,” and then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will survey the ship “to confirm that residual radioactivity meets its very low threshold for unrestricted release.” The mandated deadline for this is Dec. 31, 2031.

In the meantime, the NS Savannah should be in Baltimore for the foreseeable future. Bids “for continuing to moor the Savannah for up to five additional years in the port” were recently solicited, Riddle explains. “The contract has not yet been awarded, but we expect that it will be soon,” she adds.

As for the prospect of the NS Savannah taking on visitors, opportunities are limited. Riddle writes that “individual tours are normally not accommodated,” and that “open houses are scheduled only once or twice a year”—such as one that has been requested for May 21 this year, to observe National Maritime Day. Still, she adds, “members of the public may request a tour by e-mail, either to PAOMARAD@dot.gov, or to Savannah@dot.gov.”

That’s not exactly an open invitation, but at least it’s a start.

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