July 20, 2005

Yo ho ho and a bottle of high level radioactive liquid

A while back I picked up about a dozen National Geographic magazines from a shop downtown. They aren't old, but older than me at least. Seeing the adds for Hamilton watches, Goodyear tires, Kodak cameras, Sinclair oil and Morton salt is a cheap and effective form of time travel.

The August 1962 issue has a remarkable article on the N. S. Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered merchant ship. The other articles are fine enough: East from Bali by Seagoing Jeep, The Old Boston Post Roads, and a nice article on Cape Cod including a visit with the President and his family. ('Skipper John F. Kennedy tends the tiller as his 25-foot knockabout Victura cleaves the chop off Hyannis Port. The President's wife Jacqueline, his brother Edward and assorted small fry make up the crew.') But back to the ship, this oceangoing monument to modernity. The technical achievements are impressive. The ship could steam around the globe 14 times without refuelling. A standard ship would require five times its weight in fuel to do the same-- but the N. S. Savannah ('N. S.' meaning Nuclear Ship) only required 110 pounds of uranium 235.

The pictures accompanying the article are amazing, showing everything from pellets of uranium oxide fuel to the reactor and control rods. There is also a picture of the 'SCRAM' button that shuts down the reactor in less than a second; 'Operators push this switch only in an emergency.' From the article, 'Even the burned-out residue of the Savannah's fuel will be worth its weight in gold, in the form of valuable radioisotopes.' 'The Savannah carries color television, air conditioning, a dance floor, beauty salon, novelty shop, and library. All this, plus a sootless, exhaustless, practically vibrationless peace, such as has not been known since steamships ousted sail...'

According to the 33-year old chief of construction John Robb, 'The most important job of the Savannah is to break down political, legal, and psychological barriers to the use of nuclear energy. We want her to show the world that the atom can be put to work at sea like any other source of power.' Accordingly they set out to make the world's safest nuclear reactor, built to withstand 'bouncing about in storms at sea.' In addition, the ship was built to withstand the 'maximum credible accident' without leaking radioactive material. The maximum credible accident was defined as the most powerful ship afloat running into the reactor hold at full speed. The reactor is sealed off in a massive steel containment vessel surrounded by layers of polyethylene and lead. This chamber is built to contain the pressure and radioactivity of a nuclear power plant gone bad. Outside of the containment vessel is a 'collision mat' built of layers of steel and redwood, surrounded by concrete.

One problem mentioned in the article was in obtaining insurance against the possibility of other ships and perhaps whole docks being put out of action by a nuclear accident. 'As of June 1962, although many foreign nations were negotiating to permit the nuclear merchantman into their ports, only Greece had formally agreed to allow her to come.'

The N. S. Savannah was built with a 129-foot sister ship, the Atomic Servant. This ship carries waste processing equipment to deal with high- and low-level radioactive liquids and a pit for storing spent fuel elements.

The Savannah was built at a cost of 18.6 million dollars (plus another 28.3 million for the nuclear plant and fuel) by the Atomic Energy Commission. The ship could run for three days on a teaspoon of fuel. According to the captain, you would absorb more radiation sitting in the sun on the deck than you would from the reactor itself.


At August 02, 2005 6:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very cool. I googled it and found that it's still around, albeit decommisioned and in storage.

At August 03, 2005 9:35 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Cool! This boat is an amazing monument to a bygone age of optimism when technology could solve any problem.
That radiationworks website is pretty neat.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Web Counter
Web Site Counter

Powered by Blogger

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]