Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1965-459

Gone fission

A few months ago, I showed you two ship models on show in our maritime galleries, both called Savannah.

The 1818 version was the first steamship to cross an ocean (even though she did so mostly under sail power)…

Model of Paddle Ship 'Savannah', 1818 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

…while her 1959 namesake was the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship.

Model of Nuclear Ship 'Savannah', 1959 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The first nuclear ship was a naval submarine, USS Nautilus, launched in 1954, with British equivalents following a few years later, such as HMS Resolution.

Model of HMS 'Resolution' nuclear submarine, 1966 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The latest British nuclear boat, HMS Astute, is due to be handed over to the Royal Navy this year, with a nuclear reactor the size of a domestic dustbin and enough fuel to last for 25 years.

But warships and merchant craft are totally different beasts, not least crewing levels and maintenance infrastructure. The 1950s Savannah traded successfully for a while, but the economic conditions back then weren’t conducive to nuclear ships.

Now, though, the maritime industry is looking for ways to reduce emissions and fuel costs.

Nuclear might be one answer, and Lloyd’s Register (an organisation that sets standards and manages risk in the shipping industry) has recently been carrying out fresh research into nuclear-powered merchant ships.

There are plenty of problems to solve, but technically, it’s a mature industry. Savannah proved the concept of nuclear merchant ships in the 1960s. Only time will tell whether the industry is ready to return to them fifty years on.

It’s an interesting time to be a marine engineer…

Fifty years of nuclear shipping

Let me introduce the PS Savannah (‘PS’ stands for paddle steamer). 190 years ago, Savannah was docked in Russia while the captain received a gold watch from the country’s Emperor.

What was the occasion? A few months earlier, Savannah had become the world’s first steam-powered ship to cross an ocean, travelling from Savannah (on America’s south-east coast), to Liverpool (on England’s west coast) in 29 days.

Actually, it was a hybrid sail and steam ship, and most of its journey was carried out under sail, not steam power. But it was a start, and Savannah went on to tour Europe before returning home. Here’s our model of the ship:

PS Savannah, 1818 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

PS Savannah, 1818 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

PS Savannah was wrecked in 1821, but that wasn’t the end of the name, or the pioneering. In 1959, enter stage-left the NS Savannah, the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, named in honour of its predecessor’s role in marine propulsion history.

NS Savannah, 1959 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

NS Savannah, 1959 (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

Nuclear reactors still power some military ships around the world, but it was pretty much a non-starter for merchant use, for mostly economic reasons. NS Savannah is currently being decommissioned and decontaminated in Baltimore.

But nuclear power for generating electricity is a different kettle of fission*, with fresh attention being paid to the technology as part of attempts to cut climate-changing emissions from burning fossil fuels. Of course, this just opens up a whole world of debate…