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Fifty Years Of Nuclear Shipping

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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…


Written by David Rooney

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