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By David Rooney on

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…