Friday, December 03, 2004


First nuclear-fueled passenger ship now rusts with Ghost Fleet


The Virginian-Pilot
By Scott Harper
December 1, 2004

The NS Savannah rests among the Ghost Fleet on the James River off Newport News.

NEWPORT NEWS — It was hailed as a monument to peace, an optimistic symbol during the Cold War that nuclear power did not have to be all about mushroom clouds and fear.

The NS Savannah was the world’s first nuclear-fueled passenger and cargo ship. It remains one of four atomic commercial vessels ever to have sailed the seas. It is a National Historic Place.

Long, lean and white, with architectural lines resembling a yacht, the Savannah was proposed by President Eisenhower under the “Atoms for Peace” program. His wife, Mamie, launched the experimental giant at a patriotic ceremony in July 1959.

During its short career in the 1960s, it traveled to dozens of foreign and domestic ports – Yorktown in ’61 , Norfolk in ’62 – drawing crowds of curious onlookers and dignitaries intrigued by its Hollywood luxury, its high technology and its idealism. Among the onboard amenities: a heated swimming pool, a movie theater, a ballroom and lounge, a beauty parlor.

These days, though, the Savannah is not as regal. Rust eats at much of the decking. The pool is empty and grimy. A veranda sprouts moss and weeds where passengers once played shuffleboard and sunned themselves.
Its pearly white paint is peeling and faded – along with its promise and acclaim.

Measuring 596 feet long and costing $80 million to build, the grand old lady today bobs quietly in the middle of the James River, lashed to another atomic relic, the Sturgis , an Army barge-turned-floating nuclear power plant.

The two orphans are separated from the 85 other reserve ships in the federally managed James River “Ghost Fleet,” nicknamed for its eerie loneliness and perpetual creaking, off Fort Eustis in Newport News.

After 10 years of riding out storms and decaying with age, the Savannah finally is receiving some attention.

Congress, for the first time, has allocated money to begin the ship’s decommissioning. The $2 million is part of the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved two Saturdays ago.

The government overseer of the Ghost Fleet, the U.S. Maritime Administration, has a five-year, $25 million plan to remove the defunct nuclear reactor still within the Savannah’s belly and purge all remaining equipment, hoses and gaskets tainted with radioactivity.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is required to inspect the ship once a year, to ensure no harmful radiation is leaking and to check if the Maritime Administration is following proper protocol. In its latest report, filed in November 2003 , the nuclear agency found “no safety concerns or noncompliance of NRC requirements.”

Incidental radiation released through cracks and into the surrounding public “were well below limits,” the report said.

A group of former shipmates and maritime history buffs already is banding together, hoping to raise money to take over the Savannah once government workers have scrubbed it clean. Group members want to spruce up the vessel, preserve it and perhaps turn it into a museum somewhere. They figure it will cost at least $20 million to do so.

Joe Seelinger, a group leader who worked on the Savannah as a nuclear engineer in 1964, toured his old office and home Nov. 22.

“I love coming aboard her,” Seelinger said after reaching the main deck by climbing metal boarding stairs. “But I hate to see her in this condition.”

Bird droppings cover much of the deck, giving off a pungent odor. The air inside is stale, the floor brittle. Once-glorious staterooms have been ransacked, as dirt and dust and mold collect on ripped blue couches and plastic-covered chairs.

The ’60s decor still is comically apparent: a round orange couch here, an art deco clock there. But age and neglect have taken their toll; the couch is faded and smudged, the clock stopped and broken.

Some steel doors are sealed for safety reasons, and many of the high-profile spaces within the ship – the dining hall and movie theater, for example – are preserved with dehumidifiers, which attempt to stave off decay from the moist, salty air of southeast Virginia.

The Maritime Administration arranged the tour last week after media outlets requested access to the ship months ago, when word first surfaced that Congress was poised to finally finance the Savannah’s retirement.

President Bush, in his 2005 budget, requested the $2 million installment to get the decommissioning started. He is expected to sign the spending measure without delay.

Work should begin in the spring or summer, officials said, mostly a study and calculation of all that must be done to purge the ship of its nuclear past.

“Mitigating events,” such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and increased concern about domestic terrorism targets, along with the availability of radioactive disposal sites, were prime reasons for moving ahead now, said Erhard Koehler , a senior technical adviser with the Maritime Administration who is heading the project.

To Koehler, a naval historian and architect as well, the Savannah deserves to be saved.

“Arguably, it is one of the most important ships, historically, ever built,” he said during the tour. “It certainly is one of the most aesthetically pleasing.”

There is a chance the Savannah might be scrapped. While officials say there are no dismantling plans now, Ghost Fleet ships deemed obsolete, such as the Savannah, are all destined for the salvage yard.

Congress has mandated that all junk vessels in reserve fleets across the country be scuttled by September 2006. Lawmakers two weeks ago approved $21 million next fiscal year to keep the effort going.

But the Savannah’s maritime significance, the public interest in the ship and its standing as a National Historic Place all lend support to its retention, officials said.

“The ship was an ambassador to the world at a time when everyone had questions about nuclear energy,” said John Jamian, deputy director of the Maritime Administration, adding that it “would be a real shame” to see the vessel scrapped.

The Savannah’s legacy has been debated for years. When it was laid up for good, in 1972, the ship had become a symbol of government excess to fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill. They pointed to the $2 million-a-year subsidy needed just to keep the vessel operating.

Because it was neither a full-fledged cargo ship nor a full-fledged passenger cruiser, some experts have said the Savannah was doomed to fail from the beginning. After labor disputes sidelined the vessel only a year after its launch, one article called the Savannah “our merchant marine’s biggest white elephant.”

Another camp argues that such criticisms miss the whole point. They say the Savannah never was intended to make money but rather was a show pony, a demonstration project, to prove that nuclear power could be used peacefully and for moving commercial ships.

Eisenhower hoped the innovation would launch a revolution in shipbuilding.

“I am confident that the ship will be the forerunner of atomic merchant and passenger fleets, which will one day unite the nations of the world in peaceful trade,” the president said in a speech in 1956.

Ike, of course, was wrong.

Only three other nonmilitary ships have been built with nuclear reactors since the Savannah – one German, one Russian, one Japanese – as petroleum and diesel engines continue to rule the merchant fleet.

Still, other experts are not giving up on nuclear propulsion in commercial ships. They note that it took decades in some cases for a new technology to take hold of the global fleet, and they point to the first Savannah, the namesake of the nuclear-powered Savannah, as proof.

In 1819, the steamship Savannah became the first vessel of its kind to cross the Atlantic, going from Savannah, Ga., to Liverpool, England, in 29 days. Yet it took another 60 years for steam energy to surpass sail power.

The nuclear reactor aboard the Savannah is sealed inside a huge steel containment area and surrounded with concrete barriers. A thick, steel door, now rusting at its bolts, guards the way into the reactor room.

“Caution Radiation Area” is emblazoned on the door, just below a small circular window that allows visitors to peek inside.

Aboard the Savannah, a shuffleboard court crumbles, its tiles pulled
to pieces by weeds, weather and neglect.

According to its application to the National Historic Places register, the ship was designed to hold more than 10,000 gallons of liquid radioactive wastes. The wastes would be off-loaded at a licensed facility on land or could be discharged to a special barge, the Atomic Servant, built as a companion to the Savannah.

While the reactor remains on the ship, all uranium oxide fuel has been removed, as was the radioactive water from the primary cooling system. At a congressional hearing on the Savannah in 1976, scientists declared the containment area safe.

In its first year of operations, though, about 115,000 gallons of radioactive wastes were released into the sea, a problem corrected by modifying valves where leaks were occurring, according to the historic places application.

Still, contamination experts were stationed at each port of call, and some nations were nervous about allowing the Savannah to dock, fearing an accident.

After the ship was deactivated of its nuclear core in 1971, it was presented to the city of Savannah a year later as part of a proposed Eisenhower Peace Memorial. But money problems stalled the project, and the memorial was never built.

The ship was transferred to the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, near Charleston, S.C., in 1981. It had been tied up nearby for the previous five years, waiting for its new home to be completed.

The museum had wanted to convert the Savannah into a restaurant and resort, sort of how the Queen Mary has been renovated as a tourist spot in Long Beach, Calif. But sponsors could not raise enough money for repairs, and the state and federal governments were unwilling to pay.

“We needed a subsidy, and it just never happened,” said David Clark, the museum’s exhibit superintendent.

In 1994, when the Maritime Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission wanted to pull the ship out of the water to repair the bottom, the museum “kind of let the agencies know they could keep her,” Clark said. “She was costing us a lot of money in upkeep.”

It was then the Savannah joined the Ghost Fleet . Since then, the Maritime Administration has been cited for minor infractions by the nuclear agency , most recently in 2001, for failing to abide by an earlier order to have an emergency radiological expert on call.

The agency also has faulted the administration for failing to perform and document an adequate annual inspection of primary and secondary radiation systems, and for not keeping emergency response kits on board the Savannah. The violations have since been corrected, according to inspection reports.

“A lot of ships kept me awake at night,” because of potential problems, said Nuns Jain, a Ghost Fleet supervisor. “The Savannah, though, is not one of them.”

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