Togo, Savannah
Maritime Topics On Stamps :

The Three Nuclear-Powered Freighters!

With nuclear propelled ships, a chain reaction of nuclear fusion generates heat which is used to create steam which in turn is driving the steam turbines. Major advantages of this propulsion are the small amount of fuel required, and the nearly unlimited operating range. Disadvantages are the high costs for building, maintenance and waste disposal. Then there is the fear and perceived risk in the minds of people living in the ports-of-call.
The first nuclear powered ship in the world was the U.S. submarine 'Nautilus', commissioned in 1955. Next came the Russian icebreaker 'Lenin', built in 1959. This page reports on the three merchant vessels which were built thereafter: the American 'Savannah', the German 'Otto Hahn', and the Japanese 'Mutsu'. All three were experimental and served to research the economic feasibility of nuclear propulsion for merchant ships.

Togo, Savannah
Panama, Savannah
The NS 'Savannah' was the world’s first nuclear powered merchant vessel. Here some specifications: start of design and construction in 1956, launched in 1959, and commissioned in 1962. Length 545 ft, beam 81 ft, draft 29.5 ft, 21,840 gross tons, speed 21 knots, turbine power 22,000 propeller HP. She was built at the yard of New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, as a freighter with cabins for 60 passengers, swimming pool included. She was to be a pure research vessel, yet served more as a public relations vehicle campaigning for ‘Atoms for Peace’. American news media referred to her as a 'show boat' with a cargo capacity of only 9,000 tons.

letter Savannah
As told on this cover, the 'Savannah' was named after the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean --partially-- under steam (with detachable paddle wheels), in 1819. After commissioning, lengthy disputes between owners and maritime unions delayed the maiden voyage. Finally, in June 1964 she sailed from New York to Bremerhaven in ten days, with commercial cargo in her holds. Her sailing career came to an end in 1971 and the ship was laid up. The support was just too expensive. Average operating costs per year were said to amount to $2.9 million. Other sources reported a need for annual subsidies of 4 million dollars per year.

stamp, Savannah During her eight years of service, 'Savannah' steamed more than 480,000 nautical miles. Praised as a technical success, she was an economical failure. Today she is berthed at the Maritime Museum, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

letter, Otto Hahn
The German 'Otto Hahn' was the world’s second nuclear powered merchant vessel. Here are some specifications: 1963 start of building, 1964 launching, 1968 commissioning. Length 564 ft, beam 76 ft, draft 30 ft, 16,870 gross tons, 15,000 tdw, speed 15.75 knots, turbine power 11,000 propulsion HP, with a crew of 73 men and 36 researchers and scientists. She was built as an ore carrier at Howaldtswerke, Kiel.

letter, Otto Hahn
For ten years, 'Otto Hahn' operated without encountering any problems economic realities excepted. On 126 voyages the ship steamed 642,000 nautical miles and transported 776,000 tons cargo. All this time she used just 80 kilograms uranium fuel. Again, a technical success and an economic failure. Decommissioning was decided on in 1978. Three years the ship was nuclear decontaminated at the expense of 11 million dollars.

letter, Otto Hahn The 'Otto Hahn' was sold to the Rickmers shipping company of Germany. During 1982-83 she was rebuilt as a container ship with diesel engine propulsion. Her new name became 'Trophy', later on she was renamed 'Norasia Susan' (1983) and 'Norasia Helga' (1985).

Benin, Mutsu
Japan, Mutsu
Japan’s 'Mutsu' was the third nuclear powered merchant vessel. Here some specifications: 1964 launching, 1970 delivery from the yard -- and officially commissioned only twenty years later (see below). Length 426.5 ft, beam 62 ft, draft 23 ft, 8,242 gross tons, speed 16.5 knots, turbine power 10,000 propulsion HP. Commissioning had been planned for 1972, but serious safety problems developed with the reactor’s radiation shield. After lengthy repairs and a few short voyages, technical problems arose again. In addition, there were massive protests and demonstrations by Japanese fishermen against the ship. Finally, she was decommissioned never having carried any commercial cargo.

1990 it was announced that 'Mutsu's engine tests - with nuclear power - had been a success. From 1990 to 92 she undertook four research voyages with positive results. Afterwards, in 1995, the reactor was removed and nuclear decontamination commenced.
The stamp shows the Japanese launching date of the 12th June, 1964.
stamp, Mutsu

letter, Otto Hahn
Lessons learned with these three research vessels led to the unequivocal conclusion that for merchant shipping nuclear propulsion is just too expensive. The reactors are very heavy, require double hull construction, extra-strengthened hull ribs, and sophisticated radiation shields. In addition, many ports prohibit entry to nuclear powered vessels fearing the dangers of radiation. Yet, we find many nuclear reactors in the world’s major navies, especially in submarines and aircraft carriers. For these ships unlimited seagoing time, speed and powerful engines are of utmost importance. For the same reason, many Russian icebreakers haves nuclear propulsion.
stamp, sevmorput
From 1983 to 1988 the Russians built the fourth nuclear powered merchant vessel, a Lash-Carrier named 'Sevmorput'. Some specs: Length 853 ft, beam 105 ft, draft 39 ft, 33,980 tdw, speed 20 knots, 40,000 propulsion HP. She has an icebreaking bow, belongs to the Murmansk Shipping Company and serves along the 'northern Seaway'. We see the 'Sevmorput' on the above letter.

© 1998 - 2003 Bjoern Moritz, all rights reserved.

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