Saturday, May 1, 2010


I got radio parts too; but this kind of thing happens to me a lot -- it helps to be eclectic.

That book is pretty fascinating stuff (updated, it remains in print!) and Babcock and Wilcox is not just another rustbelt industry vanished in the mists of a previous time; they are very much still around and about as modern as next week. At the time this book was published, their little Boiler Division plant in Mt. Vernon, IN had not yet been completed; now it's rather vast and in another division altogether.

Nevertheless, a pressure vessel is a pressure vessel and steam power is the same, no matter how it's generated and they've been good at both for a very long time -- which is probably why they got tapped for this project:Yes, it says "World's first nuclear-powered merchant ship" and no, it's not some artist's-conception dream, either. It sailed, er, steamed. Intended more as proof-of-concept and designed to look good in the doing, it never turned the profit a conventionally-driven freighter of like size would have. Withal, the power plant ran without trouble, unless you count the time it shut down, automatically and safely, in heavy seas -- exactly as it was designed to.

There have been four reactor-driven freighters, only one of which remains in service; in addition to the U.S., Japan, Germany and the former Soviet Union built them. The biggest issue appears to be the need for additional crew training and a few more specialists, along with some dedicated service vessels. Reactor waste was a particular challenge early on. NS Savannah -- named after the first steamship to cross the Atlantic -- came to the end of her working days in 1972 and spent a few years as a floating museum exhibit. Presently in the process of having her reactor decommissioned, with a bit of luck she will emerge from the process as a museum ship again.

You may wonder, "is this retrotechnology?" I believe it is. To a very great extent, modern civilization continues to run on steam. Much of it is still produced by burning coal in boilers that, other than scale, would not be terribly unfamiliar to men who designed and built the SS Savannah's boilers around 1818. Even NS Savannah's reactor has become, at the age of 50, "retro."

Will we see her like again soon? Possibly not. Between real fears of proliferation or piracy and irrational ones about the power plant itself, probably not. On the other hand, the Russians are still running a handful of atomic icebreakers; so don't write it off just yet.


  1. very nice. What edition? mine's a 3rd. Got mine from my uncle, who was a stationary engineer at a coalfired electric plant in southern Illinois. he was such a good steam engineer he ended up working at the Cook nuclear plant in michigan when they fired it up.

    Babcock and Wilcox are a bunch of smart mothers.

  2. Roberta,

    Knowing of your affinity for steam power I would invite you to the Annual Oklahoma Steam and Gas Engine Show at Pawnee, OK but with only 3 days until the start of the show, it's a tad short notice.

  3. is site dedicated to the Savannah.
    Savannah failed due to two reasons:
    Anti-nuke protests closed a number of major ports to her.
    Containerized shipping rendered Savannah obsolete.

  4. lost your email but here is a link to a cartoon you might enjoy


  5. The US Navy does not consider nuclear power for any ships other than carriers and submarines. The excessive security concerns coupled with the point that Stretch made "Anti-nuke protests closed a number of major ports to her" would just kill any commercial nuclear powered ship.

    Just imagine the problems we would have today with the Somali pirate situation if we had nuclear powered freighters going through there. It is pretty bad as it is, but that would raise the ante considerably!

  6. If small thorium reactors become common for semi-localized power grids, we could easily see a resurgence... takes little to move adapted technologies across sectors, once a "comfort level" is established.