Answer: NS Savannah
When it comes to nuclear-powered nautical vessels, the bulk of all ships worldwide are, as you would assume, military vessels. Outside of naval use, there are only a handful of nuclear-powered non-military vessels and, currently, the small handful of them in operation are Russian designed and deployed icebreakers intended to help clear and navigate treacherous Arctic waters (including one container ship outfitted as an icebreaker, the Sevmorput).
The first nuclear merchant ship, long since decommissioned, was put into service by the United States way back in the golden age of atomic power. The Nuclear Ship Savannah was a curious hybrid ship that was part merchant cargo ship and part cruise ship, all held together with a giant serving of mid-century faith in the power of the Atomic Age. That giant serving was the brain child of then President Dwight Eisenhower, as part of his “Atoms for Peace” initiative. The NS Savannah was commissioned by the U.S. government to serve as an ambassador ship around the world and was christened by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower at the ship’s launching on July 21, 1959.
The vessel was in service until 1972 and is currently docked in Baltimore, Maryland, reclassified as a museum ship. For any readers interested in Atomic Age designs, we’d strongly encourage stopping by the NS Savannah Association website and checking out the photos and virtual tour of the boat—the interior design of the ship captures the heart of 1950s futurism in an incredible way.
Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives.