by Will Davis
I’m writing this on National Maritime Day 2020, a day in which we think of and thank all those who have worked on the water moving people and things.  Our nation’s maritime history isn’t as long as that of some other nations but it has been rich and, worldwide, significant.  We’ve contributed a number of “firsts.”
Close to my heart at all times is the advent of nuclear propulsion for commercial shipping – a development all too rapidly truncated as cost and concern played their usual roles.  While the promise offered to us by the decade-long operation of NS SAVANNAH seems gone, it in fact has never left; the benefits of nuclear propulsion for commercial ships are today exactly what they were then, perhaps plus a few.
Of course, many valid concerns were raised during the time when nuclear ships like SAVANNAH sailed the seas.  Crew cost was high – higher than anticipated, and that led to problems.  Port access in nations fearful of the atom in any context whatsoever required either reestablishing understanding and friendship or, in worse cases, rerouting.
This American Turbine gas cooled, closed cycle direct drive shipboard plant design was one of many cooked up in the 1950’s and 1960’s intended to be “dropped” into an existing ship design. The simple “nuclearization” of established designs turned out to be a fundamental mistake for many reasons at that time, but today we are seeing, increasingly, very small reactors being designed. That might actually unlock nuclear conversion of existing designs at some future time. (Photo from sales brochure in my collection.)
I remain today hopeful that I will see, in my lifetime, a return of the atom to the seas (Naval vessels aside) and I actually believe, today, that we’re closer than ever – at least from technology and policy

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