The NS Savannah, the nation’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship, is in Philadelphia for dry docking, not far from where it was built in Camden more than 60 years ago.

After being towed from its longtime home in Baltimore up the Chesapeake Bay and through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the sleek, 596-foot vessel arrived Tuesday at Philadelphia Ship Repair in the former Naval Ship Yard for regular maintenance. There is no nuclear fuel on the boat, and its reactor is not operational.

The maintenance work is expected to last about two months and the ship will return to Baltimore while plans are made for the future of the Eisenhower-era relic, according to the federal U.S. Maritime Administration, which owns the vessel.

The Savannah served as a merchant ship for only nine years and last sailed the seas in 1972. But it proved too costly to operate.

The launching of the NS Savannah at New York Shipbuilding in Camden in July 1959.
U.S. Maritime Administration (DOT)
The launching of the NS Savannah at New York Shipbuilding in Camden in July 1959.

The ship, just one of four nuclear-powered non-military vessels in the world, was built at New York Shipbuilding in Camden at a cost of $46.9 million in the 1950s (about $449 million now) to be a showcase for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative.

First lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the Savannah in July 1959 and the vessel, named after the first steamship to transit the Atlantic, made its maiden voyage in 1962 after sea trials and installation of its reactor.

After the Savannah was deactivated, the midcentury modern vessel served as a museum at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum near Mount Pleasant, S.C., from 1981 until 1994, when it needed to be dry-docked and was mothballed again.

The Savannah’s return to the Delaware River is its first since it sailed the seas.

Plans for the ship’s future call for the decommissioning, or removal, of what remains of the Savannah’s nuclear power plant. The contract for that work is expected to be announced sometime next year.

After that, the vessel, which is a registered National Historic Landmark, could become a museum again or find another civilian role.

Kim Strong, a MARAD spokesperson, said the agency, part of the Department of Transportation, has been talking to different groups that might be interested in taking over the Savannah after the power plant has been removed.

There will be no public tours of the ship while it is in dry dock in Philadelphia, but MARAD recommends a 360-degree online tour for anyone interested.