The ATOMIC SHIP Takes Shape (Nov, 1957)

The ATOMIC SHIP Takes Shape

by Richard K. Winslow

Condensed from Newsweek One fine morning in the spring of 1960 a gleaming white ship will glide from some American harbor out to sea. The ship’s rakish lines will be unmarred by any smokestacks. Her bridge will probably resemble the pilot’s bubble on some huge aircraft. Her passengers—nuclear scientists and marine engineers —will anxiously watch each dial aboard the ship to see if all is well.

America’s first atomic merchant ship will thus embark upon her first sea trials.

For years the shipping interests of the world had laughed down the idea of such a ship as a “showboat”— unable to compete, economically, with the conventional, oil-powered merchant marine.

Now they see the day—probably within the next decade—when the atom will operate ships in the black by (1) making them faster and (2) saving space for added cargo. The world’s first atomic ship claims neither of these things but, as a “floating laboratory,” she will demonstrate the future value of the seagoing atom in hard dollars and cents.

The momentous experiment is fast taking form in several scattered spots —in a naval architect’s austere office in New York; in a shiny new reactor plant near Lynchburg, Va.; and in a half dozen Washington offices of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Maritime Administration, obstetricians jointly in charge of the A-ship’s birth.

Though details of the ship’s shape may change at any point until the shipyard contract is let, her main characteristics are already pretty well decided. She will be a combination cargo-passenger vessel, 590 feet in length, and capable of cruising at a tidy, if not record-breaking, 21 knots. She will carry about 100 passengers, a crew of 125, and her six holds will pack 10,000 tons of dry cargo (about what a Liberty ship now carries).

Contrary to the popular myth that such a ship could be sent around the world on a spoonful of uranium, the atomic merchantman will have a sizable fuel charge, consisting of 138 steel-clad uranium fuel rods. This will send her around the world about ten times in the two and a half years before replenishment is needed.

Her designers are particularly proud that her atomic engine, which is a cousin to the “pressurized water” reactor that has pushed the Nautilus 80,000 miles so far, will be considerably “advanced,” i.e., it should be far cheaper to operate, and as safe as the Nautilus’s reactor.

There will be nothing especially flossy about the A-ship—a smallish swimming pool, a modest lounge, average accommodations for a passenger-cargo ship of her size. For curbing seasickness, she will have stabilizing fins to diminish the ship’s roll. As an aid to visiting scientists and engineers, the engine room will be glass paneled. There will be closed-circuit TV for technical demonstrations; there may be an auditorium for public atomic lectures.

If all goes well, the A-ship’s keel will be laid next spring. The launching should follow a year later. From the spring of 1959 to early 1960, the atomic-power plant will be installed and checked out.

Then, according to Maritime Administrator Clarence G. Morse, the vessel will have “three lives”: (1) tests and trials in U.S. waters, (2) a worldwide tour with demonstrations for other nations, (3) permanent charter to a U.S. operator for regular commercial (though probably not profitable) service.

Although laymen will not be able to book passage for three to five years after the first sea trial, most of the larger operators already are jockeying for the honor of becoming the world’s first atomic transporters.

The unnerving task of meeting these deadlines has fallen to a 35-year-old AEC engineer, Richard P. Godwin. Godwin masterminds en expanding force of experts, which already numbers some 250 designers, draftsmen, metallurgists, safety experts, and lawyers, who work under the added tension of not having, as the Navy atomic design people do, a land-based prototype reactor on which to work out the kinks beforehand.

Through Godwin’s two offices (one AEC, one Maritime) files an endless procession. A recent sampling of visitors, and their problems: A naval architect who offered some last-minute “thinking” on how swept-back the A-ship’s radar mast should be. (The final tilt is yet to be decided.) A lawyer from an oil company who wanted to know how much government help could be expected if they built their own atomic tanker. (They will receive full technical help; financial help is up in the air.) Officials from the Public Health Service and the Coast Guard who wanted to start drawing up safety rules for atomic ships. (They were invited to send some of their engineers to work along with the atom ship’s shielding designers.) An oceanographer who reported on how quickly the tides in certain harbors could be expected to flush out any leaked radioactivity. (New York Harbor, for example, would drain clean in a week or ten days.) Last, but not least, a staff member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy who wanted to see how the development was progressing. (So far, so good.) Just two years ago, such a commotion was inconceivable. Nuclear propulsion for the Navy, which wants speed and endurance at any price—yes. But nuclear propulsion for merchant ships? Bankruptcy!

What got this timid thinking off the beach was President Eisenhower’s “peace ship” proposal, first broached in April, 1955.

Last year, Louis S. Rothschild, Under-Secretary of Commerce and former Maritime Administrator, proposed a laboratory ship — convertible, when scientists finished studying it, into commercial operations. . Last summer, the vessel acquired a budget of $42.5 million divided up as follows: $21 million for developing and building the reactor, boilers, turbines, and the main shielding; $18 million for the ship itself, shore facilities such as a fuel-changing dock, and the training of atomic crews. The remaining $3.5 million will buy uranium from the AEC— but there will be a $2-million rebate when the old fuel core needs replacement.

Last October 15, a White House announcement officially sent the project down the ways.

One paramount problem, that of atomic safety, hovers over the A-ship planners. What a single oceangoing reactor could do at the bottom of a harbor is appalling. Not long ago Dr. Rover Revelle, the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, LaJolla, Calif., estimated that if a fairly large reactor were rammed and sunk in a harbor 8 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 50 feet deep, it would subject a fisherman in a row-boat anywhere in the harbor to nearly twice as much radiation in a day as AEC workers are allowed in a week.

“Dock pilings, ship bottoms, and other structures covered with fouling organisms would accumulate a much higher level of radioactivity,” he added ominously.

Godwin declares such anlyses are unduly scary. They assume that collisions will always be direct hits on engine rooms, that every safety device will fail, and that in defiance of all the laws of chemistry the metallic fuel elements will dissolve like a pill in a cup of water. Looking at all angles, he and his shielding specialists are even considering adding wood to the conventional shielding layers of lead, concrete, plastics, and steel. The wood would provide a puncture-proof resilience in a collision.

Passengers, Godwin promises, will be as safe as when riding on conventional liners. “Because we don’t carry great quantities of flammable fuel oil, on our ship there’s less chance of an explosion,” he points out. “Besides, if a passenger chose to sit for a year in the hottest part of the ship open to him—in the hold directly in front of the reactor—he would get but one-tenth of a roentgen.” (This is roughly the amount of radiation caused by the luminous dial on a wrist watch.) The only ticklish time on the A-ship will be during refueling (which, for convenience, may take place annually, coinciding with the ship’s routine maintenance). The spent fuel rods will probably be pulled-by a crane up into a lead coffin, then dumped into a shore-based pool for two or three weeks until cool enough to be shipped off to a reprocessing plant.

Radioactive sludge that will accumulate in the reactor’s plumbing will have to be removed carefully from filter traps once each trip. “It will be no more of a problem,” Godwin figures, “than handling radioisotopes around a hospital.”

Godwin has an engineer’s reluctance to predict how soon the atom will commandeer the engine rooms of the U.S. merchant marine. But he has a clear concept of the probable sequence of events.

“The largest tankers will be first to find A-power attractive, then the smaller oil carriers,” he expects. “The ironic situation of oil being moved by a competing fuel is simple common sense.”

Oil is a concentrated cargo, pumped quickly on and off a ship. Thus tankers can spend 85 to 90 percent of their time at sea (in contrast to 50 percent for freighters). Nevertheless, they are fuel hogs. On the long round trip to the Persian Gulf, for example, present-day tankers may burn 17 percent of their pay-load in transit.

Next on Godwin’s atomic-propulsion list: the giant ore carriers. Then, he thinks, atomic engines might power some fast luxury liners. Other experts do not necessarily agree. They point out that faster ships need more than an increase in power. Their hulls must be lengthened too, to lessen the drag of bow waves and other turbulences on the ocean surface.

Godwin’s crew is bursting to get new projects under way. “We’ll start plans for a second atomic ship this year,” he said. “In fact, we have some nuclear hardware for a tanker under development. By 1959, the U. S. should be designing a third and fourth atomic ship.”

By then, the reactor people may have come up with seagoing power plants that will make the Nautilus-type reactor look quaint. One of the promising types is the gas-cooled reactor, which makes possible much smaller engines, dispensing with bulky boilers and heat exchangers.

Instead of steam, a hot gas—nitrogen, for instance—flowing in closed coils around the reactor would use the heat it picks up to spin a turbine, somewhat in the manner of a turboprop airplane. The idea has a special appeal because gas turbines (oil-fired rather than atomic) are this year getting major trials in converted Liberty ships.

Though the U. S. is acknowledged to be off to a flying start in atomic propulsion, other big maritime nations are also in the race.

Before the end of 1960, Britain may have launched an atomic supertanker, perhaps as large as 80,000 tons deadweight. This behemoth, which would dwarf the U.S.’s 10,000-ton A-ship, would carry enough oil to fill 23 miles of tank cars.

Russia’s plans for nautical atomic energy are puzzling. The Red press has panned the Nautilus as unwieldy and has talked of atomic merchantmen only at the most elementary level. Their main atomic contender is an icebreaker, the Lenin, that has been under construction in a Leningrad shipyard for the last 18 months. The 440-foot ship is designed to make 18 knots in open water.

In contrast to the U. S. merchantman, which will use reactor heat to drive a turbine directly, the Russian ship will first produce atomic electricity which will then power an electric motor. The icebreaker is supposed to be launched before 1961.

Other shipbuilding nations, particularly Sweden, West Germany, and Japan, are all displaying an avid atomic interest, even though they will probably have to buy their first generation of atomic engines from the U. S. or Britain.

In the lead are the Swedes who have just signed a contract to deliver a 65,000-ton tanker by 1963. Two more A-ships will be scheduled shortly, and the Swedes think they can build a profitable 100,000-ton, 30-knot atomic supertanker within ten years.

In moments of elation, some atomic-propulsion advocates project their optimism even farther. They dream of atomic-powered hydrofoils, those ships that (theoretically) would ride in the air just above the surface of the sea, supported by a huge underwater wing — or they contemplate underwater cargo ships,. monster submarines that shuttle beneath the surface of the ocean at fantastic speeds.

Engineers who recognize the towering difficulties sputter at such “Sunday supplement” designs. “Hydrofoils (for big ships),” says Rear Adm. E. L. Cochrane, former Maritime Administrator, “would work along the boundary of two media (air and water) receiving the benefits of neither and participating in the disadvantages of both.”

The stock of cargo-carrying subs is a bit higher. They might carry a pumpable cargo — oil or perhaps grain—at 67 or 70 knots with a future atomic engine. Most of the world’s harbors would have to be deepened to admit such leviathans, but offshore pumping stations might be an ultimate solution.

“When we get some really advanced power plants,” Godwin, the A-ship’s shepherd, likes to say, “we can delve into these exotic hulls. Until then we haven’t time to worry about how Buck Rogers might do it.”

1 comment
  1. Curtis P. says: September 20, 200811:31 am
Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.