But with only 60 spaces, there weren't enough passengers to run the service at a profit, Koehler said. After three years, he said, the Maritime Administration got out of the cruise business and hauled cargo only.
"Kind of ironic for Atoms for Peace," Koehler said.
However, some ports remained closed to the ship because of local skittishness about nuclear power — especially in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Stan Wheatley, chief engineer in 1963-1964, says the crew was hand-picked for diplomatic as well as technical skills. "We had the best of the best. You really couldn't have asked for better people."
By 1970, the Nixon administration decided there was no further need to subsidize a money-losing demonstration project. The Savannah was taken out of service, and America's nuclear-powered merchant shipping was consigned to history's dustbin.
Retirement hasn't been easy on the Savannah. In 1972, she was moved to her namesake city to be part of an Eisenhower memorial. But Georgia decided the maintenance costs were too high, and the ship wound up in South Carolina, as part of a Charleston maritime museum.
There, the ship was pounded by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which left her interior with severe water damage. Her museum career ended in 1994 and after repair work at Sparrows Point she was consigned to the James River Reserve Fleet in Virginia — a gentle way of saying she was mothballed.
By 2008, the Maritime Administration was looking for a new home for the Savannah. Baltimore was chosen because Vane Brothers, the owner of Pier 13, submitted the low bid, Koehler said.
For now, there are no plans to take the Savannah out of Baltimore. The maritime agency's lease continues through May 2016. After that the government would have to open the contract up to new bids, but a U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman said a Baltimore berth would have an advantage because towing costs would have to be considered in the price.
The Savannah's status remains a bit muddled. Koehler says she is not a museum but an active ship — with a small crew of federal employees and contractors who maintain her and watch over the decommissioned reactor.
The Maritime Administration's function is to prevent deterioration of the ship but not to perform restoration work — "a pretty expensive proposition," he said.
Still, the agency has done some preservation work along with repairs in such places as the captain's stateroom, where there had been serious water damage. At least one passenger stateroom has been restored to an approximation of what it looked like in 1964, with original furniture. To say the least, it bears little resemblance to the cruise ships of today.
If any serious restoration work is undertaken, it will likely be through the N.S. Savannah Association, a nonprofit group of former crew members and other "friends" of the ship.
Wayne Britz, president of the association, said the Savannah — designated by the National Park Service as a national historic site — deserves to be preserved as cultural and educational resource.
"It's also a beautiful ship, so it would make a very nice addition to some port as a tourist attraction," he said. "We would like it to be Baltimore."
Britz, a former second officer who served aboard the ship from 1966 to 1970, said the association would like to see the Savannah be self-sustaining but believes "it might need some help to get off the ground." He said the group would like to get some help from Congress but knows it's a tough time to get money from Capitol Hill.
Federal Maritime Administrator David Matsuda said the agency hopes the ship can be preserved after its nuclear license expires in 2031. Options include continued federal ownership, donation to a private entity or a public-private partnership. Given the vessel's historical status, it is unlikely to be scrapped, he said.
What seems unlikely is any quick comeback for America's nuclear-powered commercial vessels.
Wheatley, who moved on to a career in high-speed ship research, expects Russia to lead the way in using nuclear power for non-military ships. But the former chief engineer, at 85 still active at California State University at Long Beach, hopes a new generation of compact nuclear reactors will put the United States back in the game.
"Hope springs eternal, because I still think it's the way to go," he said.