Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s first-hand encounter with nuclear power received newfound attention in December 2021 — thanks, as usual, to social media.
When he was 28 years old, Carter — at that point a scientist in the U.S. Navy — led a team that averted a potential disaster at the nuclear reactor at Chalk River Laboratories in the Canadian province of Ontario.
On December 14 2021, the Historical Society of Ottawa highlighted Carter’s work in a Facebook post, which was shared more than 8,000 times on the platform within 48 hours:
The post read in part:
The world’s first nuclear reactor meltdown occurred right here in the Ottawa Valley — and a young U.S. naval officer (future U.S. president Jimmy Carter) was brought in and put in charge of the team containing the disaster — 69 years ago this week.
Leading a team of two dozen men, 28-year old Lieutenant Carter had himself lowered into the damaged reactor. That week, Carter and his team courageously exposed themselves to a thousand times the level of radiation considered safe by today’s standards.
The story spread further when a Twitter user posted a screenshot of the Facebook post on his account, alongside a photograph of the young Carter:
Do you remember the world’s very first nuclear meltdown? That time the US President, an expert in nuclear physics, heroically lowered himself into the reactor and saved Ottawa, Canada’s capital?
Sounds like schlocky action movie, but it actually happened! pic.twitter.com/LtAQYC79QZ
— Jeff Lundeen (@LundeenOttawa) December 15, 2021
“Do you remember the world’s very first nuclear meltdown?” Lundeen wrote. “That time the US President, an expert in nuclear physics, heroically lowered himself into the reactor and saved Ottawa, Canada’s capital? Sounds like schlocky action movie, but it actually happened!”
The story itself is accurate. Carter himself described his immersion into the reactor in his 1975 biography, Why Not The Best?:
I had only seconds that I could be in the reactor myself. We all went out on the tennis court, and they had an exact duplicate of the reactor on the tennis court. We would run out there with our wrenches and we’d check off so many bolts and nuts and they’d put them back on. …
And finally when we went down into the reactor itself, which was extremely radioactive, then we would dash in there as quickly as we could and take off as many bolts as we could, the same bolts we had just been practicing on. Each time our men managed to remove a bolt or fitting from the core, the equivalent piece was removed on the mock-up.
He also referenced the incident and how it influenced his energy policy in an address to a conference on nuclear energy at the United Nations in May 1976 — six months before he was elected as the President of the United States:
I have had training as a nuclear engineer, working in the United States Navy on our country’s early nuclear submarine program. I learned how nuclear power can be used for peaceful purposes—for propelling ships, for generating electric power and for scientific and medical research. I am acutely aware of its potential—and its dangers. Once I helped in disassembling a damaged nuclear reactor core in an experimental reactor at Chalk River, Canada.
From my experience in the Navy and more recently as Governor of Georgia I have come to certain basic conclusions about the energy problem. The world has only enough oil to last about 30 to 40 years at the present rate of consumption. It has large coal reserves—with perhaps 200 years of reserves in the United States alone. The United States must shift from oil to coal, taking care about the environmental problems involved in coal production and use. Our country must also maintain strict energy conservation measures, and derive increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources such as the sun.
Carter further reminisced about the incident in a November 2011 speech in Georgia:
“Ninety seconds, that’s all we had,” he said. “Then we went down below in the reactor room. My earliest acquaintance with a television camera was, television cameras were focused on this core reactor and we dashed on the site there, in a highly radioactive environemnt, and did our job.”
As PBS would later report in a retrospective on the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, Carter’s prior experience came into play when addressing that incident:
Upon hearing of the situation at Three Mile Island, Carter dispatched Harold Denton, the director of the Division of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as his personal representative. The president was frustrated by his inability to establish telephone contact with Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh. To solve this problem, he ordered dedicated phones lines be connected between the White House, the NRC, and the State House at Harrisburg. By Saturday, March 31, Carter had decided to pay a personal visit to Harrisburg. The national and international media had given the accident at Three Mile Island front page attention for days and venerable network newsman Walter Cronkite was speaking of a “horror” that “could get much worse.” Carter believed that the people of Pennsylvania and the nation were looking to him for leadership, so on April 1, Carter inspected the damaged plant. Middletown, Pennsylvania, Mayor Robert Reid later spoke of Carter’s visit as providing a much-needed morale boost. “People weren’t talking to one another. They were cooped up in their homes, and when he came, it seemed like everyone came out to see the president and it was really a shot in the arm,” Reid recounted to writer Mark Stephens.
In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, President Carter ordered the creation of a special commission, headed by Dartmouth College president John Kemeny, to review the event. The resultant report found fault with the NRC. Carter ordered a re-shuffling of key NRC personnel, but no substantial overhaul.
Carter further reflected on the Chalk River incident in an interview decades later with author Arthur Milnes, who would go on to edit the book Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: A Canadian Tribute, published three years later. Milnes published some of Carter’s recollections as part of an essay for CNN marking the book’s publication.
“We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine,” said Carter, who would go on to survive a cancer diagnosis in 2015.
Addressing a church service in 2019, Carter said he initially assumed the diagnosis meant he had a short time to live.
“I obviously prayed about it. I didn’t ask God to let me live, but I asked God to give me a proper attitude toward death,” he said. “And I found that I was absolutely and completely at ease with death. It didn’t really matter to me whether I died or lived. Except I was going to miss my family, and miss the work at the Carter Center and miss teaching your Sunday school service sometimes and so forth. All those delightful things.”
When we reached out to Milnes for comment, he called it “pretty cool” that his work was being recirculated as the story of Carter and his team’s work at Chalk River gained more attention.
“President Carter is probably one of the most remarkable people of our time,” he told us. “As the interest in him grows and grows, his presidency looks better and better every day. He’s my hero.”
Correction 12/17/2021 4:56 p.m. PST: Updated the date of Carter’s speech in Georgia to December 2011.