Yes, Jimmy Carter once really helped contain a nuclear collapse

In late 2021, we received several requests from Snopes readers seeking to verify the authenticity of a compelling story, told in several widely shared social media posts, about one of former President Jimmy Carter’s accomplishments prior to the White House.

For example, on December 14, Jeff Lundeen posted a widely shared tweet that contained an old photo of a young Carter, a screenshot of the anecdote, and the following caption:

Do you remember the very first nuclear fusion in the world? This time, the American president, an expert in nuclear physics, heroically descended into the reactor and saved Ottawa, the capital of Canada? It sounds like a schlocky action flick, but it really happened!

This tweet was itself taken from a previous Facebook post by the Historical Society of Ottawa, which can be seen below:

The main claim in these accounts was that, as a young naval officer, Carter had played an important role in taming a nuclear fusion. This statement was correct and we are posting a note of “true”.

Person, Human, Building
In the main control room of the USS K-1 (SSK-1) between June and October 1952. (Source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

Carter, who was born in 1924 and raised in Plains, Georgia, had a relatively short but distinguished naval career, as the US Navy itself sums it up:

President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946 with Honors, after which he was assigned to the USS Wyoming (E-AG 17) as a sign. After completing two years of service on a surface ship, Carter requested submarine service. He served as a senior executive, engineer and electronic repair officer on the submarine SSK-1. When Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (then Captain) launched his nuclear-powered submarine design program, Carter wanted to join the program and was interviewed and selected by Rickover. Carter was promoted lieutenant, and from November 3, 1952 to March 1, 1953, served on temporary duty with the Naval Reactors Branch, US Atomic Energy Commission, Washington, DC, to assist “in the design and development of propulsion plants. nuclear for warships. . “

From March 1 to October 8, 1953, Carter was preparing to become an engineer officer on the USS sea ​​bass (SSN-575), one of the first submarines to operate on atomic energy. However, upon his father’s death in July 1953, Carter resigned from the Navy and returned to Georgia to manage his family’s interests. Carter was honorably released on October 9, 1953 and transferred at his request to the retired reserve with the rank of lieutenant.

On December 12, 1952, an accident took place at the National Nuclear Experimental Research Reactor (NRX) at Chalk River, near the Canadian capital of Ottawa. A detailed and official Atomic Energy of Canada account of the incident and its aftermath can be found here and here.

After being promoted to lieutenant in June of that year, Carter was by that time seconded from the Navy to the Reactor Development Division of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in Schenectady, northern L New York State. A 2019 video, verified and published by All Hands, the official magazine of the US Navy, contained the following account of the future president’s involvement in the cleanup operation:

Due to a combination of mechanical failures and human error, a power surge of up to 90 megawatts melted some fuel rods after they ruptured in the NRX research reactor at Chalk River Laboratories. The reactor core was badly damaged, requiring a massive clean-up operation. It was the first incident of this magnitude, and Carter was ordered to lead a team of 23 to help with the cleanup.

When he arrived at the scene, a duplicate reactor was set up on a nearby tennis court, where he and his team were practicing removing bolts and parts as quickly as possible. Once lowered into the damaged reactor, each person would only have 90 seconds to work, due to the extreme radioactivity. The heart was shut down, reconstructed and returned to service without further incident.

Looking back on the 2008 episode, Carter told Canadian author Arthur Milnes that he and his team were exposed to dangerously high radiation levels at Chalk River, as Milnes would later write for CNN:

“We were pretty well informed about what nuclear power was then, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine,” President Carter, now aged. 86 years old, in an interview for my new book in Plains in 2008. “They’re probably getting a thousand times more radiation than they would now. It was early and they didn’t know it.

Despite the fears he had to overcome, Carter admits he was lively on occasion to put his top-secret training to use in cleaning up the reactor, located along the Ottawa River northwest of Ottawa. .

“It was a very exciting time for me when the Chalk River plant melted down,” he continued in the same interview. “I was one of the few people in the world who was allowed to enter a nuclear power plant,” he said. “There were 23 of us and I was in charge. I took my crew there on the train.


Carter, James Earl
. http: //public2.nhhcaws.local/research/histories/biographies-list/bios-c/carter-james-e.html. Accessed January 6, 2022.

Jimmy Carter’s exposure to nuclear danger. Accessed January 6, 2022.

Lieutenant James Earl Carter Jr., USN. http: //public1.nhhcaws.local/browse-by-topic/people/presidents/carter.html. Accessed January 6, 2022.

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