They let us get probably a thousand times more radiation than they would now.
On December 12, 1952 some 200 km upstream from Ottawa, Canada the NRX research reactor at Chalk River Laboratories suffered a partial meltdown
. The reactor underwent a violent power excursion
that destroyed the core of the reactor, causing some fuel melting. Unaccountably, the shut-off rods failed to fully descend into the core. A series of hydrogen gas explosions (or steam explosions) hurled the four-ton gasholder dome four feet through the air where it jammed in the superstructure. Millions of liters of highly radioactive water flooded the building.
A young U.S. Navy lieutenant
by the name of James Earle Carter, Jr. was sent to assist in the damage control. As chief engineering office for the nuclear propulsion system being designed for the USS Seawolf (SSN 575
) Carter, located in Schenectady, New York was the most qualified and closest member of the U.S. military at the time. "And one of the few people in the world with clearance to go into a nuclear power plant,
" as he remarked later.
“It was the early 1950s … 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 wrote.
Carter was physically lowered into a damaged nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, and exposed to levels of radiation unthinkable today after an accident.
"We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine," President Carter, now 86, told me during an interview for my new book in Plains in 2008. "They let us get probably a thousand times more radiation than they would now. It was in the early stages and they didn't know."
In 1979, when the accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, President Jimmy 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. On April 1, 1979 Carter inspected the damaged plant.