It was a very exciting time when the Chalk River plant melted down.
March 29, 2013 5:25 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by three blind mice (12 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
posted by unSane at 6:18 AM on March 29, 2013 [17 favorites]

Carter was, of course, a student of and worked closely with Hiram Rickover, Father of the nuclear Navy. If you wanted to know about nuclear reactors and their design, Rickover was the man.
posted by tommasz at 6:23 AM on March 29, 2013

I'm guessing Vladimir Putin never did anything like that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:30 AM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

The nuclear exposure gave Carter the superpowers of empathy, compassion, and decency, which unfortunately meant he could never be an effective president.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 6:35 AM on March 29, 2013 [38 favorites]

That visit to the plant must have been interesting. Some guy trying to provide as accurate a gloss as possible and Carter starts asking technical questions . . .
posted by Ironmouth at 6:44 AM on March 29, 2013

I'm going to be a pedant and note that while the proper name for the site is indeed the Chalk River Nuclear Research Laboratory, the plant itself is actually in the town of Deep River (the plant site is the building cluster to the East). You have to drive through Chalk River to get there, now, as they closed the riverside bike path after 9/11.

I remember doing meltdown evacuation drills in grade school without any real understanding of what the potential danger was. The principal would come in and explain that at 11 o'clock, we were all going to get on buses and drive to the military base at Petawawa. Then an air raid siren would go off, and off to the buses we went.

In hindsight, considering that we would have to pass the nuclear site to get to the military base and ultimately would be both down-wind and down-stream of any possible meltdown, I feel like I would have much preferred to get in a car and drive like the dickens to North Bay.

/Deep Riverite
posted by The Notorious SRD at 6:58 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Of course I know his full name, but it didn't click right away. It wasn't until I saw "President Carter" that the penny dropped. Why? Because, well -- do we celebrate the character-defining moments of Jimmy Carter?

It's too bad we don't. I think he's one of the most underrated presidents the United States has ever had. (@The Notorious SRD: hear, hear.)

I've always seen him as a real friend of Canada, but I had no idea he had a hand in saving our asses from ourselves. Thanks again, Jimmy.
posted by rhombus at 8:14 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't think you understand. Carter was a wuss - sweaters and malaise and all that.
posted by kgasmart at 8:38 AM on March 29, 2013

Wow, that‘s a whole lot of new information to absorb. Just learning that there was an accident at Chalk River is news in and of itself -- I remember going on a tour of the facility when I was a kid, and a great deal of “look how perfectly safe it all is!“ went on.

But also, we were saved by Jimmy Carter? It‘s like some wonderful parody!
posted by Jughead at 9:12 AM on March 29, 2013

The nuclear exposure gave Carter the superpowers of empathy, compassion, and decency...
posted by at 10:27 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

The thing with the tennis court had to have been some kind of inspiration for Eschaton, right? Right?
posted by unknowncommand at 5:15 PM on March 29, 2013

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