Jimmy Carter and the NRX meltdown cleanup

By [President Jimmy] Carter’s own account, his poor opinion of nuclear power originated in personal experience. In 1952 the future president was a US Navy lieutenant with submarine experience stationed at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, training in nuclear engineering under Hyman Rickover. That December, an experimental Canadian 30-megawatt heavy-water moderated, light-water cooled reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, experienced a runaway reaction, surging to 100 megawatts, exploding and partly melting down. It was the world’s first reactor accident, a consequence of a fundamental design flaw of the kind that would destroy a Soviet reactor at Chernobyl three decades later. Since Carter had clearance to work with nuclear reactors, which were still classified as military secrets, he and twenty-two other cleared navy personnel went to Ontario early in 1953 to help dismantle the ruined machine. Because it was radioactive, the calculated maximum exposure time around the damaged structure itself was only ninety seconds. That exposure would be the equivalent of a worker’s defined annual maximum dose of radiation—in those days, 15 rem (roentgen equivalent man). More than a thousand men and two women, most of them Chalk River staff, would participate in the cleanup.

Had he known the long-term outcome of the Chalk River radiation exposures, Carter might have felt friendlier to nuclear power. A thirty-year outcome study, published in 1982, found that lab personnel exposed during the reactor cleanup were “on average living a year or so longer than expected by comparison with the general population of Ontario.” None died of leukemia, a classic disease of serious radiation overexposure. Cancer deaths were below comparable averages among the general population.

Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster, 2018. p. 316, 317

One thought on “Jimmy Carter and the NRX meltdown cleanup”

  1. Milan

    Thank you for sharing this account

    It deals with a couple of subjects that I find quite interesting
    Jimmy Carter and nuclear power

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