Fact Check: Did Jimmy Carter Stop a Nuclear Reactor From Destroying Ottawa?

A number of social media users and accounts have been reminiscing about the time that a young Jimmy Carter purportedly helped avoid a major nuclear disaster after heading a clean up operation at a nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, Canada.

The Claim

On Wednesday, the Facebook account for the Historical Society of Ottawa, the city's oldest historial organization, detailed how the world's first nuclear reactor meltdown occurred 69 years ago this week at the Chalk River Laboratories near Deep River.

The Facebook post stated how a 28-year-old Carter, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, was put in charge of containing the disaster after hydrogen explosions caused hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water to flood into the core.

The post was shared by Ottawa physicist Jeff Lundeen, who added that Carter "heroically lowered himself into the reactor" as part of the clean up operation and saved Ottawa.

Majid Padellan, better known as the popular left-wing Twitter account Brooklyn Dad, reshared Lundeen's post with the message: "Jimmy Carter is a bad*** who saved folks from a nuclear meltdown and is building houses for the needy. A real American hero!"

The Facts

On December 12, 1952, the Chalk River NRX nuclear reactor suffered a partial meltdown. The incident resulted in hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water flooding the core and causing major damage to the reactor.

As reported by nuclearenergy.net, the major failure, along with "several poor decisions by facility operators," resulted in a nuclear fission chain reaction that caused the power level to rise exponentially.

At the time, the NRX reactor operated at around 30 megawatts (MW). On December 12, workers at the plant were preparing for a reactor-physics experiment at low power.

However, a defect in the NRX shut-off rod mechanism, combined with the human errors, caused a temporary loss of control over reactor power, ultimately causing it to surge to between 60 and 90 MW.

"This energy load would normally not have been a problem, but several experimental fuel rods that were at that moment receiving inadequate cooling for high power operation ruptured and melted," the FAQ section of the Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor website states.

Thousands of nuclear fission particles were released into the atmosphere. The radioactive water also ended up in the reactor building's basement, before being pumped out into shallow ditches near the Ottawa River.

The U.S. was then called in to help with the clean up the site.

Carter, a trained nuclear engineer who had worked under famed Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the Navy's nuclear program on the atomic submarine "Sea Wolf," was asked to lead a team for the clean up operation.

The Historical Society of Ottawa said that as part of the clean up plan, the reactor had to be shut down, disassembled and replaced, with the team also needing to clean any spilled radioactive material.

The intensity of the radiation meant that Carter and each member of his team could only spend about ninety seconds at the core location. Before the operation, which involved being lowered into the core, an exact replica of the reactor was built on a nearby tennis court, where Carter and his men practiced cleaning and repairing it.

Jimmy Carter stops nuclear reactor
Before becoming president, Jimmy Carter was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Getty Images

Carter described the operation in his book, Why Not the Best?, which he released while running for president in 1976.

"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," Carter told Canadian journalist and author Arthur Milnes.

"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."

Carter also recalled the experience in another book of his, 2015's A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.

"When a Canadian 'heavy water' nuclear power plant at Chalk River was destroyed by accident in 1952 by a reactor meltdown and subsequent hydrogen explosions, my crew were volunteered by Rickover to assist with the disassembly so it could be replaced.

"The reactor core was below ground level and surrounded by intense radioactivity. Even with protective clothing, each of us would absorb the maximum permissible dose with just ninety seconds of exposure, so we had to make optimum use of this limited time. The limit on radiation absorption in the early 1950s was approximately one thousand times higher than it is sixty years later."

Carter said that his urine was still testing as radioactive six months after the clean up operation, and that it affected his health for the rest of his life.

The rebuilt NRX reactor was back in service within two years of the meltdown, before it was permanently shut down in March 1993.

The Ruling

True

Fact Check - True

Carter was indeed part of the clean up operation at Chalk River, and had to be physically lowered into the damaged nuclear reactor in order to help clean, shut down and replace the reactor.

The shutting down of the reactor was crucial in preventing a potential nuclear disaster in the Canadian city, as a full meltdown could have eventually occurred.

Jimmy Carter nuclear
President Jimmy Carter speaking at Merced College in September 1980. Social media users have been reminiscing about when a 28-year-old Carter helped avoid a major nuclear disaster in Canada. Getty Images/Diana Walker / Contributor