How Jimmy Carter Saved a Canadian Nuclear Reactor After a Meltdown

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who began working with the Naval Reactors Branch of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1952. (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

America's 39th president has held a lot of jobs in his time. Apart from being president of the United States (and sometimes while serving as president), Jimmy Carter has been a peanut farmer, preacher, professor and even a parole officer. But he started his adult life as a U.S. Navy officer, most famously working with Adm. Hyman Rickover, the "Father of the Nuclear Navy."

Though he started his naval career aboard diesel electric submarines, Lt. Carter began working with the Naval Reactors Branch of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission -- the Navy's nuclear submarine program -- in 1952.

Jimmy Carter in the U.S. Navy
Jimmy Carter started his adult life as a young U.S. naval officer. (U.S. Navy)

Rickover was infamous in the Navy for demanding near-absolute perfection from those working under his command. His expectations of the then-28-year-old Carter were no different. The young lieutenant was being groomed as the engineering officer for the nuclear plant aboard the USS Seawolf, the Navy's second nuclear sub, and was designing the training program for its nuclear enlisted personnel.

The Navy's work in developing the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, meant that Rickover and Carter had access to the latest and greatest in top-secret nuclear energy technology. So when Canada's Chalk River nuclear research facility experienced a power surge that damaged its reactor, the U.S. sent Carter and his team. He was one of a few people in the world who could do it.

Fuel rods at the research reactor experienced a partial meltdown after the power surge. It ruptured the reactor and flooded the facility's basement with radioactive water, rendering the reactor core unusable.

In his 2015 autobiography, "A Full Life: Reflections At Ninety," Carter described the incident and his preparations for repairing the reactor. They built an exact replica of the reactor, true to the last detail (except the actual nuclear material) on a nearby tennis court to practice and track their progress.

Carter and his 22 other team members were separated into teams of three and lowered into the reactor for 90-second intervals to clean the site. It was estimated that a minute-and-a-half was the maximum time humans could be exposed to the levels of radiation present in the area.

It was still too much, especially by today's standards. The future president had radioactive urine for months after the cleanup.

Lt. Jimmy Carter in main control room of USS K-1.
Lt. James Earl (Jimmy) Carter Jr. in main control room of USS K-1. (U.S. Navy)

"We were fairly well-instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that, I had radioactivity in my urine," Carter told CNN 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."

The exposure was especially dangerous for Carter, whose family medical history is full of cancer deaths. His father died of pancreatic cancer in 1953, which led to Carter leaving the Navy that year. Cancerous tumors were found on the former president's liver and brain in 2015 as he turned 91, but quick diagnosis and treatment led to a cancer-free bill of health a year later.

His extensive knowledge of nuclear reactors and energy would come in handy when Carter became president in 1977, as other world leaders respected his knowledge on the subject.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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