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When Jimmy Carter faced radioactivity head-on

By Arthur Milnes, The Ottawa Citizen - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Editor’s note: Just over a year ago, technical troubles at Chalk River’s NRU reactor touched off a controversy for the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The head of the Nuclear Safety Commission shut the aging reactor due to safety concerns. But when this led to a dangerous scarcity of isotopes for medical purposes, the government passed special legislation to reopen the reactor and shortly after fired Linda Keen, president of the nuclear watchdog.

The issue continues to simmer, with Ms. Keen requesting a judicial review of her dismissal. Just this past December, the 51-year-old reactor was shut down for five days to fix a leak, leading to short-term shortages of isotopes.

On Jan. 8, a leading U.S. scientist called on president-elect Barack Obama to abandon the “unreliable and unsafe” supply of medical isotopes and start a U.S.-based manufacture. This week, it was revealed a small amount of radioactive water escaped from the reactor in December.

A political headache, yes, but at least Mr. Harper has never had to climb into the belly of the reactor, which is exactly what happened in 1952 to Jimmy Carter, then a young U.S. naval officer. Mr. Carter became the 39th president of the United States.

Last fall, journalist and academic Arthur Milnes was part of a small group of Canadians who attended a luncheon hosted by the Carters (one of the prizes in a charity auction). They discovered that Mr. Carter’s memories of Chalk River were still fresh in his mind and had influenced his actions as president.

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It was a very exciting time for me when the Chalk River plant melted down,” Jimmy Carter, now 83, said in a recent interview in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.

“I was one of the few people in the world who had clearance to go into a nuclear power plant.”

On Dec. 12, 1952, the NRX reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories suffered a partial meltdown. There was an explosion and millions of litres of radioactive water ended up in the reactor building’s basement. The crucial reactor’s core was no longer usable.

With the Cold War then in full swing, and considering this was one of the first nuclear accidents in the West, the Americans took a great interest in the cleanup.

Mr. Carter was a young U.S. Navy officer based in Schenectady, New York, who was working closely with Admiral Hyman Rickover on the nuclear propulsion system for the Sea Wolf submarine. He was quickly ordered to Chalk River, joining other Canadian and American service personnel.

“I was in charge of building the second atomic submarine … and that is why I went up there,” said Mr. Carter. “There were 23 of us and I was in charge. I took my crew up there on the train.”

Once his turn came, Mr. Carter, wearing white protective clothes that probably, by today’s standards, provided little if any protection from the surging radiation levels, was lowered into the reactor core for less than 90 seconds.

When he was running for president in 1975-76, Carter briefly described this Canadian experience in his campaign book, Why Not the Best?

“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.

Years later, he was asked if he was terrified going into the reactor. He paused, growing quiet, before answering.

“We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine,” Mr. Carter said. “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.”

Carter biographer Dr. Peter Bourne, who also served as the president’s “drug czar” and who later became assistant secretary general of the United Nations, believes the Chalk River experience had a lasting impact on the man from Georgia, influencing him when he had to confront nuclear issues as the leader of the western alliance from 1977 to 1981.

“My sense is that up until that point in his career, (Mr. Carter) had approached nuclear energy and nuclear physics in a very scientific and dispassionate way,” he said. “The Chalk River experience made him realize the awesome and potentially very destructive power he was dealing with. It gave him a true respect for both the benefits but also the devastatingly destructive effect nuclear energy could have. I believe this emotional recognition of the true nature of the power mankind had unleashed informed his decisions as president, not just in terms of having his finger on the nuclear button, but in his decision not to pursue the development of the neutron bomb as a weapon.”

Mr. Carter agreed.”It was one of the few times I was actually inside a nuclear reactor when it was radioactive, so I learned the dangers,” he said.

At the recent lunch, Mr. Carter grew animated when Beth Chown of Arnprior asked him about his work at Chalk River.

One can only conclude that at the height of the Cold War, when the nuclear threat was highest, the man with the power to unleash those weapons knew exactly their dangers for humanity.

And this is thanks, in large part, to his experiences with the dangers of radioactivity as a young man at Chalk River more than five decades ago.

Arthur Milnes, who served as research assistant on the memoirs of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is a journalist and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University.

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