Press coverage of the Society and its activities

Jimmy Carter and the NRX Accident – How a Legend can Grow

Written by
Morgan Brown
the North Renfrew Times
2022 Jan 08

When I was a child we had really interesting discussions around the supper table: history, science, politics, etc. After supper my father and eldest sister would often continue the discussion over the washing up, with my father waving the dish mop to emphasize a point. My younger sister and I were encouraged to join the discussions; it also allowed us to leave the table before supper was finished, to go and find a book to back up our argument, and bring it to the table. It’s no wonder that I still want proof or verification, whether in my own work or in the claims of others.
On Dec 14 2021, two days after the 69th anniversary of the NRX accident at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (CRNL), a Facebook post from the Ottawa Historical Society claimed “a young U.S. naval officer (future U.S. president Jimmy Carter) was brought in and put in charge of the team containing the disaster … When the Canadian government turned to U.S. nuclear experts for help, Lieutenant Carter was put in charge of the urgent operation. Carter was one of the few in the world at that time with any expertise in this new technology.”
This extraordinary claim, originating with U of Ottawa physics professor Jeff Lundeen, is repeated on the web in a multitude of places, often further exaggerated: “How Jimmy Carter Stopped The First Nuclear Meltdown (Long Before He Was President)”; “Young Jimmy Carter once averted a nuclear disaster”; “Future president Jimmy Carter saved the day. In 1952, one of many different reactors, the NRX, underwent what’s euphemistically known as a ‘energy tour,’ and is the truth is an uncontrolled chain response. A part of the reactor’s coolant was misplaced, the core was broken, and in consequence the gasoline rods had been overheated.” (I kid you not!) Newsweek asked the question “Fact Check: Did Jimmy Carter Stop a Nuclear Reactor from Destroying Ottawa?” and concluded “The Ruling: True”.
I have had a long interest in nuclear reactors, both professionally and as an amateur historian. Part of my work includes delving into the NRX accident of 1952 Dec 12, just over eight months after the newly-formed crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited took over operating CRNL, from the National Research Council of Canada.
The NRX accident occurred due to several errors, technical and human. The research reactor increased from very low power to about 90 MW, 3 times its maximum power, and was shut down by dumping the moderator. The power excursion took approximately 60 s, but by that time the damage was done; 22 of 184 fuel rods had ruptured, releasing fission products into the reactor. Some rods melted (a partial meltdown) because of the heat deposited in the uranium metal fuel, and damaged the calandria vessel. Cooling water had to be maintained to remove the fuel decay heat, and contaminated water collected in the basement, flooding it to a depth of 1 metre. Some radioactivity was released to the atmosphere and the Ottawa River, but at no time did it risk “destroying Ottawa”!
The accident was over, leaving the cleanup and decontamination to be performed, and then the reactor itself had to be dismantled and rebuilt. It was a daunting task and the first time in the world that such a “severe accident” had occurred – a dubious honour for Canada. However, much was learned from the accident and Canada led the world in nuclear safety, work which continues to this day at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, universities and nuclear utilities.
AECL staff dealt with the initial stages of the NRX cleanup, utilizing people from across the laboratories to keep the doses within prescribed limits; however, as Kim Krenz wrote in his book Deep Waters, “the work was done mainly by AECL Operations”. Soon after, Canadian armed forces personnel joined the work.
The US Navy (USN), US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) and US Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories (USNRDL) were invited to send some of their personnel to assist in the cleanup. The US navy nuclear submarine program was employing NRX to test a brand-new fuel design using zirconium-sheathed uranium dioxide; the demanding US Admiral Rickover wanted the program resumed quickly, so it is no wonder that personnel were sent to help in early 1953. Amongst them was the young lieutenant James Earl Carter Jr. Interestingly, the Society for the Preservation of Canada’s Nuclear Heritage have a link to the US navy program – a Friden calculating machine marked “US Navy Property” [NRT 2019 July 17].
I have a scan of a document titled “Participation of United States President Jimmy Carter in the NRX Reactor Reconstruction at Chalk River, 1952-53”, presumably dating to the late 1970s. I have no reason to doubt its authenticity (it rings true), but the document is without good provenance – one of the hazards of accurately determining historical fact. The document quotes a 1953 Feb 9 to March 3 progress report (from whom to whom?) describing a total of 59 American men from the USNRDL, the Electric Boat Division (General Dynamics), Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL, Westinghouse) and the USAEC in Idaho.
Lieutenant J.E. Carter (KAPL) was the Officer-in-charge of 13 men including himself, responsible for the “disassembly of headers [and] removal of miscellaneous equipment. … The operation was coordinated by USNRDL personnel. Mr. Baier of Electric Boat planned the tooling and actual methods used for disassembly. Messrs. Baier, Carter, and Nicholson provided direct supervision of their respective groups. … The operations were scheduled so that four men worked at a time. The work period varied from one-half hour to one and one-quarter hours, depending upon the requirements of the direct supervision. However, the final consensus was that two forty-five minute work periods per day were probably optimum for such strenuous work when performed wearing gas masks and protective clothing of the type required. … The total dosage utilized was about 50 R or 1.5 R per header.” Fifty R (Roentgen) is in the order of 0.5 Sv, a significant dose but divided amongst the 59 men gives an average of 8.5 mSv per man; the average annual dose for a Canadian member of the public is 2 to 3 mSv.
Professor Lundeen claimed that “Lieutenant Carter had himself lowered into the damaged reactor”, which is patently untrue – the reactor itself was very radioactive. In fact, the location of the headers was above a 2.6 m thickness of the thermal shields and biological shields, well above the reactor itself. However, there would have been significant radiation fields due to contamination and perhaps from damaged channels.
From my brief research into this topic, it appears that a contingent of 59 Americans joined the cleanup and dismantling of the damaged NRX reactor, for which I am very appreciative. Not only did they learn about a serious radiological accident firsthand, but they helped speed the restoration of NRX, which restarted a remarkable 14 months after the accident!
However, clearly the accident was well and truly over long before the Americans arrived to lend a hand; while I have a great deal of respect for the man, Jimmy Carter did not “save Ottawa”. I only wish Professor Lundeen had asked to get down from the table and find his references.
Morgan Brown is President of the Society for the Preservation of Canada’s Nuclear Heritage, Inc., and would welcome comments and firsthand knowledge of the NRX accident.