Jimmy Carter and the NRX Accident – How Legends Grow

Recently, there’s been some social media and news articles about former US president Jimmy Carter’s involvement in the clean-up following the NRX accident which occurred in December of 1952. Some of the facts surrounding this event have been exaggerated or misrepresented, so our President Morgan Brown wrote the following article for the North Renfrew Times to clear up the details.

By Morgan Brown

When I was a child, we had really interesting discussions around the supper table: history, science, politics, etc. After supper, my father and oldest sister would continue the discussion over the washing up, my father waving the dish mop to emphasize a point. My other sister and I were encouraged to participate; we were allowed to leave the table before supper was finished, but only to 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, within my own work or for the claims of others.

Midshipman Jimmy Carter (photo: America’s Navy)

On Dec 14 2021, two days after the 69th anniversary of the NRX accident at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories (CRNL), an Ottawa Historical Society Facebook post 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, from U of Ottawa physics professor Jeff Lundeen, is repeated on several websites, 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.” (This is verbatim – 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 long been interested in nuclear reactors, both professionally and as an amateur historian. Part of my work includes studying the NRX accident of 1952 December 12, which was 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 Reactor in 1955 (following post-accident refurbishment). Photo courtesy of AECL.

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 was over within 60 s, but the damage was done; 22 of 184 fuel rods had ruptured, releasing fission products into the reactor. Some rods melted (a partial meltdown) and damaged the calandria vessel. Cooling water had to be maintained to remove the 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 a ‘severe reactor 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. Soon after, Canadian armed forces personnel joined the cleanup but, as Kim Krenz wrote in his book Deep Waters, “the work was done mainly by AECL Operations”.

The US Navy (USN), US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) and US Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories (USNRDL) were invited to send 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 Hyman Rickover wanted the program resumed quickly, so it is no wonder that personnel were sent to help in early 1953. Interestingly, the Society for the Preservation of Canada’s Nuclear Heritage have a Friden calculating machine marked “US Navy Property” [NRT 2019 July 17].

One source indicates a total of about 340 external workers worked with 850 AECL staff (about 150 US military, 170 Canadian military, and 20 contractors). 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”, believed from the late 1970s. The document rings true, but 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 group of 59 American men from the USNRDL, the Electric Boat Division (General Dynamics), Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL, Westinghouse) and the USAEC in Idaho.

Amongst the US personnel was 28-year-old lieutenant James Earl Carter Jr (KAPL). He was the officer-in-charge of 12 men, 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 about 0.5 Sv, a significant dose but divided amongst the 59 men gives an average of 8.5 mSv each; 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 and inaccessible. 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 from damaged channels.

From my brief research into this topic, it appears that a contingent of American civilians and servicemen joined the cleanup and dismantling of the damaged NRX reactor, for which I am very grateful. 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, the accident was over within a few minutes, long before the Americans arrived to lend a hand.

While I have a great deal of respect for Jimmy Carter, he did not “save Ottawa”. I only wish Professor Lundeen had asked to leave the table to 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.