Can you imagine a scenario in recent American politics where a future US President,, a qualified engineer, leads a team fighting to contain a meltdown in an early-model nuclear reactor, and where a as a part of that mission he has to be lowered into the reactor itself in order to release the radioactive water that had gathered at its base? And can you imagine a scenario where all that happened, and where it didn't feature as a key part of his election campaign?
This actually happened, in 1952, when the then 28 year old Jimmy Carter, lead a team leant by the US Navy to Canada to help in dealing with the partial meltdown of the Chalk River Nuclear Reactor.
The Chalk River reactor was built in the 1940s and seems to have initially been used as a research facility and for the production of medical isotopes. As well as producing plutonium which was shipped to the US and became part of their nuclear weapons programme. In 1952, there was an incident where the control rods could not be properly lowered into the core due to mechanical problems. This lead to the fuel rods overheating and a partial meltdown. The seal of the reactor vessel was broken, and 4,500 tons of radioactive water was released into the Ottawa river.
The US Navy were called in to help with the clean-up and head of the team given that job was 28-year old Jimmy Carter- who had qualified as an engineer a few years before and had had some training on nuclear fission. He arranged for a replica of the reactor to be built on a nearby tennis-court and had the team practise the manoeuvres that would be needed to dismantle the reactor. This involved being lowered on ropes into the reactor core wearing protective clothing, spending 90 seconds there trying to release various bolts from their housing, and then being pulled out again, hopefully before the dosage of radioactivity could do much damage. As they removed a bolt from the actual reactor, they would remove its duplicate on the tennis court and then start again until the process was complete.
Astonishingly, all of this worked and the reactor was both repaired and re-commissioned. Though not without controversy - and it's had a few other accidents since.
Apparently, radioactivity was still measurable in Carter's urine up to six months after the incident, but it clearly didn't have too serious a long-term impact because he's still thriving at 97. Which is 41 years after he failed to win re-election in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.
But this is the bit I can't understand. How did this story not feature in that campaign? How did his part in a real-life-movie-worthy event not match Reagan's past in the movies? I'm pretty sure if a recent US president who shall remain nameless had this sort of story in his past, he would have implied that he was now an actual superhero due to the magical effects of radioactivity, never mind an actual hero. We would certainly never have heard the last of it.
But I've just searched online and somebody has recently published a comic book about Carter's life and, even there, they don't seem to make a big deal about his past. Seems like a wasted opportunity to me....
This is where I came across the story:
Jeff Lundeen on Twitter: "Do you remember the world’s very first nuclear meltdown? That time the US President, an expert in nuclear physics, heroically lowered himself into the reactor and saved Ottawa, Canada’s capital? Sounds like schlocky action movie, but it actually happened! https://t.co/LtAQYC79QZ" / Twitter