After a lifetime of achievements, America’s longest living president—Jimmy Carter—is at the precipice of celebrating another milestone.
He will turn 98 on Oct. 1, and I have no doubt that numerous outlets will highlight his political career and active life in retirement—and rightly so.
The soft-spoken Carter is the first and only president from Georgia, and while historians haven’t been shy about judging his tenure in the Oval Office, his honesty and southern decency was a breath of fresh air after the scandal-ridden Richard Nixon years.
Following Carter’s presidency, he could have retreated from public service. Instead, he focused on philanthropy and built homes for those in need. And at the age of 91, the indefatigable Carter even beat brain and liver cancer. Carter boasts many laudable successes, but far too few know about one of his most riveting and dangerous exploits: helping avert a nuclear catastrophe in Ottawa, Canada.
Long before he reasonably could have had presidential aspirations, Carter joined the U.S. Navy and eventually became a lieutenant. During part of his service, Carter served in the Naval Reactors Branch of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and worked under the now-renowned Admiral Hyman Rickover, remembered as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
Carter was tasked with working in a cutting edge field: “the design and development of nuclear propulsion plants for naval vessels.” Nuclear technology was relatively new and few had practical knowledge of nuclear reactors, but Carter’s time in the Navy with Rickover meant that the future president enjoyed a rare expertise in this area. Carter’s experience quickly became important to not only the United States, but also Canada.
“At 3:07 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12, 1952, the National Research Experimental nuclear reactor [in Ottawa, Canada], then the most powerful research reactor on Earth, raced out of control, rapidly overheated and exploded, destroying the reactor core and spewing radioactive gases and debris into the atmosphere,” reports the Ottawa Citizen.
The situation was dire. The core had suffered a partial meltdown and the reactor was flooded with radioactive water, and it desperately needed to be cleaned and disassembled. As a result, the Canadians looked to the U.S. for help, and the 28-year-old Carter was given the tedious and very dangerous job.
“I was one of the few people in the world who had clearance to go into a nuclear power plant,” Carter told CNN in 2008. Given his training and experience, he was put in charge of a team of 23 specialists to address the meltdown.
In order to prepare for the operation, an exact replica of the nuclear reactor—sans the radioactive material—was built on a tennis court in Ontario. It was there that Carter and his fellow team-members practiced on the faux reactor until they were ready to tackle their objective. “We all went out 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,” Carter said, and the practice paid off.
Sometime after, the real work began on the damaged reactor. “Carter and his team members were separated into groups 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,” according to Military.com.
Knowledge of radiation exposure, however, was limited compared to what we know today, and it turns out that Carter and his team were exposed to far more radiation than is considered even remotely safe. “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 admitted, but they soon learned about the massive radiation doses he absorbed. “For about six months after that,” Carter remarked, “I had radioactivity in my urine.”
By knowingly exposing themselves to real danger, Carter and his team braved a virtually invisible foe, and did so with great aplomb. In fact, they successfully cleaned the site, and within two years, the nuclear reactor was back in service and remained active until 1993.
Carter wasn’t fated to be a career military man, but he had a bright future nonetheless. While there are diverging opinions on his legacy, the public shouldn’t overlook his brave, selfless exploits when he helped avert a nuclear calamity.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.