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Young Jimmy Carter once averted a nuclear disaster via AV Club

Mike Vago


What it’s about: A thrilling nuclear crisis, narrowly averted by a future president, which is shockingly a real life event and not an early ’90s Harrison Ford movie. And its setting, an Ottawa research facility that ran multiple nuclear reactors from 1944 until 2018.

Strangest fact: The Queen Of England is the ultimate authority on Canadian nuclear power. In 2007, Chalk River’s National Research Universal reactor (NRU) was shut down for routine maintenance, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) decided to extend the shutdown to add more backup power systems. The only problem was, as mentioned last week, Chalk River—specifically the NRU—provides nearly all of the medical isotopes for North America, and shutting down the reactor caused a worldwide shortage.


Thing we were happiest to learn: Future president Jimmy Carter saved the day. In 1952, one of the other reactors, the NRX, underwent what’s euphemistically called a “power excursion,” and is in fact an uncontrolled chain reaction. Part of the reactor’s coolant was lost, the core was damaged, and as a result the fuel rods were overheated. The reactor melted down, a series of explosions further damaged the reactor, and 4,500 tons of radioactive water flooded the basement. The U.S. Navy sent in a 26-man rescue team, based in Schenectady, New York, led by a young Jimmy Carter. The cleanup was successful enough that within two years, the reactor was back online.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Carter’s victory over the atom was short-lived. Only six years after the NRX melted down, the NRU suffered a fuel rupture, which started a fire, overheating some fuel rods. The mechanical arm charged with pulling the uranium rods out of the reactor broke when the uranium caught fire. The rod broke and fell down into the reactor, irradiating the whole building. When the building was ventilated, the surrounding area was also contaminated. Laboratory staff put out the fire with buckets of wet sand, but the aftermath required another joint civilian-military cleanup effort. 

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