Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States and his presidency was not exactly remembered fondly. During his four years, inflation and unemployment ran into double digits, gas prices went to nearly $3 a gallon in today’s prices and 52 Americans were held hostage by Iran for more than fourteen months. Less well known is that President Carter was a submarine officer in the United States Navy before serving as a Governor of Georgia and later as president.  Incredibly, he was once lowered down into a nuclear reactor that made his urine radioactive for six months.

Jimmy Carter In the Navy

James Earl Carter Jr. was born in Plains, Georgia, at the Wise Sanitarium, now called Lillian G. Carter Nursing Center, after his mom, who was a nurse there at that time. His father served as a reserve second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps during World War I before becoming a successful local businessman who owned a general store and was also a farmland investor. As a teenager, he was given his own acre of farmland where he grew, packed, and sold peanuts, one of the reasons he was often referred to as “the peanut farmer from Georgia” during his 1975 presidential campaign.

Midshipman James Earl Carter Jr., photographed at Merin Studios, date unknown. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Carter had always wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, and so after attending the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1942, he earned admission to the Naval Academy the following year and was later commissioned an Ensign. From 1946 to 1953, he and his wife Rosalynn lived in different places— Virginia, Hawaii, Connecticut, New York, and California while he was deployed in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. By 1948, he was already training as an officer for submarine duty serving aboard USS Pomfret.

Navy’s Budding Nuclear Submarine Program

Carter joined the Navy’s new nuclear submarine program in 1952. He was, at that time, already a lieutenant junior grade. The program was led by Captain Hyman Rickover, who was known for his sky-high standards both for his men and the machines. Rickover insisted that he personally interview and approve every single naval officer that aspired to be a reactor officer, and those interviews would make or break the careers of many of them. He sent Carter to the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C., for three-months temporary duty.

Chalk River Laboratories, run by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, near Chalk River, Ontario, Canada. (I, Padraic RyanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Problems with the reactors soon emerged. On December 12, 1952, an accident with the NRX reactor located at the Chalk River Laboratories in Canada caused a partial meltdown that resulted in over a million gallons of radioactive water flooding the building’s basement. The reactor’s core was ruined and had to be shut down, so Carter was sent there to lead a maintenance crew of American and Canadian service people. As reported by Ottawa Citizen, “the National Research Experimental nuclear reactor, 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.”

Unaware of The Risks

During that period, people were already aware of the dangers of nuclear exposure. However, they were not certain yet about the specific duration and amount of radiation needed to pose a risk on someone. Because of that, Carter got a dose that’s extremely higher than what we now know is unsafe.

Before actually being lowered down, they practiced on a tennis court what exactly they had to do: they would sprint on and off to loosen the bolts before exiting, the whole thing done in a matter of seconds to minimize their exposure. As practiced, they were painstakingly lowered down individually into the reactor, did as they practiced, and then went to exit. The mission was a success, and the plant was able to resume operations without anyone being hurt… or so we thought.

As Carter recalled in a CNN interview with Arthur Milnes back in 2008,