Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is being hailed as a national hero in Canada after publication of an article about an obscure 1952 incident in which a Carter-led team helped prevent the world’s first nuclear accident from becoming a much worse disaster.
A recounting of the incident appeared this month on the Facebook page of the Historical Society of Ottawa and quickly went viral across Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the country’s national broadcaster, followed up with its own version soon after.
“The Historical Society of Ottawa has been telling the great stories of the Ottawa area’s past for over 123 years,” the society’s outreach officer, Ben Weiss, told VOA. “No story, however, has resonated like this one.
“I had learned of this amazing story reading Jimmy Carter’s memoirs many years ago. Yet I had no idea my post would go viral as it did. Almost 1 million views on Facebook so far — and that many again reshared on Twitter.”
Carter, a young U.S. Navy lieutenant in 1952, was in in nearby Schenectady, New York, training to work aboard America’s first nuclear submarine at the time of the accident at a reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, just 180 km from Ottawa, the Canadian capital.
According to a Canadian government website, mechanical problems and operator error “led to overheating fuel rods and significant damage” to the core of the reactor, prompting officials to turn to the United States for help in dismantling the device.
A total of 26 Americans, including several volunteers, rushed to Chalk River to help with the hazardous job. Carter led a team of men who, after formulating a plan, descended into the highly radioactive site for 90 seconds apiece to perform specialized tasks.
Carter’s job, according to the CBC recounting, was simply to turn a single screw. But even that limited exposure carried serious risks; Carter was told that he might never be able to have children again, though in fact his daughter Amy was born years later.
For Weiss, the story and the reaction to it are a fitting tribute to Carter, who has devoted much of his post-presidency to public service but who at age 97 is in failing health.
“To learn of Carter’s ‘action hero’ exploits as a young naval officer (here in Canada of all places!) just seemed a fitting final puzzle piece to complete the story of this remarkable man’s life,” Weiss told VOA in an email exchange.
“I think many Canadians — and Americans — share a heartfelt fondness for Jimmy Carter. At least those of us of a certain generation.”
That view is shared by Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada. “The recent story of President Jimmy Carter and his heroic activity to prevent a nuclear disaster in Canada is one of many stories that tell us about one of America’s great citizens,” he said in an interview.
VOA reporter Kane Farabaugh, who has interviewed Carter more than 20 times and is researching a book on the Chalk River incident, believes the former president would be quick to deflect any credit for his role in averting a catastrophe.
“He did not do this by himself,” Farabaugh said. “He did this with a group of Navy men who were all tasked with the same job. I am sure what he would say is that he has to share the credit.”
“Let’s think about how humble Jimmy Carter is about all this,” Farabaugh added. “Nobody has really heard about this story almost 70 years past the incident. For almost 70 years, this is an event which has existed in obscurity. President Carter, when he was running for president, didn’t really discuss this. Could you imagine today?”
Robert A. Strong, author of a book on Carter’s foreign policy, attributes the surge of interest to “a kind of revival of academic and popular interest in Carter,” who was defeated in his bid for a second term as president in 1980.
“On reflection, Carter is a far better president than was recognized at the time,” said Strong, author of “Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy.”
Recent reappraisals of Carter’s presidency include an Al Jazeera article titled, “Jimmy Carter’s legacy seems to improve with age,” and PBS a report titled, “Why Jimmy Carter may be the most misunderstood president in American history.”
“What I want to remind people of, is the Jimmy Carter who we have come to respect and admire post-presidency, is the same Jimmy Carter who was in the White House,” Strong said.