Arthur Milnes: Jimmy Carter's Exposure to Nuclear Danger

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Milnes, an award-winning Canadian journalist, is the Inaugural Fellow in Political History at Queen's University Archives in Kingston, Canada and the editor of "Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: A Canadian Tribute" (2011 McGill-Queen's University Press and the Queen's School of Policy Studies ). He can be reached at]

Though Georgia is a continent and an ocean away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, we can be confident that an 86-year-old man in that state knows full well the fears the Japanese cleanup crews are experiencing.

The Georgian's name? James Earl Carter, the 39th president of the United States. Almost 60 years ago, and then a young U.S. Naval officer working at the dawn of the nuclear age with the U.S. atomic submarine program, Carter was physically lowered into a damaged nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, and exposed to levels of radiation unthinkable today after an accident.

"We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine," President Carter, now 86, told me during an interview for my new book in Plains in 2008. "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."

Despite the fears he had to overcome, Carter admits he was animated at the opportunity to put his top-secret training to use in the cleanup of the reactor, located along the Ottawa River northwest of Ottawa....

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