The Time Jimmy Carter Was Lowered into a Nuclear Reactor—And Then Peed Radioactive Urine

Jimmy Carter in 2018.
Jimmy Carter in 2018. / Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There are many remarkable facets to the life of Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, but the fact that he once had measurable levels of radioactive urine has to be near the top of the list.

In 1952, Carter was in the Navy and had been trained to work in the government's atomic energy program. As part of his duties, he was instructed to lower himself into a nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario. The reactor, which had been damaged, needed to be cleaned up, and Carter was part of a team dispatched to get the job done.

While the perils of nuclear exposure were known at the time, the risk owing to the duration and amount of that exposure was still being studied. As a result, Carter got a dose that would be unimaginable today.

“We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine,” Carter told author Arthur Milnes 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.”

The Chalk River power plant suffered a meltdown after a power surge, leading to radioactive water pooling in the basement. Carter led the team of Americans and Canadians to address the issue; they practiced on a tennis court, sprinting on and off to loosen bolts before exiting in a matter of seconds. The mission was successful and the plant was able to resume operations.

The experience was thought to have shaped Carter’s views on nuclear warfare while in office: His approach was a conservative one. He also made sure his vice president, Walter Mondale, was fully informed on nuclear protocols in case he had to relinquish his presidential duties.

Aside from the radioactive urine, it’s not known whether Carter suffered any lasting effects from the exposure. But it doesn’t seem to have impacted his life span: At age 97, he’s been active with the housing development Habitat for Humanity, pausing only for pandemic-related concerns in 2020 and 2021.

[h/t CNN]