Picking on the Jimmy Carter myth

It looks like the Wall Street Journal is realizing that offering some of its excellent content for free might help to draw in new readers. I was very encouraged yesterday to find that one of its articles turned up in one of my Google news alert summaries. I was especially pleased by the topic of the article, nuclear fuel recycling.

The article, written by John Fialka, is titled Bush Seeks to Jump-Start Nuclear Power. In the article, Mr. Fialka does a good job of describing a new initiative by the administration to fully develop the UREX+ method of nuclear fuel recycling. Unlike the PUREX process that was initially developed during WWII for the purpose of extracting pure plutonium, the UREX+ process keeps plutonium and uranium together and only separates out fission products for eventual disposal.

The resulting uranium-plutonium mixture is then available to use in manufacturing new fuel elements so that the potential energy stored in these materials can be used to provide heat and electricity. This process offers the benefits of a vastly reduced waste volume and an enhanced usage rate for mined uranium. Our current once-through cycle only uses 3-5% of the initial potential energy of its fuel, I love the idea of making that significantly higher. You can find more information about nuclear fuel recycling in the June 1995 issue of Atomic Insights.

Once again, I will share with you a letter that I wrote to the author of an article in the mainstream press. It is unlikely that this one would ever be printed, most of the time space limitations for letters to the editor force readers into a 200 word box.

Dear Mr. Fialka:
I enjoyed your story about new efforts to recycle nuclear fuel. It is definitely the right thing to do; our current once-through cycle only extracts about 3-5% of the potential energy of the initial fuel loads.

One myth correction, however. President Carter was a submarine officer, but he was not a nuclear engineer.

He graduated from the US Naval Academy in June 1946 (he entered in 1943 with the class of 1947, but his class was in a war-driven accelerated 3 year program) with an undesignated bachelor of science degree. Even if the Naval Academy had offered a majors program for his class, it is unlikely that it would have included Nuclear Engineering as a option – after all, the Manhattan Project was a dark secret for most of his time at Annapolis.

After graduation, Jimmy Carter served as a surface warfare officer for a two years and then volunteered for the submarine force. He served in a variety of billets, including engineer officer of diesel submarines and qualified to command submarines.

In November 1952, he began a three month temporary duty assignment at the Naval Reactor branch. He started nuclear power school (a six month course of study that leads to operator training) in March, 1953. In July 1953, his father passed away and he resigned his commission to run the family peanut farm. He was discharged from active duty on 9 October, 1953. According to an old friend of mine who served as Rickover’s personnel officer at Naval Reactors, LT Carter did not complete nuclear power school because of the need to take care of business at home.

The prototype for the USS Nautilus was completed in Idaho in May 1953, so LT Carter might have had some opportunity to see it in action before leaving the Navy. However, the USS Nautilus did not go to sea until January 17, 1955, so there is no possibility that he ever qualified to stand watch on a nuclear powered submarine.

He never experienced the incredible gift of being able to operate a power plant that was so clean that it could run inside a sealed submarine, so reliable that it could power that submarine even deep under the Arctic ice, and so energy dense that the submarine could operate for years without new fuel.

When I think about the 1976 campaign and the importance of the energy issue at that time, I cannot help but wonder why Jimmy Carter’s promoters made such a big deal about his nuclear expertise. My wonder turns to cynicism when I think about the policies that his administration imposed and the damage that they did to the growth of the industry just at a time when we most needed a vibrant new energy industry player.

Best regards,

Rod Adams
Editor, Atomic Insights

It is sometimes important to try to set the record straight.

About Rod Adams