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Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article

Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article
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An empty factory in Rhode Island. An angry widow. A radioactive wedding ring. These are pieces of a 50-year-old puzzle — the tragic story of New England’s only known nuclear fatality.

Robert Peabody had never been so glad it was Friday.

Not that the weekend would be especially restful; weekends seldom are when you have nine children, the oldest nearly 16, the youngest six months. Two would have birthdays in the next week. Today he had taken some time off to go grocery shopping with Anna, his wife of 17 years. The dozen shopping bags they brought back to their house in Charlestown, Rhode Island, had been full of birthday trimmings.

Or so he mused as he started his car the afternoon of July 24, 1964, for the five-minute drive to the United Nuclear Corporation Fuels Recovery Plant at nearby Wood River Junction. At 37, Peabody was a production operator at the plant. Located in the middle of a 1,200-acre tract nestled in an elbow of the Narragansett Trail, bisected by the main line of the New Haven Railroad and bordering the Pawcatuck River, the plant was a quiet, guarded, slightly mysterious place. United Nuclear had several plants, including ones in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, and White Plains, New York, and rural ones such as the Wood River Junction installation, a similar facility in Hematite, Missouri, and a research lab, complete with reactor, in Pawling, New York.

The plant where Peabody worked used the latest technology. What it was designed to do was simple enough: Take uranium scrap, either spent fuel rods from reactors or the dross from manufacturing, dissolve it in acid, and pass it through a series of processes to recover the enriched uranium it contained. There was no nuclear reactor  all the processes were purely chemical and perfectly straightforward. The place would have been unremarkable save for the fact that it handled uranium, which during even nonnuclear handling is dangerous. Opened only four months earlier, it had not yet actually processed any solid uranium scrap, but was operating on uranium-Iaden liquids called “pickle liquor.”

He had chosen the evening shift so that he would be free during the day for a second job as an auto mechanic. Peabody was a technician, not an engineer or a scientist, meaning that his training consisted of instruction in performing tasks rather than in understanding them. He had spent years in or near the nuclear industry, at the Electric Boat Shipyard in nearby Groton, Connecticut, and with Electric Boat’s nuclear propulsion division in Idaho. And in 1964, he figured, there were two places to be: the space program or the nuclear industry. Of the two, the nuclear industry offered the most promise. It would enable him to make a better life for his family. It would make life better for everyone. One needed only to drive the four hours to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York to see that.

But this week had been a nightmare. On Wednesday, Peabody had been washing equipment on the second floor when a radiation alarm sounded. He and the four others who worked with him on the four-to-midnight shift ran from the building. When none of the several other alarms in the plant went off, and when measuring devices detected no radioactivity, they returned to the building. Water had splashed on the alarm’s electrical contacts, shorting them. Still, it had been quite a scare.

That had been the day, too, when the black goo began appearing near the end of the processing line. It seemed to be some sort of organic compound, but nobody knew quite what it was or where it was coming from. The plant was made up of a series of tanks, long, columnar tubes where materials could be viewed and separated, and evaporating beds, all connected by pipes. When everything was running as it should, the place operated like a factory, with material moving from step to step, growing purer with each new procedure, waste materials drained off at several points along the way. At the end of the line would emerge uranium “rust,” which could be made into nuclear fuel.

The black goo was not part of the plan. By the start of Thursday’s overnight shift, the problem had gotten so bad that some equipment had to be shut down and disassembled for cleaning.

The result was a motley collection of containers, each holding an item or substance that was to some degree radioactive. The covered buckets containing rags and low-level waste were of no particular concern. But there were identical plastic bottles, some filled with highly concentrated uranium solution and some filled with very weak solution. They were labeled as to their contents, but the labels did not adhere well to the bottles, so they were held in place with rubber bands, which themselves were subject to deterioration because of exposure to solvents.

The bottles were of a kind common to the nuclear industry. Called “safe geometry” bottles, they were designed to take advantage of the fact that uranium needs to be physically compact for a nuclear reaction to take place. The shape of these 11-liter bottles, five inches in diameter, and almost four feet long, ensured that even high concentrations would not “go critical” because of the distance between the material at the top of the bottle and the material at the bottom. Of course, the bottles needed to be kept some distance apart, lest the contents of several bottles react, for atomic particles go through plastic as if it were not there at all. Special racks maintained a safe separation.

Were such a highly concentrated uranium solution poured into, say, a large bucket, the uranium atoms would all be closer to each other, producing an uncontrolled atomic reaction called a “nuclear excursion.” The phrase brings to mind happier thoughts, perhaps of the USS Nautilus passing under the polar ice cap or one of the early voyages of the atom-powered Savannah  but several workers at the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge nuclear laboratories had been killed as a result of nuclear excursions.

Consequently, even in 1964 there were tight controls on the handling of radioactive material. Not only did the machines at Wood River Junction have to be carefully drained before disassembly, with the drained liquid and solids accounted for and stored, but even the shop rags needed special treatment. This made even simple repairs long, drawn-out affairs. And this did not appear to be a simple repair.

Workers tended to think of those controls as red tape that hindered their getting at the task at hand. And to make matters worse, nobody was sure what to do about the black goo. While the operating manual dealt with everything that took place during normal operations, it didn’t allow for contingencies such as the appearance of unknown substances in the production line. The workers had to make up procedures as they went along, keeping in mind that the company, or the Atomic Energy Commission, might second-guess them later. Changes in procedure were supposed to be approved by the company’s operations control manager, but he was in Missouri and had not visited Wood River Junction since the plant opened.

Updated Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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4 Responses to Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article

  1. jahn peabody April 10, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    this is my grandfather

    • Tracy Jo Klatke Anctil May 30, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

      Soooooo very sorry to know of this horrible tragedy and your loss. I just found out about this today. Tracy in Escoheag, RI

    • Tracy Jo Klatke Anctil May 30, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

      This story made my husband cry…

  2. Peter Melzer November 13, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    After reading the Yankee Magazine story, a similar prompt criticality accident that occurred in Japan in 1999 comes to mind:
    I quote from this report:

    “The accident was classified by the Japanese authorities as Level 4 on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)*, indicating an event without significant off-site risk. It was essentially an ‘irradiation’ accident, not a ‘contamination’ accident, as it did not result in any significant release of radioactive materials.”

    But read further:

    “The three workers concerned were hospitalised, two in a critical condition. One died 12 weeks later, another 7 months later. The three had apparently received full-body radiation doses of 16-20,000, 6-10,000 and 1-5000 millisieverts (about 8000 mSv is normally a fatal dose), mainly from neutrons. Another 24 JCO workers received up to 48 mSv. Doses for 436 people were evaluated, 140 based on measurement and 296 on estimated values. None exceeded 50 mSv (the maximum allowable annual dose), though 56 plant workers exposed accidentally ranged up to 23 mSv and a further 21 workers received elevated doses when draining the precipitation tank. Seven workers immediately outside the plant received doses estimated at 6 – 15 mSv (combined neutron and gamma effects). For members of the public, estimates are that one received 24 mSv, four 10-15 mSv, and 15 received 5-10 mSv.
    The peak radiation level 90 metres away just outside the nearest site boundary was 0.84 mSv/hr of gamma radiation, but no neutron levels were measured at that stage. The gamma reading then dropped to about half that level after nine hours at which stage 4.5 mSv/hr of neutron radiation was measured there, falling to about 3 mSv/hr after a further two hours, and then both readings falling to zero (or background for gamma) at 20 hours from the start of the criticality.

    Neutron dose rates within one kilometre are assumed to be up to ten times the measured gamma rates. Based on activation products in coins from houses near the plant boundary and about 100 m from the reaction, it was estimated that some 100 mSv of neutron radiation would have been received by any occupants over the full period of the criticality. However, the evacuation of everyone within 350 metres of the plant had been ordered 5 hours after the start of the accident. The final report on the accident said that the maximum measured dose to the general public (including local residents) was 16 mSv, and the maximum estimated dose 21 mSv.
    While 160 TBq of noble gases and 2 TBq of gaseous iodine were apparently released, little escaped from the building itself. After the criticality had been terminated and shielding was emplaced, radiation levels beyond the JCO site returned to normal.

    Only trace levels of radionuclides were detected in the area soon after the accident, and these were short-lived ones. Products from the area would have been as normal, and entirely safe throughout. Radiation levels measured by the IAEA team in residential areas in mid October were at the normal background levels. Measurement of I-131 in soils and vegetation outside the plant showed them to be well under levels of concern for food.”

    The buildings at Nuclear Lake were in all likelihood less sealed than the facilities in Japan. Large quantities of radioactive gases may have been released directly into the environment during the criticality. Residents nearby were not evacuated and may have been exposed to greater doses.

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