Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article
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.