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.
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.