Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article
By the end of Thursday night’s shift, the system had been repaired and reassembled. But because the production line had been stopped, uranium in various stages of purification had settled in tanks and pipes, as had contaminants that were part of the process, and as had the black goo. The entire line needed to be cleaned, adding to the collection of containers. By Friday afternoon there was some confusion as to which bottles held what concentrations of uranium. One bottle, containing highly concentrated material, appeared to be leaking onto the floor. And the II-liter bottles had never before been used to store such concentrated uranium in the production area.
Peabody arrived for his Friday night shift, early as usual, said hello to the security guard, Howard Coon, 43, and walked into the changing room, where he put on his working clothes. He joked with George Spencer, 33, and Robert Mastriani, 27, who, like Peabody, were plant technicians. They talked about the upcoming weekend and about the events of the last couple of days, shook their heads at all the work ahead of them. Then they reported to their supervisor, Clifford Smith, a 30-year-old chemist, who had been meeting with the facility’s superintendent, Richard Holthaus. Though the fuels recovery plant was a fairly big and highly technical operation, each shift comprised only five people: three technicians, a supervisor, and a security guard, though the superintendent was on hand during the day and at other times when the situation warranted.
Smith outlined the evening’s tasks: the usual shutdown procedures, plus sorting out and putting in their proper place all the materials left over from the week’s problem with the black goo. The men went to work.
Part of the uranium refinement procedure was to “wash” the uranium with trichloroethane – common dry-cleaning fluid. This dissolved any oils or kerosene that had contaminated the uranium scrap. But it also picked up a small amount of uranium, turning the normally clear cleaning liquid bright yellow and requiring that the solvent itself be washed. So each week the used cleaning liquid was drained into the 11-liter “safe” bottles, the same sort of bottles that now contained concentrated uranium solution. A sodium carbonate solution was added, and the bottle, weighing 35 pounds or more, was shaken vigorously. In due course the oils would float to the top, the uranium would combine with the sodium carbonate and settle to the bottom, and clear, clean trichloroethane would remain in the middle. The whole thing looked like a giant bottle of Italian salad dressing. The oil would be disposed of, typically in the incinerator; the solvent would be poured off for reuse; and the uranium compound would go back into the system for further refinement.
Shaking a 35-pound bottle for 20 minutes was no one’s idea of a good time. And there was a lot of solvent to be cleaned. But a week earlier one of the operators had had an idea: On the third floor there was a vat with a mixer attached, a stainless-steel contraption that looked like a huge malted-milk machine. Why not pour the contaminated trichloroethane into it and let the mixer do the work? The supervisor on duty at the time considered the plan and decided that as long as the material was not highly radioactive, the procedure would be safe. So they tried it on that shift, and it worked. The supervisor of another shift, hearing about it, went through the roof. It was unsafe, he said. But he was talked out of his objections.
At about 6:00 P.M. Friday, Robert Peabody went to wash the week’s trichloroethane in the mixing vat upstairs. He grabbed an 11-liter bottle filled with bright yellow liquid and carried it up the stairs to the third floor. The tag that identified the contents must have slipped out of its rubber bands — it was later found on the floor in the stairway.
The bottle did not contain trichloroethane. It contained a very high concentration of enriched uranium, drained from the system during the black goo crisis.
When Peabody reached the room with the mixer, he poured sodium carbonate solution into the vat and turned on the mixer. Then he lifted the 11-liter bottle. It was a strain, because the edge of the vat was five feet above the floor, but Peabody, though only 5’6″, was a strong man. He cradled the bottle in his left arm, using his arm as the fulcrum, and raised the bottle’s bottom with his right hand, pouring the contents into the vat. The bottle was not quite empty when something went terribly wrong.
“Oh, my God!” shouted Peabody, but his words were drowned out by the shriek of sirens going off throughout the building. Not just one alarm this time. All of them. A flash of blue light emanated from the mixing vat, which now erupted in hot, glowing liquid that splashed as high as the 12-foot ceiling. Peabody was knocked backward. He knew instantly what had happened: Somehow, the mixture in the vat had achieved criticality. Instead of a mixing machine processing solvent, he had an uncontrolled nuclear reactor.
He let go of the bottle, which slid upside down into the mixer. He ran from the room.
He was already a dead man, and he knew it.
What had happened was this: The uranium mixture had been in its safe geometry bottle, so although there was enough of the fissionable material to create a nuclear reaction, it was spread out over sufficient distance to keep a reaction from taking place. But when it was poured into the vat, 18 inches in diameter, it was physically concentrated. A reaction began instantly. Peabody was bombarded with an enormous number of neutrons as well as gamma rays.
He dashed down the stairs, yanked open the door at the bottom of the three-story tower, and ran toward the facility’s emergency shack, 450 feet away, tearing off his clothing as he ran. He had been splashed with the uranium mixture, and if there was even a slight chance of his survival, it required limiting his further exposure. The others, all of whom had been working on the first floor, were running there, too; this did not sound like another false alarm. If there was any doubt in their minds, it was dispelled by the sight of Peabody, naked and shouting, running for the shack. He fell to the ground before reaching the shack, and lay there, vomiting and beginning to bleed from his nose and ears. The others bundled him in a blanket kept in the shack. He remained on the ground, though twice he got up and walked around briefly. He felt terribly ill, sometimes confused. His belly was wracked with cramps. He spoke very little.
Clifford Smith, the plant supervisor, quickly phoned the Hope Valley Ambulance Corps. The ambulance arrived at about 7:00 P.M., loaded up the injured man, and drove to Westerly Hospital. But Westerly lacked facilities to treat radiation injuries, so they diverted to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, arriving about 7:45. George Spencer sat in the back of the ambulance with Peabody.
Company officials and the state police rushed to the plant. A state policeman was dispatched to find Anna Peabody and take her and her oldest son, Charles, to the hospital. All the officer told them was that there “had been an accident.”