Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article
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.
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.