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Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article

Back at the plant, it wasn’t clear whether the nuclear reaction was still taking place. Someone would have to go inside and find out. At about 7:15 P.M., the superintendent, Richard Holthaus, entered the building. He carried radiation measuring equipment and was able to determine that the first floor was relatively safe. He went back in a few minutes later with supervisor Smith. At about 7:45, the pair went into the building for a third time, determined to do whatever was necessary to end any reaction that continued.

As they reached the third-floor room containing the mixer, they saw the bottle resting in the still-operating mixer, the yellow liquid splattered over the walls, ceiling, and floor. Radiation detectors suggested that the room could be entered briefly. Holthaus strode in quickly and flipped off the mixer, then rushed out of the room.

Good thing. The reaction had stopped because about 20 percent of the liquid had splashed out of the tank, and the mixer had spun the remainder around the sides of the vat, spreading it sufficiently to make it subcritical. But when the mixer was switched off, the liquid settled, and a second, less violent nuclear reaction took place. Fortunately, the settling took long enough that Holthaus was out of the room and shielded by a foot-thick concrete block wall by the time it commenced. It lasted only a few seconds; the liquid quickly boiled, and the bubbles created were enough to end the criticality.

During the next half hour Smith and Holthaus drained the vat into small bottles, eliminating the chance of further “nuclear excursions.” Later investigations would determine that they had received high, though not immediately life-threatening, doses of radiation. The silver coins they carried in their pockets were now radioactive.

As was the wedding ring of Robert Peabody. As was, in fact, Robert Peabody himself.

When Anna and Chickie, as their son Charles was called, arrived at the hospital, they were allowed to enter the specially isolated emergency room that had been hastily prepared for Peabody. After they had been with him for a few minutes, they were cautioned by a physician to stay near the foot of the bed, rather than stand near his upper body.

Peabody was conscious and lucid. He was also restless, so he was given a sedative. “Somebody put a bottle of uranium where it wasn’t supposed to be,” he told his anguished wife and son. This point would later be disputed by the company, but federal authorities were never able to firmly establish who was at fault. And the testimony of Peabody would not be available.

In the hours following his admission to the hospital, he seemed to recover a little from the shock. But by Sunday morning it was evident that his body was shutting down, dying at the cellular level. There were none of the secondary symptoms often associated with radiation exposure  loss of hair, blindness  because they did not have time to kick in. He had been bombarded with neutrons, just as if he’d been near a neutron bomb, the devices that kill people but leave buildings intact.

There was no real treatment at the time for radiation exposure; indeed, there is none today. The best doctors could do was treat the irradiated man’s symptoms. He continued to vomit and experience cramps. His left hand, which had been directly exposed to the reaction, began to swell. It was necessary to saw off his wedding ring, over his objections. His blood pressure dropped. Sunday afternoon, he slipped into a coma. He died on Sunday night, 49 hours after the accident. His family had not been allowed to see him since early Saturday.

Calculations based on analysis of his gold wedding ring and on tissue samples showed that he had received more than 700 rems of radiation, the equivalent of 700,000 chest Xrays; anything above 350 rems is always fatal. Robert Peabody had been exposed to more radiation than anyone outside of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Weeks later, Anna Peabody was given what she was told were her husband’s ashes. She did not then and does not now believe they were his ashes. They were not even slightly radioactive. The family believes that his body is stored away in some laboratory somewhere, and though they understand how this might have been necessary, they are angry at what they believe to be an attempt to mislead them.

They remain angry, 30 years later, over what they see as shabby treatment. A month after the accident, Anna Peabody received her husband’s last paycheck from United Nuclear Corporation. It was accompanied by a letter full of legalisms, but not a word of sympathy. It was almost as if he had been fired. The family received sympathetic telegrams from Governor John Chafee and President Lyndon Johnson. Later, a puzzling certificate arrived, signed by the president, praising Peabody for having died in his country’s military service. Robert Peabody had not been in the service for 20 years.

A lawsuit was brought and settled; Anna Peabody’s portion of the settlement was $22,000  a considerable sum in 1964, when a new Oldsmobile cost less than $3,500, but very little with which to raise nine children. The family got by on Peabody’s Social Security survivors’ benefits, and Anna is proud of the fact that all nine children graduated from high school. She remains bitter over the incident, though, in no small measure because of the throat cancer she suffered in 1985. She believes that it may have resulted from the time she spent with her dying, radioactive husband, whom she continues to mourn.

Detailed follow-up records of the other Wood River Junction workers who had been exposed to significant radiation were not kept; they were not required at the time. The Atomic Energy Commission eventually charged United Nuclear Corporation with 14 violations of nuclear safety regulations, eight directly involved in the accident; but no fines were ever levied.

Though the story received considerable attention at the time, it was quickly forgotten. In1964 Robert Peabody’s death was seen as an industrial accident  a particularly horrible one, but nothing to trigger any wider alarm. Neighbors of the Wood River Junction plant told reporters they had no plans to move away and expressed continued faith in the bright promise of nuclear energy. After decontamination, the plant reopened in February 1965 and went back to reprocessing uranium.

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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