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.