Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article
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.
Over the next few years a number of other United Nuclear Corporation plants would close, the one in Pawling, New York, following an explosion involving deadly plutonium. Eventually, the company divested itself of all its nuclear businesses and changed its name to UNC. There are currently no nuclear fuels reprocessing plants in New England. Wood River Junction closed in 1980 — one year after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania galvanized public opposition to nuclear power.
The site has been considered for a number of development projects, but UNC cannot sell the land until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the federal agency that succeeded the Atomic Energy Commission) grants its request for a “termination of license,” which certifies that the site is free from contamination and safe to use. The plant is now a guarded shell, eerie as a tomb, its robin’s-egg-blue paint peeling off in sheets the size of dinner plates.
Ironically, the incident at Wood River Junction may say more about the safety record of the nuclear industry than about its failings. The physicians who attended the agonizing death of Robert Peabody published a paper about his case in The New England Journal of Medicine in April 1965. It began with this confident assertion: “The acute radiation syndrome will almost surely be encountered from time to time as accidents occur in the rapidly expanding nuclear industry.”
As it turned out, they were wrong on both counts. Since the late seventies, the growth of the nuclear industry has come to a virtual halt, due to declining oil prices, exploding construction costs, and concerns about safety. And according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Robert Peabody was the U.S. nuclear industry’s first and last fatality due to acute radiation syndrome.
This is a Yankee Magazine Classic Article from October, 1994.