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Nuclear Fatality at Wood River Junction | Yankee Classic Article

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.

Excerpt from “Incident at Wood River Junction,” Yankee Magazine, October 1994

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2 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

  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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