This is in memory of Robert Peabody, a husband and father working a second job to support his family, assigned to a dangerous task in an unsafe workplace, poisoned by a nuclear reaction. There are lessons to learn, may we not forget them.
It’s been almost thirty years since the Three Mile Island disaster put a halt to the expansion of nuclear power in the US. Public opinion was already turning against the industry. Once promising cheap, clean electricity, the power plants in fact required massive taxpayer subsidies to build and a special exemption from liability in case the worst happened.
The worst almost happened at Three Mile Island …
Although the TMI-2 plant suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident, it did not produce the worst-case consequences that reactor experts had long feared. In a worst-case accident, the melting of nuclear fuel would lead to a breach of the walls of the containment building and release massive quantities of radiation to the environment. But this did not occur as a result of the Three Mile Island accident.
The worst-case accident occurred in 1986 at Chernobyl.
Today, a generation after the gas lines and bitter winters of the 1970’s, we’re again caught unprepared. We still depend on foreign oil and large, centralized power plants. Investment in alternative energy has been cut to a trickle since Ronald Reagan. The nuclear industry is portraying itself as a clean, green savior. Safety concerns are dismissed as a superstitious fear of radioactivity…
In more than 500 reactor years of service in the United States, there has never been a death or a serious injury to plant employees or to the public caused by a commercial reactor accident or radiation exposure. Says Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences: “Nuclear power is the safest major technology ever introduced into the United States.” link
In fact, a Rhode Island man was killed on the job by radiation exposure. In 1964 in Charlestown, Rhode Island, Robert Peabody was working the second shift at the United Nuclear waste processing plant. The training was minimal, supervision lax and written policies inadequate. Peabody, a Navy vet and mechanic, had picked up a second job to support his large family. When he came on the evening shift, no one warned him that a container full of radioactive water was more concentrated than what he usually handled. When he emptied it into a larger tank the highly concentrated sludge set off a fission reaction…
A blue glow filled the small room as the radiation charged the air with electricity. Peabody was blown flat on his back. The force of the blast also sprayed radioactive solution onto the tower ceiling, 12 feet above. Some of the volatile fluid gushed over the tank lip and onto the floor. The entire plant was instantly filled with the sound of screaming sirens.(Providence Journal, Sunday Journal Magazine ‘Chain Reaction’ 3/11/90)
[ 'Chain Reaction' is not available online free of charge. Yankee Magazine has an online article that covers the same incident, with more technical detail. This is some buried history that the Journal should re-publish.]
Two other workers who responded to the accident were exposed to a second, smaller fission reaction.
Robert Peabody was doomed in an instant, but it took him 49 hours to die. Turned away from Westerly Hospital, he was driven at top speed to Rhode Island Hospital by ambulance driver John Shibilio and placed in an isolation room. His widow attributes her cancer to the minutes she held her dying husband’s hand. Everything he touched had to be decontaminated or burned. His remains were cremated. He left nine children.
His death, and the corporate denial afterward, is an example of the weak regulation and lack of accountability that leaves workers unprotected. The danger to the public is not imaginary.
The nuclear industry likes to compare its safety record to coal. But much of the danger of coal mining is a matter of priorities. Worker safety is balanced against profit. A mine accident is a disaster for the miners and their community. A nuclear accident such as Chernobyl sends radioactive particles across national borders. Millions are unaware that they are exposed. These particles contain elements that do not degrade for many thousands of years, that accumulate in our bodies and concentrate up the food chain, capable of causing cancer and birth defects many generations after the accident.
The Peabody family was left bereft and in poverty. Robert Peabody was blamed for the accident that killed him.
EVEN AS PEABODY was admitted to the hospital, United Nuclear was working to discredit him, blaming “human error” and “ineptitude” in newspaper accounts of the accident. In addition to assuring the public that any radiation released into the atmosphere was insignificant, company officials said that Peabody had violated plant safety procedures by pouring the contents of the 11-liter “safe” bottle into the “unsafe” chemical tank. (Providence Journal 3/11/90)
No danger to the public. No blame to the corporation. They say it’s different now. Trust them.