Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality–Part I

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.

For the aftermath of the accident, see Part II.

Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality — Part II Collateral Damage

On July 24, 1964 an ambulance carrying a gravely injured man pulled up to Westerly Hospital only to be turned away in the parking lot by two doctors and a policeman. The driver, John Shibilio, set off on a desperate high-speed race across the state, bypassing South County and Kent County Hospitals to arrive at Rhode Island Hospital about thirty minutes later. There Robert Peabody was treated for radiation poisoning.

All the following quotes are from the article, Chain Reaction by Christopher Rowland, Providence Journal 3/11/90 —

Dr. Joseph Karas first heard about the accident from the emergency-ward nurse.

“There’s been a radiation explosion or something down around Westerly and they’re bringing someone in,” she told him. The ambulance arrived less than 10 minutes later.

Karas had never heard of the United Nuclear uranium processing plant, had no idea there was a radiation danger in Charlestown, and had no experience in treating radiation sickness. He just happened to be in charge of the Rhode Island Hospital emergency ward that Friday night. Except for one brief trip home, he would spend the weekend there.

…Karas cleared the emergency room halls. He also called Dr.Thomas Forsythe, the hospital’s radiologist, to distribute radiation-dose gauges for nurses and doctors. Staff members wore the lead aprons usually used by x-ray technicians, and they wrapped their feet in paper grocery sacks.

Realizing that Peabody’s skin was prickly with radiation, Karas worked fast to run water over his body. He had orderlies place Peabody on top of some plastic sheets and use a hose to wash him off. The radioactive water running off the plastic sheets was captured with towels, which were tossed into disposable bags.

The towels, blankets, sheets, pillows, clothing, gloves, masks, needles, syringes, utensils, drinking glasses, magazines, hair, body wastes — everything that came out of Peabody’s room during his last hours was placed in an unused x-ray room that was lined with lead. After the radiation levels subsided, the waste was burned.

Measurements taken when he was admitted to the hospital showed that he was emitting 40 millirems of radiation two feet above his head and upper chest, 18 millirems above his stomach, and 10 millirems above his feet.

The article goes on to describe the suffering and indignity Robert Peabody endured in the 49 hours from the accident till his death. His doctor and nurses did what they could to keep him comfortable with morphine. They allowed his wife into his room for a few minutes to hold his hand.

There is no reason for a corporation, a hospital or law enforcement to open doors when no one wants to know what is on the other side. Rhode Island Hospital — doctors, nurses, orderlies, support staff, all did an amazing job of responding to an emergency they were given no warning or preparation for. Just as in the Station Fire in 2003, the staff of RIH was there.

But this emergency was different. The hospital staff, despite radiation badges and improvised protective gear, were inevitably exposed to some level of radiation. Anyone who was near United Nuclear or Robert Peabody that night was exposed.

[Ambulance driver, John] Shibilio was checked with a Geiger counter after driving Peabody to Rhode Island Hospital, and he says the counter’s needle went to the top of the meter.

“I had never had a Geiger counter on me before,” says Shibilio. “I saw the situation with Mr. Peabody; the Geiger counter went up when it was near him. The Geiger counter went up when it was near me. I put two and two together and I felt fear.”

Doctors took his shirt and gave him a hospital smock to wear. Later that night, he was ordered to return to the United Nuclear plant, where he was swarmed by reporters battling “like a pack of ants” for information about the accident. He was then taken to University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, where the school runs a small reactor for research purposes. Technicians there gave him a cold shower and a thorough examination, telling him that he would be fine.

While he was there, the ambulance had been scrubbed out by United Nuclear employees, but Shibilio scrubbed it out on his own again anyway.

Shibilio never found out how much radiation he received. He adds that he is not blaming United Nuclear for his physical problems. “I’m just asking the question,” he says.

A manager of the United Nuclear plant contacted by the Providence Journal in 1990 had this to say–

“This was a very unfortunate accident and it’s really a shame. But industrial accidents do happen,” Gregg says. The incident does not deserve special attention “simply because it’s got the word ‘nuclear’ attached to it.”

But there is a special hazard in radioactive poisoning. Radioactivity disrupts cells and damages DNA, raising the risk of cancer and birth defects. Exposure is cumulative, each exposure adds to the damage. That’s why your x-ray technician wears a lead apron and jumps behind a barrier as you lay under the x-ray. That’s why they ask you if you might be pregnant. A diagnostic x-ray is reasonable for a patient, but letting the technician be exposed to x-rays all day would be reckless and negligent.

A number of the people mentioned in the Journal article as being near the accident have developed cancer or other serious health problems as of 1990–

John Shibilio, the ambulance driver — low white blood cell count, child with birth defects who died shortly after birth

Clifford Smith, the shift supervisor on duty the night of the accident –died of prostate cancer

Robert Mastriani, plant worker present at accident — surviving lymph gland cancer

Anna Peabody, Robert Peabody’s wife — surviving throat cancer.

Unlike another environmental hazard, lead poisoning, radiation damage cannot be measured with a blood test. The causes of cancer are many, both hereditary and environmental, and it’s seldom possible to link one person’s cancer to one specific insult.

But evidence from Hiroshima through decades of accidents and mis-handling of radioactive materials shows that a population exposed to radiation will suffer an increase in cancer. That is why a nuclear accident does deserve “special attention.”

For the nightmarish cleanup, see Part III.

UPDATE: Dr. Joseph Karas wrote about the case in the N.E. Journal of Medicine, (Karas JS, Stanbury JB. Fatal radiation syndrome from an accidental nuclear excursion. N Engl J Med 1965;272:755–61)but the article is not available for free online. A link to an article that cites Dr. Karas is here, If you scroll down a few paragraphs you will find quotes from Dr.Karas’ article and some photos of Robert Peabody in the ER at Rhode Island Hospital. May his family find consolation and justice.