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.

32 thoughts on “Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality–Part I

  1. Nancy-I’m interested to know how his wife could develope cancer from holding his hand after he was passively exposed to ionizing radiation.I speak from experience,as in 1981 I received 4800 rads of cobalt therapy over a 7 week period for lymphoma.I was told in no uncertain terms that being exposed to the radiation did not make me radioactive and I posed no danger to my family.
    I know that when my father in law needed radioactive implants a few years ago for prostate cancer he was told to avoid contact with pregnant women and children for 3 months until the isotopes were diminished to a safe level.So there is a real difference between just being exposed and having a radiation source inside your body.
    Naturally the smartasses I worked with made the standard “glow in the dark” jokes.
    If you wnt your hair to stand on end,check out some of the substandard nuclear installations in places like Bulgaria and other former Iron Curtain pleasure spots.Of course they burn lignite to produce electricity which may be worse for the environment than radiation.In the US we could never burn lignite(“brown coal”)-the lowest grade coal used was bituminous.

    1. i am anna peabodys grandaughter,she never had cancer,she had more then 6 unrelated tumers,the last one being a brain tumer the one that took her life,and the abulence drivers and some nursing staff agree they have lingering affects from that day,the ones who are still alive.there is no way to decontaminate after a accident like this.they let that woman hold his hand while they wore chem suits and his body shut down all organs ,they removed his radioactive wedding back for testing tho he for them not to,they then sent anna home to her nine children,later the next morning she recieved a call,stating her husband died dont bother coming he has been cremated,anna never believed the ashes that sat in her closet for 40 odd years befofe her death where her husband.

      1. Cynthia, I’m sorry for your loss. I am the oldest of seven children, and I think of Robert and Anna Peabody who worked so hard to provide for their children, just like my parents did. Thank you for mentioning the ambulance drivers and hospital staff. Only RI Hospital stepped up to handle that emergency. I hope this history will not be forgotten, that we will learn from it, and I wish your family the best.

      2. Hello Anna, I am Nathan Peabody. I am Donald’s youngest son. My father was his oldest brother.

    2. Joe, the nature of the accident meant that it was more than exposure to radiation, it was a whole-room splattering of boiling-hot semi-critical uranium mixed with baking soda.

      My guess is that the situation wasn’t handled properly at all. Mr Peabody should have never been allowed to leave that room until he was at least hosed-off, and the hospital should have done all that they could on-site, instead of taking a guy caked in radioactive particles for a forty minute ride to a crowded hospital.

      That said… I think claiming tertiary exposure from driving the ambulance, etc. is a bit of a long shot, unless they responded with bare hands or were otherwise exposed.

      The big lessons from this accident:

      1. Everyone working at a nuclear facility should have at least a basic understanding of the properties of the stuff they are working with. There should be regular safety drills and tests of employee readiness.

      2. This also goes for anyone who is a potential first-responder to a nuclear site. Ideally, nuclear sites would be more ‘clustered’ (fuel reprocessing and waste storage located within a few miles of several plants) so there can be a crack team of specially-trained first responders, with special equipment.

      3. Industrial processes in nuclear (or any other) facilities need to be constantly improved. Automation, color-coding, keyed containers, clear instructions and labeling, buddy-system double confirmation of mixing, etc. are all great ways to keep stupid accidents like this from happening.

      1. reading the accounts of the conditions at Fukushima, I am struck by how many of the same elements of carelessness and disregard are making a disaster even worse, and how little effort is being made to protect the workers.
        I think that nuclear is too toxic to be an answer to our energy problems,but there’s no doubt it could be safer for workers and the public than it is now? So why are reasonable precautions not taken? Greed, carelessness and complacency can’t be engineered out of human nature.

    3. I grew up a mile down the road from the site in the late 80’s into the 90’s on kings factory rd I’ve always wondered about and lingering effects on the immediate area. I find the whole thing kind or eerie as it was never mentioned in school or in local history kind of hidden and forgotten. Could there be effects of living near the site 20+ years after the incident? I have been to the end of the road where the big chain link gate is. Very Erie

  2. the Journal article says that Robert Peabody was splashed with radioactive water. geiger counter readings in the area of the accident were high, and readings of his body in the emergency room were also high. all the hospital workers who cared for him wore protective gear. the medical waste was kept in a lead-lined room until it was safe to burn it.
    the problem with radiation is that it’s difficult to tell if an individual got cancer as a result of exposure. there are many carcinogens in the environment. it can be seen in epidemiological studies, such as the elevated rate of thyroid cancer in people in the path of the discharge from Chernobyl.

  3. Oh-I get it now-he had radioactive material still on him in the form of water on his skin and clothing..That would be a lot different than just receiving focused beam radiation.
    Isn’t it strange that some cancer cures like radiation or chemotherapy agents like adriamycin or mustargen are considered carcinogenic themselves?

  4. i don’t want to forget to congratulate and wish you well in your recovery. in the Civil War a young nurse named Louisa May Alcott got typhus. using the best available medical treatment at the time, the doctor dosed her up with mercury till she was almost dead. she lived with pain and disability for the rest of her life.
    i think where we are in cancer treatment is taking desperate measures to save lives. radiation and chemotherapy kill rapidly dividing cells. basically, they kill cancer faster than they do normal cells. given the choice between cancer and radiation therapy, i’d take my chances with the radiation and be grateful that it works so often and gives people a fighting chance at recovery.
    but when we discover something better we will look back on the old treatments and shudder.

  5. Thanks.I am in the midst of a go around with a different cancer now-tongue cancer-it is very persistent and I’m having an operation at the VA next week-it’ll be my fourth since October(plus a cataract job)-so far I’ve survived three separate occurences of cancer,polio(1953)diabetes,two run ins with pneumonia,celiac as a child,2 stents in my right coronary artery and a few lesser ilnesses.I must be a cockroach or something.
    The radiation therapy for the lymphoma was not too bad because it was all below the diaphragm and I ndidn’t require chemo.
    Radiation for oral cancer is by the accounts of at least three doctors who treated me,the last resort and a very destructive option that many patients cannot complete.
    I got the lymphoma and early onset diabetes(and its complications)from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.So because I am 50% or more disabled I get all the medical treatment and drugs I need free of charge.Not too shabby,because the medical people at the VA are the best you’d want to meet.

  6. Louisa May Alcott got some tough treatment,but my grandad told me a real medical horror story-he was aabout 5 years old and lived in the western Ukraine and he got bitten on the leg by a rabid dog(about 1893 or so)no vaccine was available where he lived,so it was off to the blacksmith’s and having a red hot bar stuck into the wound-the cauterization worked,but till his dying day(in his 90’s)his leg had a large purplish lump that looked really bad-not surprisingly he was kind of a hard character.

  7. wow. kind of a parellel situation. like rabies is so bad that a severe burn is the better choice, cancer is so bad that radiation and chemotherapy offer better survival odds. I’m sorry all this is happening to you. a relative of mine is surviving tongue cancer and so far managing better than his doctors expected. he’s also a military vet, tough guy.
    i worked in a nursing home and met a patient with vasculitis. he was suffering terribly. he was a vietnam vet who was exposed to agent orange. have you ever heard of a connection between agent orange and vasculitis?
    dioxin poisoning would be a good subject for a post, it’s another kind of toxin that stays in the environment for a long time and afflicts future generations.

  8. I had never heard of vasculitis-I just looked it up.It is not one of the eleven “presumptive” diseases linked to Agent Orange.A”presumptive”disease is one,that if you have it and served in Vietnam the VA will presume it was initited by Agent Orange exposure.Obviously a lot of people get these ilnesses who were never there,but it is a matter of frequency and age of onset that makes the determination.Diabetes,for instance-about 300,000 Vietnem had an early onset of diabetes without a lot of predisposing factors-I was 43 and not overweight when I was diagnosed.I am Type 2,which is the type associated with the diioxin exposure,but have been on insulin for almost 20 years.Good thing too,because I have had few complications,except for CAD,which is kind of unavoidable. Hodgkins Lymphoma is a pretty rare disease except among Vietnam veterans-I got it when I was 34,and it was a real surprise,because I seemed to be in good health and all of a sudden this came up.The government suppressed the connection between Agent Orange and disease for 13 years.The late Jesse Brown,VA Secretary under Clinton(his BEST appointment)cut through all the BS and started the government taking responsibility for what they did.Ironically, he himself died of Agent Orange related cancer.
    The government is already complicit in covering up Gulf War syndrome,and I wonder how they will screw over veterans of this war.I am a life member of the DAV,which is a basically non-political veterans organization supporting the disabled vets of all conflicts.

  9. Here’s a link to an “unpatented” Canadian cure for cancer.

    link to article

    Also, there was a recent “60 Minutes” segment on how a lay person suffering from a form of cancer discovered an unusual non-toxic cancer treatment now under development which is based on the use of radio waves of a certain frequency to heat up and kill the cancer cells without affecting healthy tissue. This type of treatment closely parallels cancer cures in Germany that inject certain substances into the body that are attracted only to cancer cells followed by bathing the body in non-toxic radio waves which heat and kill the cancer cells. There are at least six such clinics using this therapy to cure cancer patients in Germany, at a lower cost than here.

    There are cures out there but not readily available in this country because of “Big Pharma’s” stranglehold on the education and practice of our medical profession.

    Then there was Royal Raymond Rife, a brilliant scientist from San Diego who cured 16 terminal cancer patients there 75 years ago with frequency-specific radio waves. He was initially lauded by the local medical society and subsequently hounded and destroyed by a corrupt AMA who persecuted any physicians who dared to use his technology. Read all about it in a book by Barry Lynes, “The Cure for all Cancer”

  10. I saw that 60 Minutes – Radio waves for cancer and the nano dust that is injected tothe spot and then zapped. Pretty amazing and they said in the next 5 years it “should be” available. It won’t. I know big Pharma won’t let that fly.

    Unfortunely, this is the same concept as gas…we have had types of gas that will run hundreds of miles to the gallon(s), but the Oil companies buy all the patents. It’s not about preservation of society and the earth…it’s about a bunch of pigs at the top.

    Silkwood…Erin Brockovitch…fine examples of the toxic violators.

    When I lived in Massachusetts, I recall a Boston Edison (“BE”)worker that was a father to many kids was blown up in a manhole. He was on the critical list. My boyfriend at the time was close friends with him and said BE tried to say he didn’t follow protocal and they were trying to discredit this man of over 10 years with the company and father and husband. He died and the widow had to take them to court because BE denied medical due to “not following protocal”. Absolutely disgusting. I recall here in RI 3 years ago some Utility Worker was up and was electrocuted and it was almost the same scenario.

  11. The utility worker who was electrocuted three years ago was the son of a former co-worker of mine.He was a nice man and his death was devastating to his family,as you would imagine.

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  13. So instead of accepting an industry with a rapidly improving safety record (modern reactors are something like 1,600 times safer than the old boiling water reactors that we built in the 1970s) that has potential to severely pollute tiny areas, we’ll all just breathe mildly polluted air from coal power our whole lives.

    I live downwind from a coal plant, I have a white house. It’s freakish to see how much soot ends up on the windows and siding. It’s in my lungs now, too. I’d rather live next door to an AP1000.

  14. I appreciate this perceptive on the incident. There are some files floating around the internet that you can find that detail the investigation of the event, but there are not many news articles that discuss it. It is very interesting to see how it has been erased from history, and how an untrained, innocent worker was blamed for this. I find it very very interesting how the United Nuclear Corporation has ZERO ties to the location, which is very easy to find on a map (google Wood River Junction and find the eerie bald patch of land.) Also, the land is now part of a nature preserve, the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve. Sounds very sketchy to me. I don’t like this whole incident. I wish this was more common knowledge.

    1. I grew up about 2.5 miles from this location on Kings factory road. This was in the late 80’s early 90’s. You can’t find too much information at all on the incident. I do remember the big chain long fence with barbed wire on top and there was always a cop sitting down the end of the access road by the main gate for years. I’ve tried finding information over the years but it’s very limited

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