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Nuclear Meltdown, Charlestown, R.I.

Robert Peabody was working a second job at United Nuclear when the sludge he was handling went critical and exposed him to a deadly dose of radiation. He died in an isolation room at Rhode Island Hospital. His family was left destitute and Charlestown was left with a Superfund site.  Read more: Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality.

14 thoughts on “Nuclear Meltdown, Charlestown, R.I.”

  1. Mike says:

    I was 9 at the time this accident occurred. I lived less than 3 miles from the plant, and I remember the event quite distinctly – I recall being pretty rattled as a 9-year old child. It seemed a little surreal to me at the time, like something right out of a science fiction movie.

    My father was the Chief of the local Fire Department and a member of the Civil Defense. So we probably were exposed to much more detail than the average local family. I remember my Dad touring the facility with members of the Fire Dept. not too long after the event (to educate & train those who would have to respond to any emergencies in the future).

  2. Jeramy Thiesse says:

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say great blog!

  3. Ken says:

    Growing up and living not far from the site of United Nuclear’s facility, the story involving the death of Mr. Peabody has always been well known to residents around here. I have read the story several times. Mr. Peabody died a horrible, tragic death. It did happen. Perhaps certain people who initially posted crude remarks that implied it never happened, should have researched the story more thoroughly before spouting off and making insensitive remarks.

  4. wess says:

    My words could have been better chosen, but I believe you’re confusing rational skepticism with callous cynicism. I certainly did not mean to suggest that anyone’s suffering is laughable.

    The ‘laugh test’ refers to an appropriate reaction to bullshit, no matter what the subject. And too often, non-factual tragedy is at the heart of bullshit, from popular cons intended to get people’s money to heart-wrenching ‘glurge’ passed around on the Internet. Bullshit’s bad enough in itself; it’s a sight more evil when it plays on our human compassions.

    Not uncommonly, tragic bullshit is intended to advance a political or social agenda, which was my initial gut reaction to the story as first provided, due mainly to what struck me as suspiciously vague and melodramatic particulars, combined with what seemed the lack of a readily verifiable confident source. (For example, a recent rumour has it that the Stuxnet worm might be implicated in the Fukushima crisis, even though the only common denominator is that both are related to nuclear materials. One way to know that it’s bullshit is that despite the many hits you can find on it, not a single one comes from a reputable source.)

    As it turned out, a little extra information allowed me to run down and verify the story above. A man named Peabody really did die from a dramatic radiation event in Charlestown that was probably avoidable, and his employer was at least partly to blame, and did seem to evade responsibility. It’s an appropriate cautionary tale, reminding us that such tragedies are rarely without blame, and we are prudent to seek and hold those responsible. (In respect to Fukushima, which is the context of the original post, it’s appropriate to question TEPCO and Japanese regulators’ roles in the problems there, and their consequent responsibility.)

    I never intended to belittle anyone or any kind of tragedy. But I do demand a high standard of evidence for any stories or claims, especially those soliciting our human empathy and compassion, in context of an Internet replete with tearjerking bullshit.

  5. Alicia says:

    “I’m sorry, but this is going to need to provide much more information before it passes the laugh test.”

    All I can say is WOW! Even if this never happened and it did, there is nothing funny about any story where a man died and his family was left devastated, destitute and destroyed by the lies, cover-up, and blame.

    …. one of the nine left behind

  6. Nancy Green says:

    Ann, I so admire the brave and competent nurses and doctors at RIH who took care of Robert Peabody when he was turned away at all the other hospitals between Charlestown and Providence.
    The Journal reported in detail on the scene in the emergency room, and I excerpted some of it in my post.
    I also wish they would republish that article.
    I think it can be read via the Journal archives online through the Providence Public Library if you have a library card.
    I’ve been working overtime, so have not had time to write much– work is the curse of the blogging class.

  7. mangeek says:

    Where’s the writeup on the unknown and under-heard dangers to natural gas workers? Does dying in a nuclear accident carry more weight than being blown to smithereens in a natural gas conduit?

    In 2011, nuclear is hundreds of times safer than it was when Peabody died. You can’t say the same for other forms of energy.

    Also, read this:

  8. roth says:

    If I can offer some info that may or may not shed some light on your thought process. I work with a man who is a rather unique, funny and witty individual. We routinely spend time going back and forth with jokes about each other. I saw a tattoo on his forearm and as I made fun of it, I asked what it represented. The knitting needles representd his mother and the piston represented his father and the atom represented what killed them. His mother died in 2002 after a series of battles with cancer. His father died in what he termed “a nuclear excursion in Charlestown” in 1964 49 hours after being exposed to radiation. He came off as being serious but that would be a first for him so I did not believe his info. I checked online and came across several articles, and ultimately this article. The gentleman I work with has a last name of Peabody. In an effort to keep his personal info private, I’d prefer not to go into any more details. I hope that this info lends a bit of validity to the story.

  9. wess says:

    Thanks, Nancy, that linked story provides a good explanation, on many points.

    With the additional particulars, I was able to find other references to the incident.

    Let me first say that I am mistaken in two my remarks above: The actions involved could indeed cause an event known as a ‘nuclear excursion,’ which is more or less as described here. The ‘blue flash’ is indeed a real consequence of such an event, though it is different from Cherenkov radiation, and it is also not radiating electrons. (That part of the first excerpt is almost certainly mistaken, though as Mangeek suggests, there might have been other factors at play in the room.) Rather, the glow is caused by direct radiation of ions streaming from the criticality, so it really is a direct product of the nuclear event.

    Although I can’t find a modern-day equivalence rating for the accident, sources I’ve found indicate that Peabody was subject to something like twice the normally lethal dose of ionising radiation. (This is now usually measured in sieverts, which give a more accurate idea of biologically damaging radioactivity than older measurements.)

    From what I can read, a rather sad irony of this story is that Peabody’s death probably prevented many others, and he remains the only documented fatality of a nuclear activity in the U.S. (Though a number of people have died in or near nuclear facilities or materials in the U.S., he’s apparently the only one to die of the direct effects of nuclear radiation. Others were mostly electrocutions or other accidents that could happen in other situations.)

    Commenting on Mangeek’s reply below, I don’t get the sense that Nancy means to warn us of similar incidents, only remind us that nuclear activities (power, weapons, whatever) can touch anyone, anywhere, and that Rhode Island is part of that continuing history.

    There are a few things in the Yankee piece that caught my attention. The reference to UNC’s other facilities could be inferred to mean that they’re all nuclear. They are not. I haven’t looked them all up, but I’ve been to their plant in ‘downtown New Haven’ (actually on the harbor, not downtown, but whatever). It’s a modern oil-fired power plant, very impressive. The view from the top of the main building is amazing.

  10. Ann says:

    I was a student nurse at RI Hospital when this nuclear event happened and Ican even remember the doctor that cared for him. His name was Joseph Karas. I will never forget it. I read the article in the Pro Jo when it was published and save it for years but in moving I lost it. The journal should publish it again

  11. mangeek says:

    Wess, it did happen, but I think the complexities of nuclear chemistry evade most journalists:


    The accident occurred at a facility which reprocessed for recovery highly enriched uranium in scrap material from fuel element production. A tank containing uranium (93% U-235) in sodium carbonate solution was being agitated by a stirrer. A worker, intending to add a bottle of trichloroethane to remove organics, erroneously added a bottle of uranium solution to the tank, producing a criticality excursion accompanied by a flash of light and the splashing of about 20% of the tank’s contents (about 10 liters out of 40-50 liters, including the bottle contents) out of the tank. The worker fled to the site’s emergency building. Two plant administrators returned to the building; one turned off the agitator, producing a lesser criticality excursion that was not recognized until their dosimeters were examined. The administrators incurred doses of 100 rads and 60 rads. The worker absorbed about 10,000 rads and died 49 hours after the accident.

    It’s entirely possible that adding some more of a solution to a tank that was already close to the ‘tipping point’ could trigger a criticality, which would immediately cause the air to get a blue Cherenkov glow (as electrons cut through moist air), and make some of the liquid boil, causing a very dirty radioactive baking soda steam explosion, spraying the worker and the room with crusty radioactive waste.

    First, this kind of thing would -NEVER- happen today, really Nancy. We don’t send people carting unlabeled tanks of radioactive solutions around anymore. It’s a simple fix to prevent this sort of thing from happening, even from human error: Build the receiving tank to be too small to reach criticality, and have the automated systems put chemicals into ‘keyed’ containers, so containers filled with uranium solutions have triangle-shaped ends that only fit into triangle shaped receptacles. Not that we’d have folks doing that sort of thing anyway, there’s no reason I can see to be handling that kind of material in today’s fuel and waste supply. Even less so if there was a long-term depot to store waste.

  12. Nancy Green says:

    If you want to do more than a cursory search of the internet, Yankee Magazine has an article from 1994 that covers the same incident, with more detail about the series of mistakes that led to the nuclear reaction that killed Robert Peabody, the address is here…

  13. Nancy Green says:

    The source can be found in the Providence Journal archives, it was published in the Journal Sunday magazine on the date listed. It’s an excellent article, and since it’s not my property I didn’t presume to reproduce larger chunks of it.
    Thanks for pointing out that I need to be more clear about the source. The Journal gave up publishing their own magazine some years ago. They have many well-reported articles about Rhode Island that they should re-publish as a book.

  14. wess says:

    I call bullshit on this story. Not only does it offer not a single verifiable original source (unless you count the nebulous “Providence Journal Chain Reaction 3/11/90,” whatever that refers to), it also describes events that are inconsistent with the known behaviours and properties of nuclear materials. To wit:

    “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.”

    A “fission reaction” would be very unlikely to occur in this manner, not the least because fissiles in a liquid medium (short of actual molten metal) would simply not have the density needed to achieve such a reaction.

    It’s true that water surrounding some nuclear materials can glow a light blue, a phenomenon known as Cherenkov radiation, but the glow, which is dim and only visible in low light, occurs only in the water itself. To be seen beyond that, the lighting around it would have to be very low, which seems very unlikely for a materials handling environment. There’s also no reason why the air would be charged with electricity: this is pure sci-fi.

    There’s a description of a blast, but no explanation for it. A liquid could ‘blast’ outward and upward for any of many reasons, but none that could be directly attributable to radioactivity.

    A cursory search on my part finds no record of nuclear materials handling firm by the name provided. (I did find reference to a small mom-and-pop company by that name that sells exotic materials, including some weakly radioactive ores, but nothing similar to a waste handling operation.)

    I’m sorry, but this is going to need to provide much more information before it passes the laugh test.

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