Family Still Bears Scars of a Nuclear Death

Apsen Times, May 3, 2000
by Yvonne Abraham
The New York Times

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. Ė John Peabodyís father was killed when the world was still optimistic about nuclear energy.

Robert Peabody, 37, died after an accident at the United Nuclear Corp. fuel facility here in July 1964. Liquid uranium he was pouring went critical, starting a nuclear reaction that exposed him to 1,000 times the lethal does of radiation.

He remains the only person ever killed in a nuclear accident in a U.S. commercial facility.

Back then, a generation before some in the country turned their backs on nuclear power, the Peabodys bore their resentments alone.

Robert Peabodyís death left his wife and nine children with a small cash settlement, a little cardboard box full of ashes, and a mountain of suspicions, including an abiding belief that those ashes Ė which Anna Peabody keeps in a closet Ė are not those of Robert Peabody.

It is not easy for John Peabody to hear about last Octoberís accident at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan. Talk of blue flashes and radiation sickness forces painful memories.

But 35 years after his fatherís death, some opinions have changed about the nuclear industry. In October, owners of the Japanese plant knelt before residents of Tokaimura and pressed their foreheads to the floor to apologize. In return, the people called them liars.

John Peabody said his family could have used some of that kind of support 35 years ago. Maybe then, people would have remembered his father, he said.

"Even today, nobody knows it happened," he said sadly. "It bothers me that people donít realize a good man died."

When the United Nuclear Corp.ís Wood River Junction facility arrived at Charlestown in 1964, then-Governor John H. Chafee called it "A trememdously exciting thing for us here in Rhode Island."

Nevertheless, Anna Peabody had never heard of the place when her husband came home one day and told her heíd taken on a job working the night shift to supplement his day job as a mechanic.

On July 24, just a few months after he started, Peabody was pouring what he thought was diluted uranium solution into a mechanical mixer when he saw a blue flash.

The solution was far more concentrated than he thought, and the mixer too big for safety; so much uranium was now in one container it reached critical mass and reacted, knocking him to the floor, splashing him with radioactive liquid.

Four minutes later, he was vomiting, with severe stomach cramps, a headache, and no control of his bodily functions, according to a medical report. Coworkers wrapped him in blankets and he was rushed to a hospital. There, he grew worse quickly: his chest and arms swelled and his gold wedding band had to be sawed off, over his objections.

"Somebody put the bottle in the wrong place," Anna Peabody said her husband told her when she arrived at his bedside. She stood at his pillow, holding his hand, before doctors warned her to stand at the foot of the bed, away from the most directly affected parts of her husbandís body, she recalled.

Robert Peabody died 49 hours after that first blue flash.

At first, John Peabodyís brother told him his father had been in an auto accident. Peabody, now 43, was 8 at the time. But a week later, this fatherís blue-and-white DeSoto, a car upon which Robert Peabody lavished almost as much love and care as on his children, appeared at the familyís home, as pristine as it had been when his father drove it to work for the last time.

John Peabody learned the full story over the next few years.

Chafee sent a telegram expressing concern for the family, but they had hunkered down, resentful the company and newspapers were blaming Robert Peabody for the accident. In fact, an official report found the procedure Peabody was following was incorrect, but had been sanctioned by supervisors.

The Peabodys received the box of remains but refused to hold a funeral, believing it impossible that it could be his ashes.

"You canít just burn an irradiated body. I know thatís not my fatherís remains over there." John Peabody said, gesturing across the street to his motherís house.

Peabodyís death at first did little to change attitudes to the plant among the people of Charlestown. The United States was still boosterish about the nuclear age.

"1965 or so is when the bandwagon market got started," said J. Samuel Walker, a historian at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Suddenly, utilities were lining up to order nuclear plants."

Nothing went back to normal for the Peabodys.

"My mother basically died," John Peabody said. "She became a shell of a human being. She tried her best with whatever she had left."

The DeSoto sat in the backyard for much of John Peabodyís childhood. "For me, it became a symbol of my father," he said. The car eventually was carted off for scrap.

The family won an $80,000 settlement from the company, but once lawyers got paid, Anna Peabody was left with $22,631.15, which quickly was spent. The family was raised on Social Security and veteransí benefits.

By the mid-1970s, the country began to share the Peabodysí resentment of the industry. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania swayed the public against nuclear power. United Nuclear came under fire for its safety record all over the country, the Charlestown plant closed in 1980, and the company began a multimillion-dollar, 10-year decontamination. The NRC declared the site safe in October 1995, and it is now for sale.

All of this is little consolation for Robert Peabodyís family, left alone with their suspicions all these years: that Anna Peabodyís unprotected visit to her husbandís bedside made her sick with three kinds of cancer; that the signed commendation from President Lyndon B. Johnson, which hangs on her living room wall, means that United Nuclear was conducting government business on the site; that Robert Peabodyís remains are being kept somewhere by the government.

John Peabody has been going to the site of the plant for years.

"I visited it once a year, just to cry my eyes out a little bit, missing somebody I didnít get a chance to know," he said. "The man doesnít even have a tombstone." Ten years ago, he got a tattoo, of a red and green dragon, and the words "In Memory of Robert D. Peabody" on his left arm.

John Peabody stood at the end of the road in front of the property, which is now an unremarkable-looking 1,000 acres of cleared land. He leaned against the rusty, bulging wire fence on which "For Sale" signs hang, squinting into the distance.

"This places is not as ominous to me now, without the building," he said, finally. "The building, it was the same color as my fatherís car. It used to get to me."

Courtesy of The New York Times, by Yvonne Abraham.