Site of 1976 'Atomic Man' accident to be cleaned

Harold McCluskey the year after the explosion. Photo / AP.
Harold McCluskey the year after the explosion. Photo / AP.

Workers are finally preparing to enter one of the most dangerous rooms in the world - the site of a 1976 blast in the United States that exposed a technician to a massive dose of radiation and led to his nickname: the "Atomic Man."

Harold McCluskey, then 64, was working in the room at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation when a chemical reaction caused a glass glove box to explode.

He was exposed to the highest dose of radiation from the chemical element americium ever recorded - 500 times the occupational standard.

Hanford, located in central Washington state, made plutonium for nuclear weapons for decades. The room was used to recover radioactive americium, a byproduct of plutonium.

Covered with blood, McCluskey was dragged from the room and put into an ambulance headed for the decontamination center. Because he was too hot to handle, he was removed by remote control and transported to a steel-and-concrete isolation tank.

During the next five months, doctors laboriously extracted tiny bits of glass and razor-sharp pieces of metal embedded in his skin.

Nurses scrubbed him down three times a day and shaved every inch of his body every day. The radioactive bathwater and thousands of towels became nuclear waste.

McCluskey also received some 600 shots of zinc DTPA, an experimental drug that helped him excrete the radioactive material.


The "Atomic Man", four years after the radiation blast. Photo / AP

He was placed in isolation in a decontamination facility for five months. Within a year, his body's radiation count had fallen by about 80 percent and he was allowed to return home.

But his radiation-related medical problems proliferated. He had a kidney infection, four heart attacks in as many months and cataract surgery on both eyes, followed by a cornea transplant and a precipitous drop in his blood platelet count, which required transfusions.

Friends at first avoided him until his minister told people it was safe to be around him. The accident sapped his stamina, and he was unable to hunt, fish or do any of the things he had planned for his retirement. He was studied extensively by doctors for the rest of his life and died of coronary artery disease in 1987 at the age of 75.

Hanford contains the nation's greatest collection of nuclear waste, and for more than two decades has been engaged in the dangerous work of cleaning up that waste. The space now dubbed the McCluskey Room is located inside the closed Plutonium Finishing Plant and is scheduled for cleanup this summer.

"It's been largely closed up since the accident," Geoff Tyree, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy in Richland, said this week. "It was restricted for the potential for airborne radiation contamination."

Plant to be demolished

Since 2008, the Department of Energy and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company have been preparing the plant for demolition.

"About two-thirds of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is deactivated - cleaned out and ready for demolition," said Jon Peschong, an assistant DOE manager in Richland. "Cleaning out the McCluskey Room will be a major step forward."

When specially trained and equipped workers enter the room this summer, they will encounter airborne radioactivity, surface contamination, confined spaces and poor ventilation, the DOE said.

They will be wearing abrasion-resistant suits that protect them from surface contamination and chemicals. A dual-purpose air system will provide cool air for breathing and cool air throughout the suit for worker comfort, allowing them to work for longer periods of time. The suits are pressurized, to prevent workers from coming into contact with airborne contaminants.

The McCluskey Room "is going to be the toughest work ahead of us as we finish cleaning the plant and getting it ready for demolition by the end of September 2016," Tyree said.

- AP

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