SPOKANE — Workers are preparing to enter one of the most dangerous rooms on the Hanford nuclear reservation — the site of a 1976 blast that exposed a technician to a massive dose of radiation, which led to him being nicknamed the “Atomic Man.”
Harold McCluskey, then 64, was working in the room 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 made plutonium for nuclear weapons for decades. The room was used to recover americium, a plutonium byproduct.
The bloodied McCluskey was taken by ambulance to the decontamination center. He was too hot to handle, so he was removed by remote control and put in to a steel-and-concrete isolation tank.
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For 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 bath water 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.
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.
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 until his death from a coronary at 75.
Hanford contains the nation’s greatest collection of nuclear waste, and for more than 20 years has been engaged in the dangerous work of cleaning it up. The space dubbed the McCluskey Room is in the closed Plutonium Finishing Plant scheduled for cleanup this summer.
“It’s been largely closed up since the accident,” Geoff Tyree, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Richland, said Wednesday.
Since 2008, the DOE and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company have been preparing the plant for demolition.
“About two-thirds of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is deactivated,” said Jon Peschong, an assistant DOE manager. “ … Cleaning out the McCluskey Room will be a major step forward.”
When specially trained and equipped workers enter the room, they will encounter airborne radioactivity, surface contamination, confined spaces and poor ventilation, the DOE said.
They will be wearing abrasion-resistant suits to protect them from surface contamination and chemicals. A dual-purpose air system will provide cool air for breathing and throughout the suit for worker comfort. 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.