Feds to clean site of 1976 'Atomic Man' accident

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Feds to clean site of 1976 'Atomic Man' accident
FILE - This March 1977 file photo shows Harold McCluskey in Kennewick, Wash. In 1976, an explosion in a room at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation exposed him to a massive dose of radiation, leading to his nickname as the "Atomic Man." McCluskey lived for 11 more years and died of causes not related to the accident. In 2014, preparations are underway for a September 2016 demolition of the plant. (AP Photo)
Harold McCluskey, pictured in Richland, Wash., Aug. 25, 1980, who was poisoned by a radioactive explosion four years ago, is still experiencing foggy vision and strange unexplained sensations. (AP Photo)
People line up outside an auditorium in Richland, Wash., in this undated photo The shot is one of a collection of photos taken by government photographers between 1943 and1967 that document life in and around the Hanford nuclear reservation. The photos have recently been made available to the public as part of the Hanford Historical Photo Declassification Project. (AP Photo/U.S. Department of Energy)
Lee Edgar, third from the right-in the front row, and several other photographers are seen in this photo taken sometime during the1940s-1950s Era on the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash. The photographers worked for the U.S. Department of Energy and documented life in and around Hanford. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Lee Edgar)
Work is under way as shown in this recent photo taken inside the Canister Storage Building at the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash., in preparation for the movement of 2,300 tons of highly radioactive waste from Hanford's leak-prone K Basins. The dots on the floor are openings to tubes where the fuel and glassified radioactive liquid wastes will be inserted into huge underground vaults below. Moving the spent fuel from the K Basins near the Columbia River to the new storage facility nearthe center of the Hanford nuclear reservation is one of the Department of Energy's top cleanup priorities. (AP Photo/Fluor Daniel)
In this March 6, 2013 photo, the 'T' Tank Farm at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Wash. is shown. Time is running out on Hanford's deteriorating tanks and for the federal government to complete work on a more permanent solution to store the radioactive materials that are in them. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, walks near a sign warning of radiation, Wednesday, March 6, 2013, as he tours the C Tank Farm at Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. Inslee was at Hanford to meet with Dept. of Energy officials in order to learn more about tanks on the site that are leaking radioactive waste. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
FILE -- This photo provided by the U.S. Dept. of Energy, shows the construction of a "tank farm" to store nuclear waste in 1944 on the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash. It is one of collection of photos documenting life in and around the reservation from 1943-1967. Six underground radioactive waste tanks at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site are leaking, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday, Feb. 22, 2013. Inslee made the announcement after meeting with federal officials in Washington, D.C. Last week it was revealed that one of the 177 tanks at south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation was leaking liquids. Inslee called the latest news "disturbing." (AP Photo/U.S. Department of Energy, File)
The control room of the Hanford nuclear reservation's famous "B" reactor is shown during a public tour Thursday, April 3, 2008 near Richland, Wash. The reactor produced the plutonium for the Trinity Test and for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki just three days after Hiroshima. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A sticker warns of critical radiation alarms in the control room for Hanford nuclear reservation's famous "B" reactor Thursday, April 3, 2008 near Richland, Wash. The room is one stop on a series of sold-out public tours of the nuclear site, which will draw about 2,000 people to the site this year. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

By Nicholas K. Geranios

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - 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, 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.

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 U.S. Department of Energy in Richland, said Wednesday. "It was restricted for the potential for airborne radiation contamination."

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.

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