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Feds to clean site of 1976 'Atomic Man' accident

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.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
rasputin July 02 2014 at 9:50 PM

@"Friends at first avoided him until his minister told people it was safe to be around him"

Because in matters of math, science, physics and biology, holy men are the go-to source for advice.

Flag Reply +10 rate up
6 replies
jrp1947 July 03 2014 at 2:01 AM

they should turn that room into a monument to this man who proved to be tougher than anything our screwed up government could throw at him.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
tippy301 July 02 2014 at 9:47 PM

How about our A-10 pilots who've inhaled the aerosolized depleted uranium, from the 'warthog's' 30mm cannon ? They're not alone.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
3 replies
stengernc July 02 2014 at 9:56 PM

Every nuke power plant will eventually fail or be closed down over time but the nuke waste will still be active and if there is a major issue with supplying cooling water for the waste we could contaminate most of the USA. Dumbest decision ever made was to use nuke power or nuke weapons.....long term, most of humanity will pay the price. Evolution has a whole chapter to write about the stupidity of humans.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
3 replies
dumbneasy July 03 2014 at 1:02 AM

What an ordeal for Harold McCluskey. His family should copyright the name "The Atomic Man" and turn him into Harold McCluskey-The Atomic Man comic book hero! Heck! I'm 65 and never heard of Harold before. And I pay attention! A legacy like Harold's should be remembered for "good!"

Flag Reply +7 rate up
Jeff July 02 2014 at 8:49 PM

That explains why he glowed in the dark too.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
2 replies
Softball Jeff July 03 2014 at 3:17 AM

In the song "Those were the days"
the singer laments "Who is that stranger in the mirror'". Add a green glow to that and you may well have the future of all of us/

Flag Reply 0 rate up
sybilquestion Jeff July 03 2014 at 9:07 AM

That's funny. I didn't even think of that. LOL.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Frank July 02 2014 at 10:39 PM

We as a country should be worried about nuclear prolifferation as well as nuclear waste instead of climate change.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
2 replies
hellyon3too Frank July 03 2014 at 9:44 AM

That's like saying we should be worried about Ebola instead of alcoholism. Both are bad. Both can kill you. Ignoring one in favor of the other doesn't make the first one go away.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
kent_hern Frank July 03 2014 at 9:56 AM

Truth is not swayed by politics.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
fitzbeerman July 03 2014 at 7:51 AM

Gee you mean Scientists were WRONG about how much radiation it takes to kill someone? They are never wrong, just ask a liberal about global warming.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
dal July 03 2014 at 6:27 AM

He could cook a 7-11 frozen burrito in less time than a microwave just by putting it in his pants pocket .

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Brian Hope July 03 2014 at 12:23 AM

As Tom Lehrer once said in a song about a possible nuclear armageddon: "We will all go together when we go - - - all suffused with an incandescent glow."

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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