Atomic Man still has lessons to teach after 35 years

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 14, 2011 

Thirty-five years after Hanford's "Atomic Man" was sprayed with americium in the nuclear reservation's worst radioactive accident, the case still has lessons for workers at the Department of Energy's nuclear complex.

What went wrong and the successful response to the accident were discussed at a symposium Tuesday as part of a DOE national conference on safety that drew 1,200 people to Kennewick.

Harold McCluskey, 64, was one of two chemical operators working to restart operations to reclaim americium from waste at an annex of Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant on the night shift Aug. 29, 1976. Work had stopped for five months because of a worker strike.

The other operator saw brown smoke and heard a hissing sound in a glove box in what would come to be known as the McCluskey Room, said Dan Wodrich, who served on the Hanford contractor committee that investigated the accident.

McCluskey told the other operator to call a supervisor and then climbed a ladder and stuck his hands into the glove portal to check the vent valve in a column that held americium. It's going to explode, he called out, and started back down the ladder.

The overpressurized vessel exploded, hitting him on the right side of his face, his neck and shoulders with concentrated nitric acid, americium and debris that included glass, plastic and metal shards.

He was knocked to the floor and called out, "I can't see."

The second operator pulled him out of the room filled with a dark cloud of fumes. A radiation specialist, later joined by nurses, began to wipe him off with damp cloths. His co-workers knew he had a heart condition and were afraid to move him to a shower to decontaminate him.

An hour and a half later, McCluskey was in a plastic-lined ambulance on his way to the Emergency Decontamination and Treatment Facility on the grounds of Kadlec Hospital in Richland.

Several things had gone wrong in the McCluskey Room, said Paul Ruhter, a member of the federal committee that investigated the accident in 1976.

The column was intended to handle 15 grams of americium, but through the years that amount had been increased by a factor of 10. And the agent used to help recover the americium from the waste had been changed from aluminum nitrate to concentrated nitric acid, Ruhter said.

Although engineers had questioned whether those changes should be made without studies, no analyses had been done, Ruhter said. In addition, americium should not have been left in the column when processing was shut down.

The glass in the glove box also proved inadequate in some of the panes with glass layered like the one that shattered by McCluskey's face. That pane had an inner layer of safety glass that flexed, shattering the leaded glass on the outside. If the layers had been reversed, the pane might have held.

But while much had gone wrong at the Hanford site, at the decontamination facility 25 miles away, treatment progressed better than expected.

"It was a tragic story with a good ending," said Theresa Aldridge, of the DOE Pacific Northwest Site Office, who in 1976 was assigned to the team at the decontamination center.

Dr. Bryce Breitenstein, the Hanford doctor who treated McCluskey, has said he feared McCluskey would die during the initial days of treatment.

But when McCluskey arrived, he was given a chelating agent intravenously that grabbed onto americium in his blood and allowed the isotope to be excreted in his urine. The chelating treatments he received are credited with preventing liver failure, which would have been fatal.

Over 60 days, the major portion of the americium that was released from his body was recorded, but he would continue injections of chelating agents for five years.

His skin was red and raw from the acid burn, but the other part of his treatment was repeatedly washing his skin to remove contamination and picking off debris and scabs with tweezers. McCluskey washed himself with a soft cloth and soap because he knew how much he could endure.

"He scrubbed painstakingly," Aldridge said.

Speakers at the symposium called him an ideal patient. He was strong, a Christian and extremely helpful, Aldridge said. He also was knowledgeable, learning about the effects of radiation and the treatments for exposure before the accident.

A makeshift room draped in plastic in a heavily shielded, windowless portion of the decontamination center was set up for McCluskey, and he remained there in isolation for several weeks. His wife only could stand in the door and talk to him and nurses watched him 24 hours with a TV camera. But his mood remained excellent, Aldridge said.

On day 72 after the explosion, a travel trailer was parked outside the decontamination center so McCluskey could live there with his wife and dog while his treatment continued, Aldridge said. Doctors were concerned that he would spread contamination, but it was found only on his bed pillow in the trailer.

Not until 150 days after the accident was he allowed to move home to Prosser, with regular visits from his medical team.

The team was afraid he would fall into a depression, particularly as friends and acquaintances told him they would not visit his home because of fear of radiation. Americium remained embedded in his face, setting off a radiation monitor when he held it next to his head.

But he proved to be resilient. He remained active in his community and church and gave talks with his doctor about the accident, although the acid burns to his eyes made him increasingly sensitive to light.

"The memories of the accident were strong, but not debilitating," Aldridge said.

He died 11 years after the accident while visiting his daughter out of town.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy did not realize he had a role in a famous case until the media started calling to ask what kind of cancer had killed McCluskey, said Ron Kathren, retired from the U.S. Transuranium and Uranium Registries.

There was no cancer found. McCluskey died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

Most of the long-term effects of the accident were caused by the trauma of the explosion and the nitric acid, Kathren said. McCluskey had scars on his face and neck and required cataract surgery and a corneal transplant.

Treatment for a radiological accident today would be similar, said experts at the symposium. However, the decontamination facility is gone, making way for expansion of Kadlec Regional Medical Center. Instead, there is a small decontamination room and a shower stall with an outside entrance at the hospital's emergency room.

After the accident, the McCluskey Room was minimally decontaminated and sealed up. It was rarely entered until work began in recent years to prepare it for demolition along with the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

Now two of the five glove boxes in the room have been removed. "The McCluskey Room is going away," said Wayne Glines of DOE.

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