Safety in steel: Hanford workers' health monitored in room made from battleship

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 21, 2014 

RICHLAND -- For 25 years, the hull of the battleship USS Indiana has helped protect the health of Hanford workers.

Before that, it played a role in saving the life of Hanford's Atomic Man, Harold McCluskey, who took in life-threatening amounts of radioactive material in a Hanford accident.

The pre-Atomic Age steel from the battleship's hull now is at work in a low, nondescript building in Richland on the corner of Goethals and Knight streets, with a small sign labeling it the In Vivo Radiobioassay and Research Facility.

The steel has been made into a 12-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, 8-foot-high chamber called the Palmer Room. The 12-inch-thick battleship armor plate is lined with layers of lead, cadmium and finally burnished copper that give the small room a rich glow.

When its 10-ton door is swung closed, it creates a chamber as free of radiation as possible in an Atomic Age world.

The Department of Energy and Mission Support Alliance use it as one of five rooms in the radiobioassay and research facility to monitor employees who work around radioactive materials or waste from past weapons plutonium production at Hanford.

All the rooms are made of metal, including lead and iron, although none as thick as the steel from the USS Indiana, and each has a different purpose.

Hanford workers who have jobs that put them at risk of radiation exposure might be assigned to get a scan as a baseline when they are hired, then return annually for a check that can detect very small amounts of radioactive material in their bodies. Others might be sent for follow-up monitoring if they are involved in an incident at the nuclear reservation that could have exposed them to radioactive material.

The historic steel helps provide an environment pristine enough to allow the detection of very small amounts of radioactive material in the body.

Not only does it shield against background radiation, but it contains less radioactive material than newer steel.

Some radiation occurs naturally, including cosmic radiation from space. But the amount of background radiation in the world increased after plutonium produced at Hanford was used for the world's first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, followed by atomic bombs dropped on Japan and Cold War weapons testing.

The steel used in the Palmer Room has none of the nuclear fallout contamination of newer steel. It also is not manufactured in kilns that since World War II have used radioactive cobalt for monitoring the condition of refractory brick, contaminating the steel.

Using pre-WWII steel as shielding is "a method for us to isolate the person and just get their measurement," said Ed Parsons, DOE senior technical adviser for safety.

The Palmer Room has been used in the Tri-Cities for 25 years. But before that, and before it was named the Palmer Room, it was the property of the University of Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City.

When the university learned that the USS Indiana was being dismantled in 1963, it sent a research associate to California to obtain steel and supervise its custom cutting from portions of the ship where the steel was flat. The battleship had not seen service since the Japanese surrendered.

The Palmer Room was used in Utah for diverse research projects relying on radiation for information, including studies of muscular dystrophy and diabetes.

It also was used to put people at ease after accidental exposure to radioactivity. It monitored a Texan who fell into a uranium slurry, the parents of a toddler who got into his grandfather's mineral collection and had uranium concentrate around his mouth and Americans touring Russia at the time of the Chernobyl accident.

None was seriously contaminated.

Possibly the strangest use of the room was to test a man who was convinced his wife was slowly poisoning him with radioactive material, according to a decades-old account from the University of Utah. She wasn't.

Research also was done in the room to study the effects of plutonium, americium and radium on animals, giving them increasing exposures, said Earl Palmer, the former manager of the In Vivo Radiobioassay and Research Facility. The room was named to honor his contributions to radiation monitoring after he retired in 1990.

The studies on animals also had included work on a chelating agent that could extract americium from soft tissues.

That's the substance that McCluskey inhaled Aug. 30, 1976, when he was working to restart a glove box at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where work had stopped for four months because of a strike. The window of the glove box blew out and sprayed the right side of his face with americium, concentrated nitric acid and pieces of glass.

It was the americium measured in his liver that worried Palmer.

"We didn't think he would live," Palmer said. "There were a lot of long faces around here."

But permission was obtained from the Food and Drug Administration to try the chelating agent, used to date only on animals, because of the dire circumstances, Palmer said.

The chelating agent, developed from testing in the Palmer Room, grabbed onto americium in McCluskey's blood and allowed the isotope to be excreted.

It saved his life, Palmer said.

Palmer, who is trained as a chemist, had been the manager of the In Vivo Radiobioassay and Research Facility since the late '50s.

In 1988 the University of Utah called to ask whether the facility in Richland was interested in the Palmer Room as the university moved onto other research that did not require a shielded room.

The answer was "yes," and work started to dismantle the 240-ton room and ship it in pieces to Richland. Even the pieces were so heavy that there was a potential for damaging roads as it was hauled out of the university, Palmer said.

It went into service for Hanford workers in 1989.

Now it is used for whole-body measurements for detection of isotopes, such as cesium 137.

The 12-inch-thick steel blocks higher energy radiation and the thinner layers, including the copper that lines the room, absorb lower energy radiation to provide an environment with low levels of background radiation.

Measurements still have to account for slightly radioactive potassium in the body and naturally occurring radon, which might cling to a worker's hair.

Workers lie down on a table that takes up much of the room and then a scanner runs underneath the table down the length of their bodies, staying longer on parts of the body that might be of concern, to get an accurate count of radiation.

Other rooms in the facility include two used primarily for detecting americium and uranium in the lungs, since the most common contamination scenario at Hanford would be for a worker to breath in contaminants. A lead-lined room is used for lung and other organ measurements, and a stand-up radiation counter offers quick, but less accurate, scans.

In the 18 years that Parsons has been involved in work at the facility, no worker has been found to have an intake exposure that exceeded regulatory standards for radiation protection, he said.

Before Palmer retired, his research included traveling to Alaska with a newly developed counter to measure the radioactivity in Eskimos who ate a diet of reindeer that feasted on lichen contaminated with radioactive fallout. He also did work for NASA. Doctors would refer local patients with broken legs, and Palmer would measure the potassium in their bodies to help NASA better understand the loss of muscle mass when muscles go unused.

It's his work in the type of instruments, detectors and electronics used and how data is collected and analyzed that made him a pioneer in his field, said Tim Lynch, in vivo monitoring technical lead, and Sue Kon, the radiological site services director, both for Mission Support Alliance.

The room named in Palmer's honor has served Hanford workers for 25 years and should continue to serve them for 50 more, Parsons said.

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