Hanford room where "Atomic Man" injured to be cleaned

Tri-City HeraldJuly 2, 2014 

— Hanford workers are preparing to enter and clean out the McCluskey Room at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, the site of one of Hanford's worst radiological accidents.

It still contains the glove box where a 1976 chemical explosion shattered the thick glass windows of the box. Radioactive concentrated nitric acid and shards of glass and metal sprayed into the neck and face of worker Harold McCluskey.

He received 500 times the amount of radiation doctors considered safe in a lifetime and his body set off Geiger counters 50 feet away, according to Department of Energy and Herald accounts of the accident.

But McCluskey, who came to be called the Atomic Man, survived and lived another 11 years.

He died at the age of 75 of a heart condition that had plagued him before the accident.

The room was too radioactively contaminated to be used again and was shut up for periods of as long as 15 years at a time before a serious cleanup effort began in 2010.

Workers used federal economic recovery act money then to enter the room more than 200 times wearing supplied-air respirators, said Mike Swartz, the vice president for the Plutonium Finishing Plant work for CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.

They were able to remove two glove boxes with the money that was then available before returning to other cleanup work in the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

Three of the McCluskey Room glove boxes remain, including one that stretches down the center of the room and the glove box that was damaged in the explosion.

Usually the glove boxes, with thick windows and gloves that workers reach their hands into to do work with radioactive materials inside the highly contaminated box, shield workers from radiation.

Now "the room is the glove box," Swartz said.

But when workers re-enter the room to finish the clean out, they will be in protective gear being used at Hanford for the first time.

"The employees involved in selecting the equipment and training on the equipment are some of the most experienced employees at CH2M Hill and at Hanford," Swartz said.

They traveled to the Idaho Cleanup Project to check out the gear, which has been used there for about nine years.

Workers look a little like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the billowy, air-filled one-piece suits. The white suits are topped with what looks like a clear, oversized bucket turned upside down over their heads.

It's a new look for Hanford workers. But the protective gear's features should be safer and more comfortable for workers, and it could increase productivity, said Bryan Foley, acting DOE project director for the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

"It creates a micro-environment for workers," Swartz said.

Clean air is supplied by a compressor to the suits, both for breathing and to circulate cool air throughout the suit to keep workers comfortable in multiple layers of protective clothing. Monitors check for radiation inside the suits and transmit information to a computer.

The suits also have what Swartz calls "an escape pack," a container with enough air to allow workers to leave the McCluskey Room if something goes wrong with their supplied air system.

In the gear used previously, workers could spend just 45 minutes in the room before having to leave. But the new system should allow substantially longer entries, making work more efficient.

Workers will be sent in four at a time, with a support team of at least 15 workers to assist in dressing, undressing and monitoring in each carefully planned and choreographed entry into the highly contaminated area.

Cleaning out the room to allow it to be torn down eventually is expected to take 10 to 12 months, Swartz said.

Workers will disconnect and remove tanks still in the room and the three remaining glove boxes, each of them standing about 12 to 14 feet high.

The largest, used as the valve line for the tanks, stretches 25 to 30 feet down the center of the room. The other two, including the one McCluskey was working at, are about four feet deep and five feet wide, Swartz estimated.

Lewis Robinson, a radiological control technician, described the McCluskey Room in video shot by CH2M Hill as "old, dilapidated, rundown" when he entered in 2010.

"It looked like a war zone," he said. Plaster on the walls was hanging off, he said.

The McCluskey Room is in the Plutonium Finishing Plant's Americium Recovery Facility, which opened in 1964.

It was used to recover plutonium and also americium from waste for potential industrial and other use.

On Aug. 30, 1976, McCluskey had reported to work on the night shift and was restarting a glove box after work had been stopped at the Plutonium Finishing Plant for five months due to a strike.

He was on top of a ladder outside the glove box when he saw smoke and turned to leave. But the window of the glove box blew out, the result of resin degrading and reacting with nitric acid.

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

Another worker dragged him from the room and 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, according to those who served on the committees that would investigate the accident.

He would spend much of the next five months in a windowless decontamination center in Richland and then a travel trailer parked just outside it as his health improved and radiation levels decreased.

McCluskey would later say that "of nine doctors, four thought I had a 50-50 chance and the rest just shook their heads."

But over 60 days, treatment with a chelating agent helped remove the major portion of americium from his body. He would receive more than 500 injections of the agent, which continued at least occasionally for years.

Pictures show nurses wearing respirators and full radiation protection clothing at his bedside in the decontamination center. His wife was required to stay at least 30 feet away for a month, and nurses watched him around the clock with a TV camera in the early weeks.

Those who helped care for him said his mood remained excellent. Speakers at a DOE symposium in 2011 said he was helpful, intelligent and endlessly patient during his treatment, which included frequent scrubbings to remove radioactive material.

He survived, but his face was pocked with acid scars and his eyes permanently damaged in the accident. He was extremely sensitive to light and he required a cornea transplant in one eye. He never recovered the stamina for the hunting and fishing he enjoyed.

When he first returned to his home in Prosser, he was avoided by friends and was shunned in church until his minister told people it was safe to sit with him, according to newspaper accounts. He told People magazine in 1984 that he rotated from one barber shop to another to make sure business was not harmed.

But he would be willing to go back to work at Hanford if he were able, he said. He had been injured "in purely an industrial accident" and continued to support nuclear power, he said.

By 2016, the McCluskey Room is expected to be gone.

DOE has a legal deadline to have all of the Plutonium Finishing Plant reduced to slab on grade in 2016.

Work has been underway since 2008 to prepare the plant for demolition by removing much of the equipment and infrastructure inside the complex that was once used primarily for weapons plutonium processing. Before that workers had spent nearly four years stabilizing and packaging nearly 20 tons of material containing plutonium that was left in the plant in various stages of production when it shut down.

"There has been a lot of work done at PFP to get where we are today," Foley said. "A small footprint of some tough stuff is left to go."

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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