Room where Hanford’s Atomic Man injured now history

Hanford workers have put a period on the end of the sad story of Hanford’s Atomic Man.

The room where Harold McCluskey was severely injured in 1976 has been reduced to slab on grade, the Department of Energy announced on Thursday.

The demolition was part of the ongoing teardown of the Plutonium Finishing Plant and a significant milestone for crews on the project.

McCluskey, a 64-year-old chemical operator, was working to restart work in a glove box in the Americium Recovery Facility at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where work had been stopped for four months due to a strike in August 1976.

He had climbed a ladder to an upper section of the glove box, where workers could reach their hands through thick gloves attached to portals to allow them to work with hazardous materials within the box as they looked through windows.

He was at the top of the ladder when he saw brown smoke and turned to leave. But before he had stepped down, the window of the glove box blew out, the result of resin degrading and reacting with nitric acid within the glove box.

A spray of radioactive americium, concentrated nitric acid, resin beads, and shards of glass and plastic hit him in the right side of his face, according to an account by his doctor, Dr. Bryce Breintenstein, who gave a lecture in Richland in 2008.

McCluskey was knocked to the floor and called out, “I can’t see,” according to officials who investigated the accident.

The acid burned his face and neck, and the americium was embedded in his skin. The radiation he was exposed to was 500 times the amount deemed safe in a lifetime, according to DOE.

McCluskey would spend the next five months at the Hanford Emergency Decontamination Facility, a windowless building then near Kadlec hospital in Richland, eventually graduating to a travel trailer parked outside the facility.

He was tough, intelligent and endlessly patient during the months of treatment he endured to save his life, Breitenstein said.

Others who helped with his treatment or got to know him during the investigation of the accident, described him as a Christian and extremely helpful.

He initially was treated intravenously with a chelating agent that grabbed onto americium in his blood and allowed the isotope to be excreted in his urine.

But most of the treatment was repeatedly washing his skin, which was left red and raw from the acid burn, and picking off debris and scabs.

For several weeks he was kept in near isolation, with his family and co-workers only allowed to talk to him from the door of the decontamination facility.

But his mood remained excellent, Breitenstein said. “He was stoic.” The doctor had a photo of McCluskey sitting alone by his bed and smoking a pipe.

Eventually McCluskey moved into the travel trailer with his wife and dog, staying close by for treatment.

Not until 150 days after the accident was he allowed to move home to Prosser.

His vision remained poor and his eyes sensitive to light after the explosion, Breitenstein said.

He had been an avid hunter and fisherman before the accident, but never really regained his body strength after treatment, his doctor said.

The chelation treatment removed much of the americium from his body, but enough remained to earn him the “Atomic Man” nickname. It would set off a radiation detector when he held it near his head.

When he first returned to Prosser, he was shunned by some until his minister convinced people it was safe to sit near 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.

The late Hill Williams reported in his recently published book, Writing the Northwest, that DOE gave McCluskey $275,000 in compensation.

McCluskey had a heart condition, including a heart attack, before the explosion and the illness eventually caused his death. He died at the age of 75 of another heart attack.

The Americium Recovery Facility, which came to be called the McCluskey Room by Hanford workers, never operated again.

A facility about the size of a double-car garage, it was used to separate americium from waste materials for possible industrial or other use.

It had been built onto one end of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, eventually becoming sandwiched between the main processing area of the plant and another addition, the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility.

Demolishing the building is “both historic and a significant risk reduction,” said Tom Teynor, DOE manager for the Plutonium Finishing Plant. “It closes the chapter on one important piece of Hanford history.”

For most of the years since the explosion, the door to the room was welded shut, said Tom Bratvold, vice president of the plant for DOE contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.

In 2010 federal economic recovery money was used to start cleaning out the room until the one-time funds ran out. One worker described the room’s interior as looking like a “war zone,” when workers made the first of more than 200 entries into the room.

Work resumed in late summer 2014 for a final push to prepare for demolition, with workers making the first use at Hanford of new protective suits for hazardous work.

Clean air is supplied by a compressor to the one-piece suits, both for breathing and to circulate cool air throughout the suit, causing the suits to puff up, balloon-like, around them.

Workers had removed most of the contaminated equipment, including glove boxes from the room by early 2016. Some highly radioactively contaminated tanks were left intact in the room to be removed during demolition.

Before this winter’s snowy weather began, an airlock was removed from the side of the McCluskey Room.

Demolition work resumed a few weeks ago, using a excavator with a shear to reduce the building to rubble, Bratvold said. It was constructed of steel I-beams and steel panels.

To control any dust and airborne contamination, water foggers were used. Water cannons also sent a spray of water and bright-blue fixative onto the area being demolished to contain contaminants.

Tanks were lifted out using a crane. Many of them will be stored for possible later disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, but much of the rubble from the building is being disposed of at a lined landfill for low-level radioactive waste in central Hanford.

Demolition of the McCluskey Room was completed Wednesday.

By Bratvold’s count that was 40 years, six months and 29 days after the explosion that harmed McCluskey.

Work will continue to have the rest of the Plutonium Finishing Plant down by a legal deadline at the end of September.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews