Workers entered the McCluskey Room, the site of one of Hanford’s worst radiological accidents, this week after a year of preparation.
The room 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, but survived and came to be known as the Atomic Man.
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The room at the Plutonium Finishing Plant 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, before money ran out.
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 portals with attached gloves where workers reach their hands into to do work with radioactive materials inside the box, shield workers from radiation.
Over the next year, workers will remove large pieces of processing equipment, including the glove boxes and tanks.
"This was the first of multiple entries workers will make to clean out processing equipment and get the McCluskey Room ready for demolition along with the rest of the plant," said Bryan Foley, Department of Energy project director.
Numerous hazards remain in the room as the result of the chemical explosion, including airborne radioactivity and surface contamination.
One of the first tasks for the crew is improving ventilation and airflow to better protect workers from the airborne contamination in the room as they clean out the room and its equipment.
"The time and effort workers put into finding the right equipment and training will ensure they are as prepared as possible to remain safe during the cleanup," Foley said.
CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. workers will continue to enter the room four at a time, with a support team of at least 15 workers to assist in dressing, undressing and monitoring during each carefully planned and choreographed entry into the highly contaminated area.
Workers are wearing protective gear that is being used at Hanford for the first time, after traveling to the Idaho Cleanup Project to check out the gear used there.
They include billowing, air-filled one-piece suits with air for both breathing and to circulate cool air through the suits supplied by a compressor. Monitors check for radiation inside the suits and transmit information to a computer.
The suits contain “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.
The new suits are expected to allow substantially longer entries into the room than the 45 minutes allowed in the suits used previously.
Input from workers on the equipment has led to adjustments and "has been the key to being able to enter the room safely as we start this challenging cleanup project," said Mike Swartz, CH2M Hill vice president.