Workers are preparing to enter one of the most dangerous rooms on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — the site of a 1976 blast that exposed a technician to a massive dose of radiation, leading to him being nicknamed the “Atomic Man.”
Harold McCluskey was working in the room when a chemical reaction caused a glass glove box to explode. He was exposed to the highest dose of radiation from the chemical element americium ever recorded — 500 times the occupational standard.
Hanford, located in central Washington state, made plutonium for nuclear weapons for decades. The room was used to recover radioactive americium, a byproduct of plutonium.
McCluskey, then 64, was placed in isolation in a decontamination facility for five months. Within a year, his body’s radiation count had fallen by about 80 percent and he was allowed to return home.
Friends at first avoided him until his minister told people it was safe to be around him. He died of coronary artery disease — unrelated to the accident — in 1987 at the age of 75.
Hanford contains the nation’s greatest collection of nuclear waste and for more than two decades has been engaged in the dangerous work of cleaning up that waste. The space now dubbed the McCluskey Room is located inside the closed plutonium finishing plant and is scheduled for cleanup this summer.
“It’s been largely closed up since the accident,” Geoff Tyree, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy in Richland, said on Wednesday. “It was restricted for the potential for airborne radiation contamination.”
Since 2008, the Department of Energy and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company have been preparing the plant for demolition.
“About two-thirds of the plutonium finishing plant is deactivated — cleaned out and ready for demolition,” Department of Energy assistant manager Jon Peschong said in Richland. “Cleaning out the McCluskey Room will be a major step forward.”
When specially trained and equipped workers enter the room this summer, they will encounter airborne radioactivity, surface contamination, confined spaces and poor ventilation, the department said.
They are to be wearing abrasion-resistant suits that protect them from surface contamination and chemicals. A dual-purpose air system is to provide cool air for breathing and cool air throughout the suit for worker comfort, allowing them to work for longer periods of time.
The suits are pressurized, to prevent workers from coming into contact with airborne contaminants.
The McCluskey Room “is going to be the toughest work ahead of us as we finish cleaning the plant and getting it ready for demolition by the end of September 2016,” Tyree said.