Hanford’s McCluskey Room
On August 30, 1976, as Harold McCluskey and his wife Ella celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary before he reported to his night shift at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant as a chemical worker, neither of them knew that on that night, Harold would be involved in a spectacular, record-setting traumatic radiation accident so severe that he would be historically called “The Atomic Man,” nor did they know that the room where the accident would occur would be named “The McCluskey Room.” Indeed, they were unaware that Harold would be the subject of a Seattle Times article describing how his body in the room was “too hot to handle,” so he was “removed by remote control” and “put in a steel and concrete isolation chamber.”
The accident involved the explosion of an ion-exchange column containing about 100 g of 241 Americium, which is used (ironically) in smoke detectors. According to various reports, this amounts to 500 times the occupational standards lifetime limits.
Harold not only survived, due to miraculous or otherwise experimental interventional medicine, he lived another eleven years.
Earlier this month, Hanford and the government announced plans to go into the McCluskey Room and decontaminate it as part of their overall plan to clean and demolish the Plutonium Finishing Plant area of Hanford (see video). This is a hazardous endeavor requiring specialized suits, respirators and monitoring equipment, and the workers will have to exercise great care, planning, and training for their safety, as the McCluskey Room is one of the most hazardous sites under the Department of Energy’s purview.
In 1984, eight years after Mr. McCluskey’s accident, Margaret Mahar wrote an article for People that contained some direct quotes from Mr. McCluskey regarding what happened that night. He was performing an extraction process, to produce americium 241 that would be used in ionization smoke detectors. He realized that there would be an explosion, if he did so, so he called his boss and warned him.
Hanford workers had recently ended a strike and returned to work. McCluskey was concerned about the condition of the chemicals, given how they had been stored during the strike. Margaret Mahar wrote: