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:
Americium, which is used in ionization smoke detectors, was extracted within an airtight steel ‘glove box,’ with McCluskey manipulating the controls from the outside. However, the vessel containing the active ingredient for the extraction process, americium-soaked resin, had remained in the cabinet throughout the strike.
McCluskey was uneasy about adding nitric acid to begin the extraction process. ‘They warned us when they built the plant,’ he recalls. ‘If we tried the process when the resin was even three months old, it would blow up.’ He called his boss and protested. ‘But when the boss called the powers that be, they said, “Go ahead.”‘ McCluskey, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, did not walk out the door. ‘I’m not a gambler. When you’ve only got a 12th-grade education and you’ve put nearly 30 years in a job, and you’re facing retirement….’
That Mr. McCluskey was put in a position where he was forced to make a decision to risk his life because he fears he will lose his job if he doesn’t, as he nears retirement, is so egregious it shocks the conscience. The article goes into the horrendous and quoted details of the accident that make you feel as if you have picked up and science fiction book. It also describes what life was really like for this man and his wife in the aftermath. His own neighbors no longer want to come to his home. He must to go to different barbers, because he is ruining their business. His life is in ruins. His health is in constant spiraling decline. Experimental medicine. Heart attacks. He can no longer hunt or fish. He is losing his eyesight. He listens to the Bible on tape.
If you read the cleaned up articles today, you would think that Mr. McCluskey was injured on the job due to an unforeseeable accident and he recovered to live a full and happy life eventually dying of natural causes.
The truth is quite different, and all that you can imagine about the government’s behavior at that time getting worse is most certainly true. Mrs. Ella McClusky was reduced to declining the government an autopsy report on her husband when he died, because they were trying to balk at paying up for medical expenses, for being in the wrong. This is as surreal as it gets:
An investigation into the explosion confirmed that the resin mixture had become unstable exactly as McCluskey had warned. He sued the Energy Research and Development Administration for $975,000, settling in 1977 for $275,000 plus lifetime medical expenses. Even then, according to Ella, the government balked at paying up. A feisty former teacher and nurse, she took over: ‘I told them they wouldn’t be able to do an autopsy when he died. They said that wasn’t fair. Then they paid.’
The atomic man doesn’t express anger, but Ella sometimes does. ‘The Hanford and Department of Energy spokespeople tried to make it seem as though it was just an industrial accident, like someone falling in a sawmill,’ she says. ‘It was a catastrophe that ruined Harold’s life.’
As you ponder what you might do if you were in Mr. McCluskey’s situation, remember that Donna Busche was the second Hanford whistleblower firing. What would you do?
To Ella and to Harold McCluskey, Thank you so much, for taking a stand for safety, integrity and grace, and never backing down.
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