Energy Department to clean nuclear accident site

Of the Associated Press

SPOKANE — Workers are preparing to enter one of the most dangerous rooms on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

It's the room where a 1976 explosion exposed worker Harold McCluskey to a massive dose of radiation, leading to his nickname as the “Atomic Man.” McCluskey lived for 11 more years and died of causes not related to the accident.

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 U.S. Department of Energy in Richland, said Wednesday. “It was restricted for the potential for airborne radiation contamination.”

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.

Hanford, located north of Richland, made plutonium for nuclear weapons for decades. The site 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 McCluskey Room was used to recover radioactive americium during the Cold War.

McCluskey in 1976 was a technician 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 americium ever recorded, 500 times the occupational standard.

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 McCluskey until his minister told people it was safe to be around him. He died of coronary artery disease in 1987 at the age of 75.

Since 2008, the Department of Energy and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company have been preparing the PFP for demolition.

“About two-thirds of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is deactivated — cleaned out and ready for demolition,” said Jon Peschong, an assistant DOE manager 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 DOE said.

They will be wearing abrasion-resistant suits that protect them from surface contamination and chemicals. A dual-purpose air system will 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 employees involved in selecting the equipment and training on the equipment are some of the most experienced employees at CH2M HILL and at Hanford,” said Mike Swartz, CH2M HILL's vice president for the closure project.


— A DOE video about the McCluskey Room: http://youtu.be/K-6bTvzBVA4

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