In 1976, Harold McCluskey was a chemical technician for the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant of Washington state. He was sixty-four years old at the time. The plant had been refining weapons grade plutonium since the days of the Manhatten Project, supplying some of the radioactive material for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
On August 30th, McCluskey had just returned to work after a four month strike had halted production. During a fairly routine day, McCluskey noticed smoke at his work station and tried to run. Unfortunately he wasn't quick enough and he was caught in an explosion. Shrapnel-like flecks of cracked resin and broken glass were hurled into McCluskey's face and neck, along with a hot blast of nitric acid. Worse yet, McCluskey had been exposed to americium 241, a radioactive waste-substance that was produced by the plutonium refinement. The americium sank into his skin. McCluskey was found by his fellow workers and immediately taken to an on-site emergency center. Once there, it was discovered that his contamination was far greater than anticipated.
McCluskey had absorbed 500 times the "occupational standard" of americium 241, and consequently posed a severe exposure risk to all other people. They had no choice but to hold him in strict quarantine, while he underwent an intense decontamination procedure. The doctors working on him had to wear protective uniforms. He was called "the Atomic Man."
After a gruelling five months, McCluskey's radiation levels had been depleted by 80% and he was finally released. Having heard of his scarred face and fearful of lingering radioactivity, McCluskey's community shunned him. It took the insistence of the local minister to convince even his friends that it was safe to be around him. He also had to adapt to vision problems stemming from eye injuries he sustained in the explosion. A lawsuit for one million in damages failed, although he did receive a $275,000 settlement and paid medical expenses. Throughout all of this, McCluskey was stoic. Remarkably, he remained a proponent of the nuclear industry until he died at age 75 of a heart attack.
Meanwhile, 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste remain on the site of the deactivated Finishing Plant. McCluskey may not be the last "Atomic Man" from Hanford, although it's doubtful that any successors will live as long.
Would you like to know more?
-Read this account of McCluskey by the doctor who treated him.
-Read this timeline of Hanford area plutonium manufacturing