The Atomic Man Room

There’s a room at Hanford that no one has entered since 1976. They went in today. The AP story about it is excerpted below. Hanford is the worst place in the U.S., a gigantic nuclear environmental disaster. It was our plutonium factory for many, many years. An acquaintance of mine worked there a long time ago, and a long time after that she turned bright yellow and spent a couple of years in bed with an unknown liver disease. Then she got better. Who knows why? When I drove through Washington state I passed Hanford’s fence, which is some distance from where the real wasteland starts. The idea of “cleaning up” Hanford is humorous.

Let’s salute Harold McCluskey for making it to 75, though. Tough bastard he must have been.

Workers in protective gear Thursday entered a long-sealed room at the Hanford nuclear reservation where the complex’s worst contamination accident occurred nearly 29 years ago.

The August 1976 explosion contaminated several workers and resulted in one man being dubbed the Atomic Man. Radioactivity levels in the room were so high that Hanford workers only briefly entered a few times after the blast, and the room was sealed in 1989.

Thursday’s entry began the process of evaluating the room’s hazards and marked the next step in cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.


The explosion blew out the quarter-inch-thick lead glass shielding workers, showering Harold McCluskey, a 64-year-old chemical operator, with nitric acid and radioactive shards of glass.

Within minutes, McCluskey inhaled the largest dose of americium-241 ever recorded, about 500 times the occupational standards for the element. Doctors isolated him for five months and injected an experimental drug to flush the isotope from his system. By 1977, his radiation count had fallen by about 80 percent.

When McCluskey returned home, friends avoided him and church members shunned him until his minister told people it was safe to sit with him, according to newspaper accounts. He died of natural causes in 1987 at age 75.

3 thoughts on “The Atomic Man Room

  1. September 27, 1999
    New York Times
    Nuclear Site Is Battling a Rising Tide of Waste
    [W] ASHINGTON — A giant radioactive souffle is rising toward the top of a million-gallon tank of nuclear waste buried in the desert near Richland, Wash.
    Whipped up unexpectedly by a pump that was supposed to dissipate pockets of hydrogen gas, the waste has smothered one tube for vapor sampling, threatens other instruments and could eventually overflow, according to officials of the Department of Energy and the contractor in charge of the tank, Lockheed Martin Hanford Corp. They are rushing to pump some of the waste into another tank, possibly within a month.
    In May, workers stopped the growth, at least temporarily, by lancing the crust with high-pressure water jets, but the hole they made is beginning to close.
    “I don’t make any claims about this tank,” said Donald Oakley, a retired environmental expert from Los Alamos National Laboratory, hired by the Energy Department as an outside consultant. “I’m not convinced anyone understands the chemistry and physics involved in this crust.”
    At the Washington State Department of Ecology, Mike Wilson, manager of the nuclear waste program, said that before the crust was lanced, engineers were predicting the waste would reach the top of the tank this fall. “It was ‘The Blob’ kind of thing,” he said.
    The 20-year-old tank, called SY-101, is buried just under the surface at the Hanford nuclear reservation, 20 miles from Richland, a city of about 32,000 people. The tank produces unwanted hydrogen as radiation fields bombard organic chemicals that were added years ago in what officials now say was a mistaken strategy to reduce the waste’s volume.
    Until six years ago, the hydrogen was emitted in huge releases that official studies call burps, causing “waste-bergs,” chunks of waste floating on the surface, to roll over.
    With the tank belching thousands of cubic feet of gas at roughly 100-day intervals, Energy Department officials were afraid that at some point it would burp during a lightning storm and cause an explosion. “Under certain conditions, you could rupture the tank,” said Leo Duffy Jr., who was the Energy Department’s chief environmental official during the Bush administration. “You’d have a challenge on your hands in the state of Washington,” he said.
    An explosion would spread radioactive material into the environment, experts say.
    In retrospect, the gassy eructations were the good old days.
    To reduce the chance of fire or explosion, the Energy Department ordered installation of a huge pump in July 1993 to break the hydrogen into tiny bubbles, which engineers hoped would then rise to the surface like carbon dioxide fizzing out of a soft drink.
    For a time that worked. But engineers theorize that the crust started to toughen because it no longer rolled over from time to time, and it prevented the hydrogen from coming to the surface. In December 1997, the crust began to rise, even though virtually nothing was being added to the tank.
    The waste’s surface climbed from about 403 inches above the bottom of the tank to 435 inches at its peak, before workers lanced it, with each inch representing almost 3,000 gallons. That level was 13 inches above the maximum specified for the tank’s operation. By Friday, the waste had risen again to 432 inches. The tank is protected by a double shell, but the waste is within 2 feet of the level at which the outer shell ends.
    The crust also grew downward, and could eventually threaten the intake nozzle of the mixer pump. Experts say that if it clogged the pump, the hydrogen would begin accumulating at the bottom again and burping to the surface, but the crust that would then roll over would be four times bigger than it was before the pump was installed. And the vapor space at the top of the tank would be far smaller, making it easier to reach a hydrogen concentration that would support a fire or explosion.
    “The rollovers were spectacular, but now we’ve got another problem, caused by the solution to that problem,” said Stephen Agnew, a chemist who worked at Hanford for years. “Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end to it,” he said.

    1. Phrases I don’t like to see in a news story

      “Giant radioactive soufflĂ©”
      “lancing the crust”
      “‘The Blob’ kind of thing”
      “In retrospect, the gassy eructations were the good old days”

  2. That place is in the news up here all the time.
    One amateur scientist keeps finding radioactive tumbleweeds pretty far away from the facility. They grow in there, sucking up radiation from the water table, dry out, and the wind blows the tumbleweed miles and miles and miles.

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