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Doctor remembers Hanford's 'Atomic Man'

This story was published Friday April 25th 2008

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writer

Dr. Bryce Breitenstein speaks with admiration for the patient at the center of his most famous case -- the Prosser man who came to be called "Atomic Man" after surviving the nation's worst radiological accident.

Harold McCluskey was tough, intelligent and endlessly patient during the months of treatment he endured to save his life after an explosion at Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant Aug. 30, 1976, Breitenstein said.

"He was a remarkable man," the doctor said.

Breitenstein delivered the Herbert M. Parker Foundation spring lecture at Washington State University Tri-Cities on McCluskey's care Thursday. About 175 people attended. Breitenstein now practices in Placentia, Calif., but in 1976 he was the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation physician who headed the team that cared for McCluskey.

On Aug. 30, McCluskey, a 64-year-old chemical operator, was working to restart a glove box at the Plutonium Finishing Plant where work had been stopped for four months due to a strike.

He was on top of a ladder outside the glove box when he saw smoke and turned to leave. But the window of the glove box blew out, the result of resin degrading and reacting with nitric acid.

McCluskey was sprayed on the right side of his face by radioactive americium, concentrated nitric acid, resin and pieces of glass and plastic, Breitenstein said. The acid burned his face and neck and the americium was embedded in his skin.

Workers helped him out of the building and decontaminated him as well as they could until he was taken by ambulance to the Hanford Emergency Decontamination Facility, which until recently was near Kadlec hospital in Richland.

He spent much of the next five months at the windowless building or a travel trailer parked just outside it.

When he arrived, health care workers gave him a chelating agent that grabbed onto americium in his blood and allowed the isotope to be excreted in his urine. They also started an aggressive effort to decontaminate him by repeatedly washing his skin.

Breitenstein's extensive slide collection shows three workers crowded around a decontamination tank washing McCluskey's upper body. In another, a nurse wearing a respirator and full radiation protection clothing stands by his bed placed in the center of the decontamination facility.

In one of the earliest pictures, showing his face red and raw, his eyes remain closed. The light was painful to his eyes, which had been splashed with nitric acid.

Breitenstein worried that McCluskey would die during the initial days of treatment.

"I told him very early that you are one of a kind," Breitenstein said. "But every day you go along OK is a big plus."

In the early weeks, McCluskey endured frequent scrubbings, washing his face himself with a soft rag because he knew what he could withstand. His skin then was burned red and freckled with embedded material. He was scanned before and after each scrubbing to determine how much radioactive material had been removed.

He also continued chelation, receiving more than 500 injected treatments that continued at least occasionally for years.

Blood tests showed a drop in his lymphocytes and doctors were concerned about what the americium might be doing to his bone marrow. However, a bone marrow biopsy turned up no abnormality.

"It was comforting," Breintenstein said.

By early November, his face still was flaking and losing scabs with radioactive contamination, the doctor said. But weeks earlier the airborne americium in the room had decreased enough for health care workers to stop using respirators.

In the early weeks, McCluskey remained in isolation, with his family and co-workers only allowed to talk to him from the door of the decontamination facility.

But his mood remained "excellent," Breitenstein said, showing a slide of McCluskey sitting alone by his bed, smoking a pipe and looking calm. "He was stoic."

Eventually the government moved a travel trailer next door to the decontamination building for McCluskey, his wife and his dog. After McCluskey began to spend nights in the trailer, the only radioactive contamination detected was on his pillow.

By Thanksgiving, McCluskey was allowed to leave for dinner with family and friends. He began going home to Prosser during the day, returning to sleep in the trailer until he was discharged in January.

The majority of the americium removed through chelation was measured in the first 60 days of treatment, Breitenstein said. Although abnormalities in his blood had been detected, it never was evident in his general health.

However, an ulceration near his eye, the area that had received the most americium, did not heal until January 1978,

McCluskey was plagued with vision problems. He suffered from blurred vision and required cataract extractions in 1978 and 1979 and a cornea transplant in one eye.

"He was a real outdoorsman before the accident. He hunted and fished," the doctor said. "But his body strength never fully recovered."

Before the accident McCluskey had heart problems, including a heart attack, and in the 1980s his heart problems grew worse.

He died of congestive heart failure 11 years after the explosion at the age of 75. An autopsy found no evidence of cancer.

If the explosion contributed to his ill health in his 70s, there is no way to measure it, Breitenstein said.

Although McCluskey did not return to work at Hanford after the accident, he sometimes accompanied Breitenstein to give joint talks on his treatment. The doctor remembers McCluskey addressing his labor union and promoting the union during his talk, then talking to a church group and giving witness to his faith.

"He was quite a talented guy," Breitenstein said. "He was very strong."

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