The Tragic Tale of Atomic Man: Life as a Radioactive Human

For the first time since the accident in 1976, workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington are planning to clean out the room where chemicals exploded in Harold McCluskey's face, showering him with radiation 500 times the occupational limit and embedding radioactive americium in his skull, turning him into the Atomic Man.

McCluskey, improbably, survived the incident. (He later said, "Of nine doctors, four thought I had a 50-50 chance and the rest just shook their heads.") The massive dose of radiation left him with health problems, and decades later, his body still set off Geiger counters.

But the most painful legacy of the explosion was probably the isolation, both physical and social, as other humans shied away from his radioactive body.

When the accident happened on August 30, 1976, McCluskey had just returned to his job as a technician after a five-month strike had shut down the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford. The material he was working with had become unstable after the long hiatus and so right after he added nitric acid as instructed, it exploded, blowing out the glove box that was supposed to contain it. He was exposed to the highest level of radioactive americium ever recorded.

The Tragic Tale of Atomic Man: Life as a Radioactive Human

Left: McCluskey after the incident in 1980.

His body—now covered in blood and shards of metal and glass—was taken to the decontamination center where he stayed in an isolation of concrete and steel. Nobody was allowed near him out of fear for the radiation he still emitted. "Blinded, his hearing damaged by the explosion, McCluskey spent the next three weeks at the unit cut off from personal contact," described a later profile in People. "Monitored, like an alien, by nurses wearing respirators and protective clothing, he could neither see nor clearly understand the attendants who approached."

The nurses scrubbed and shaved him every day—the bath towels and bathwater now part of Hanford's radioactive waste. He endured 600 shots of zinc DTPA, a drug that binds to radioactive metals.

For the first month, his family was only allowed with 30 feet of him. He continued to exhale radioactive americium with every breath. When the radioactivity in his body had finally dropped 80 percent after five months in the isolation facility, McCluskey was allowed to go home.

The Tragic Tale of Atomic Man: Life as a Radioactive Human

Aerial view of Hanford. AP Photo

But home came with its own problems. He recalls friends calling and saying, "Harold, I like you, but I can never come to your house." People also recounts how he rotated where he got his hair cut. "I didn't want anyone's business to be hurt," he explained. Being the Atomic Man meant being a pariah, like a patient with a deadly, contagious disease.

McCluskey had his share of health problems—a kidney infection, four heart attacks, a cornea transplant—but he remarkably did not seem bitter. He ultimately died more than a decade later of causes seemingly unrelated to radiation, which actually perplexed doctors.

The Tragic Tale of Atomic Man: Life as a Radioactive Human

Hanford workers feeding radioactive food to sheep. DOE

But radiation's legacy doesn't go away so tidily. For all these years, the McCluskey Room, as it's now known, has sat mostly undisturbed, save for the occasional clean-up effort. This time, it's the real deal. The entire Plutonium Finishing Plant that once produced plutonium for nuclear weapons is to be cleaned up and demolished. If all goes according to plan, the plant and the McCluskey Room will be gone by 2016.

Today, Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and the focus of the nation's biggest cleanup effort. Questions about safety have bedeviled the facility, especially after a leak of radioactive waste in 2013. Even with the McCluskey Room gone, the radioactivity legacy at Hanford will remain for a long, long time. And so should the shadow of Harold McCluskey, unwitting Atomic Man. [AP, People, Forbes]

Top image: A worker at Hanford in 1954. AP Photo