The McCluskey Room

by Crane-Station

On August 30, 1976, as Harold McCluskey and his wife Ella celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary before he reported to his night shift at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant as a chemical worker, neither of them knew that on that night, Harold would be involved in a spectacular, record-setting traumatic radiation accident so severe that he would be historically called “The Atomic Man,” nor did they know that the room where the accident would occur would be named “The McCluskey Room.” Indeed, they were unaware that Harold would be the subject of a Seattle Times article describing how his body in the room was “too hot to handle,” so he was “removed by remote control” and “put in a steel and concrete isolation chamber.”

The accident involved the explosion of an ion-exchange column containing about 100 g of 241 Americium, which is used (ironically) in smoke detectors. According to various reports, this amounts to 500 times the occupational standards lifetime limits.

Harold not only survived, due to miraculous or otherwise experimental interventional medicine, he lived another eleven years.

Earlier this month, Hanford and the government announced plans to go into the McCluskey Room and decontaminate it as part of their overall plan to clean and demolish the Plutonium Finishing Plant area of Hanford(see video). This is a hazardous endeavor requiring specialized suits, respirators and monitoring equipment, and the workers will have to exercise great care, planning, and training for their safety, as the McCluskey Room is one of the most hazardous sites under the Department of Energy’s purview.

In 1984, eight years after Mr. McCluskey’s accident, Margaret Mahar wrote an article for People that contained some direct quotes from Mr. McCluskey regarding what happened that night. He was performing an extraction process, to produce americium 241 that would be used in ionization smoke detectors. He realized that there would be an explosion, if he did so, so he called his boss and warned him.

Hanford workers had recently ended a strike and returned to work. McCluskey was concerned about the condition of the chemicals, given how they had been stored during the strike. Margaret Mahar wrote:

Americium, which is used in ionization smoke detectors, was extracted within an airtight steel “glove box,” with McCluskey manipulating the controls from the outside. However, the vessel containing the active ingredient for the extraction process, americium-soaked resin, had remained in the cabinet throughout the strike.

McCluskey was uneasy about adding nitric acid to begin the extraction process. “They warned us when they built the plant,” he recalls. “If we tried the process when the resin was even three months old, it would blow up.” He called his boss and protested. “But when the boss called the powers that be, they said, ‘Go ahead.’ ” McCluskey, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, did not walk out the door. “I’m not a gambler. When you’ve only got a 12th-grade education and you’ve put nearly 30 years in a job, and you’re facing retirement….”

That Mr. McCluskey was put in a position where he was forced to make a decision to risk his life because he fears he will lose his job if he doesn’t, as he nears retirement is so egregious it shocks the conscience. The article goes into the horrendous and quoted details of the accident that make you feel as if you have picked up and science fiction book. It also describes what life was really like for this man and his wife in the aftermath. His own neighbors no longer want to come to his home. He must to go to different barbers, because is ruining their business. His life is in ruins. His health is in constant spiraling decline. Experimental medicine. Heart attacks. He can no longer hunt or fish. He is losing his eyesight. He listens to the Bible on tape.

If you read the cleaned up articles today, you would think that Mr. McCluskey was injured on the job due to an unforeseeable accident and he recovered to live a full and happy life eventually dying of natural causes.

The truth is quite different, and all that you can imagine about the government’s behavior at that time getting worse is most certainly true. Mrs. Ella McClusky was reduced to declining the government an autopsy report on her husband when he died, because they were trying to balk at paying up for medical expenses, for being in the wrong. This is as surreal as it gets:

An investigation into the explosion confirmed that the resin mixture had become unstable exactly as McCluskey had warned. He sued the Energy Research and Development Administration for $975,000, settling in 1977 for $275,000 plus lifetime medical expenses. Even then, according to Ella, the government balked at paying up. A feisty former teacher and nurse, she took over: “I told them they wouldn’t be able to do an autopsy when he died. They said that wasn’t fair. Then they paid.”

and:

” The atomic man doesn’t express anger, but Ella sometimes does. “The Hanford and Department of Energy spokespeople tried to make it seem as though it was just an industrial accident, like someone falling in a sawmill,” she says. “It was a catastrophe that ruined Harold’s life.”

As you ponder what you might do if you were in Mr. McCluskey’s situation, remember that Donna Busche was the second Hanford whistleblower firing. What would you do?

To Ella and to Harold McCluskey, Thank you so much, for taking a stand for safety, integrity and grace, and never backing down.

16 Responses to The McCluskey Room

  1. bettykath says:

    Amazing stories. Absolute hierarchies lead to these kinds of atrocities. Those at the bottom of the pyramid have to follow orders or lose their jobs. Those at the top may be similarly trapped but no one has the security to buck the system. But more likely, those at the top are rewarded with bonuses on top of their excellent salaries for making schedules and cutting costs, workers be damned.

    • Malisha says:

      Read “Dictators’ Handbook” and the way these things work becomes clear. Bucking the system only benefits people who do not matter at all; working with the system benefits the people working with the system. So…

      • bettykath says:

        yes. I bucked the system for years as a female in a sexist corporation. I wanted to do more to make changes but the testosterone was so thick that it was hard to breathe. I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I left a job with excellent pay and benefits. No regrets.

      • masonblue says:

        Crane-Station here. Somebody needs to still be in prison, today still, as far as I am concerned. This was a horrendous criminal act.

    • masonblue says:

      Crane-Station here. What amazes me is, how that person at the top can live with himself. How he can get up in the morning and not hang his head head in shame and go to that man he hurt and that man’s wife and admit what he did, and say how deeply sorry he is, and then get down onto his two knees and beg God and beg God for a little bit of forgiveness, and promise to help people from now on, and make amends to this man, and to his wife. How can this person go on and live his life, any other way but that. How can he go on, unaffected? What sort of a person does these things?

      • Malisha says:

        We have a large — a HUGE — number (and even a non-negligible perCENTage) of people who are “the sort of a person [who] does these things” in our society. Indeed, it seems to me that this is a mutation that is succeeding because of the way we are evolving. As I grew up, I saw things changing from “You should never be selfish” and “always think of others” to “always make sure to take care of yourself” and “make sure others don’t get over on you” to “grab up as much as you can and step on whoever gets in your way” and “these others are trying to take away your rights” and never, along the way, did I hear big powerful organizations (the Church [which was always more concerned with telling people whom to fuck and whom not to fuck], the state [that was ranting about how we had to defend ‘our freedom’ against ‘evil ones’], etc.) chime in with: Hey wait a minute, that’s selfish and uncaring.

        I think our current environment is psychopath-friendly and we we pro-bully. The kind of person who “does these things” is the person who, in our culture, is successful. The bully “does these things.” And instead of forgiveness, he seeks the power to keep anyone from divulging his name or revealing his conduct.

  2. Chris Street says:

    Well done piece Mr. Leatherman. Having recently read a newspaper story about this gentleman, I too was left thinking the man made a full recovery from his exposure to radiation. Had I not read your blog, I would not have known the real damage done this man. Thank you for your public service concerning this matter.

  3. Malisha says:

    If this had been reported truthfully at the time that it happened, things might actually have changed in the world. The supervisor and the entire company should have not only been sued for billions of dollars in PUNITIVE DAMAGES but the story should have been on the first page of every single newspaper, large and small, in the country. There should have been TV specials and even stage plays about this (like “All My Sons” after WWII) and the names should have been common parlance in every American household. The name of “the boss” should have been known and an expression should have arisen in the workplaces all over America, “Don’t be a [name of that boss].”

    I say this because in 1981, in Arlington VA, a worker at a water treatment plant was told to open a certain valve in the plant at about 2 or 3 a.m. and he started his shift at about 11 pm. When he came on the shift he realized (from long experience) that the valve would be under too much pressure at that hour to open it. He called HIS boss (who was a Russian immigrant who had gotten his citizenship fraudulently and who was kept on by Arlington County although they knew him to be incompetent — they knew he was in the habit of suing people who displeased him so they did not want the lawsuit so they kept him on the job without raises or promotions waiting for him to find something else and leave the in peace) and said it couldn’t be opened at that hour. He was ordered to open it and he had to make that decision: open the valve or lose his job.

    He kept his job and returned to work after 3 months’ disability IN THE HOSPITAL and 4 surgeries; his job status was changed so he didn’t have to walk or climb because he was physically disabled. Both his legs had been broken in about 6 places and Arlington County used the taxpayers’ money to cover the million-dollar hospital bill and then the continuing physical therapy, medications, etc. etc. etc. Again, nobody either mentioned the perpetrator of this crime (and the reason I don’t use his name here is that they put in fraudulent paperwork about the accident so of course, his lawsuit against me for slander would work because the victim of this whole thing did not even tell the true story when HIS claims were paid).

    The victim told me in person that he intended to just go kill the boss once his legs were healed, but his father came into his hospital room and fell on his knees and begged and begged his son to give up that plan because the father realized his son would ruin what was left of his life by telling the truth when the County of Arlington, Virginia wanted to tell a lie. He said his father (a devout Christian) threatened to go kill the boss himself before his son could get out of the hospital, if his son did not promise that he would give up the plan, so that his son could live out the rest of his life while only the father was in prison or put to death by the state. This changed the son’s mind and he relented.

    • MKX says:

      Is this the water treatment facility on Eads Street and Glebe Road that discharges into Four Mile Run?

      I know that Charles E Smith did not take many precautions with respect to the safety of construction workers when they expanded Crystal City.

      One time the entire complex was without power for over a day. And there was that sickly smell of an electrical fire.

      I dug into it and found out that some of the immigrant workers they used to do anything and everything had went down in the transformer pit with an aluminum ladder. For those who don’t know, there are very strong magnetic fields associated with high voltage and high current that will align any linear conductive metal.

      My father, a retired union electrician, was appalled to see that they just strung wired out of a box through a cyclone fence to provide lighting for a construction site.

      And I heard rumors about the incompetence that led to the collapse of Crystal Park 4 as it was going up.

      And most construction in Northern Va. relies heavily on undocumented labor. Although they work hard, the safety knowledge that comes with getting a valid license in a trade is often lacking.

      But hey, we got to support that free market libertarian paradise wherein nobody needs no stinking nanny government approved license to take up a trade.

      I cite Joe, “I am too stupid or lazy to do an apprenticeship” the plumber as an example.

      My father apprenticed as both a plumber and an electrician and, although he passed away, I still get his union magazine. Safety of the work and the workers is of paramount importance in that publication.

      • Malisha says:

        I think it was in fact Glebe Road. They hired a documented engineer (he later got citizenship, although for that he used a fake affidavit, at least) to run the plant because some grant they were getting required a Ph.D. He had a Ph.D. but from Russia and he got it by having someone else (smarter but just as dishonest) take his exams for him. When he got the Arlington job (1978) he was the only Ph.D. around who would work for $40,000 apparently. Soon it was discovered that he could not do his job and that all he did all day was hole himself up in his little office writing his pro se court papers to sue people who had displeased him. They did not fire him, as I mentioned, to save the County money on a lawsuit. The plant, meanwhile, was being run by a high school graduate named Grady something-or-other. Arlington County is very corrupt.

    • masonblue says:

      Malisha, Fred did read this comment to me earlier in the day, and I told him, “I believe every word of it. Every word. Yup. Simply amazing, isn’t it? Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. crazy1946 says:

    Mz. Crane-Station, Again you have provided us with an in depth article exposing the hidden truth behind the story.. Thank you for taking your time to provide us the opportunity to know the “whole” story about this incident…

    • masonblue says:

      Crane-Station here. Sorry for the late reply, I had to share a screen today, but thank you so much for the read and the kind comment, it means a lot to me.

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