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Nuclear Accident Survivor Dies

August 18, 1987

PUYALLUP, Wash. (AP) _ Harold McCluskey, who suffered the heaviest dose of radiation 11 years ago in one of the nation’s worst nuclear contamination accidents, has died. He was 75.

The cause of death was not released, and an autopsy was planned today, said Connie Stay, nursing supervisor at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup.

McCluskey, of Prosser, was visiting a daughter here when he became ill and was hospitalized Sunday, she said. He died Monday.

On Aug. 30, 1976, McCluskey, a chemical operator for Atlantic Richfield Hanford Co., was monitoring the extraction of americium 241, a plutonium byproduct, in the Plutonium Finishing Plant at the federal government’s nuclear reservation in Hanford.

An explosion broke the glass encasement, showering McCluskey and co-workers with nitric acid, americium and contaminated pieces of plexiglass. The blast temporarily blinded him and cut and burned the right side of his face and right shoulder.

Within minutes, McCluskey inhaled the largest dose of americium 241 ever recorded, about 500 times the occupational standards for the element. Americium, a radioactive isotope, is one of the most toxic substances produced by man.

″I can remember telling him at the beginning that I was unaware of anybody who had ever had this kind of an exposure and that we had to take each day one at a time,″ said Bryce Breitenstein, the doctor who supervised McCluskey’s treatment.

″I feared some horrible things might occur, which really didn’t materialize,″ said Breitenstein, who added that McCluskey likely suffered some long-term effects.

To avoid contaminating others, McCluskey was kept for five months in a steel and concrete isolation tank and injected with an experimental drug that doctors hoped would flush the isotope out of his system. By 1977, his radiation count was reduced by about 80 percent.

The accident left McCluskey’s face pocked with acid scars, his eyes damaged and his health weak. He sued the federal government for damages and in 1977 settled with the Department of Energy for $275,000 and life-time medical expenses.

Nine other workers also were contaminated in the accident, but they were back to work within days.

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