Harold McCluskey, who received the largest dose of internal radiation ever recorded in a human being, died Monday at a hospital here, nearly 11 years after the contamination accident. He was 75.
McCluskey of Prosser, Wash. had been hospitalized for congestive heart failure while visiting his daughter in the Puyallup area.
A hospital spokesman said “we don’t know” what caused McCluskey’s death although a private autopsy was arranged by McCluskey’s family. Officials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the contamination occurred Aug. 31, 1976, said they expected to receive some tissue samples.
McCluskey, a chemical operator for Atlantic Richfield Hanford Co., was monitoring the extraction of americium 241, a plutonium byproduct, when an explosion broke a protective glass encasement, showering him 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.
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%.
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 lifetime medical expenses.
Nine other workers also were contaminated in the accident, but they were back to work within days.