The McCluskey Room inside the Dept. of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Eastern Washington is named after an accident. DOE and CH2M Hill workers don’t want any repeat of the 1976 incident that gave the room its name.

The room, located inside the site’s Plutonium Finishing Plant, proves one of the most hazardous on the entire Hanford campus and crews must prepare to enter it this summer as part of the effort to demolish the plant.

The McCluskey Room was used to recover americium during the Cold War and is named after Harold McCluskey, who was injured in 1976 when a vessel inside a glove box burst and exposed him to radioactive materials. McCluskey, who was 64 at the time, lived for 11 more years and died from causes not related to the accident.

But going into the room again proves daunting. Crews have been preparing the Plutonium Finishing Plant for demolition since 2008 by removing equipment and infrastructure inside the building that once processed plutonium.

“About two-third of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is deactivated — cleaned out and ready for demolition,” Jon Peschong, deputy assistant manager for River and Central Plateau cleanup at the DOE’s Richland, Washington, operations office, says in a statement. “Cleaning out the McCluskey Room will be a major step forward.”

Inside the room, workers can expect airborne radioactivity, surface contamination, confined spaces and poor ventilation. To prepare, workers traveled last year to a similarly contaminated DOE site in Idaho and observed the use of specialized air systems and protective suits, strategies they’ll employ at Hanford.

The equipment they’ll use include abrasion resistant suits that protect from surface contamination and chemicals and devices within the suits that allow for communicating within the room and for monitoring air inside the suit. A dual-purpose pressurized air system will provide cool air for breathing and cool air throughout the suit for work comfort, all with the protection of airborne contaminants.

Once inside, crews will improve ventilation, remove combustibles, control airborne contamination, isolate and remove electrical and mechanical items, remove processing equipment such as glove boxes and tanks and prepare the McCluskey Room for the Plutonium Finishing Plant demolition. And it will all happen as crews hope for no repeat of history. 

Tim Newcomb is Engineering News-Record’s Pacific Northwest contributor. He also writes for Popular MechanicsSports Illustrated and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb or visit his website here.