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.
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 DPTA, 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.
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.
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]