Its was the night of August 30, 1976 and I was a few hours into my shift at the Americum-241 unit at the Hanford, WA nuclear power plant. My job was to stand next to a glove-box and monitor the extraction of Americum during the production of plutonium.
It had only been a few hours into my shift when I heard the hissing sound and saw the dense fumes forming in the glove box. Then there was the massive explosion and the rubber respirator on my face was ripped off. I tried to not inhale the fumes. I tried to crawl out. The nitric acid blinded me and I felt the tear and stinging of hundreds of pieces of radioactive metal, lead glass and rubber in my face and body. I learned later that in the following minutes, I had inhaled the largest dose of Americum ever recorded. They say I had recevied more than 300 microcuries. What's interesting is that they say .05 microcuries is the maximum permissible 'body burden'.
Nine other workers that night who were contaminated were able to get back to work within days but they wouldn't let me back in at the plant. My body was so hot I would set off geiger counters 50 feet away. They ended up rushing me from that black night to the Emergency Decontamination Unit at nearby Richland.
The first thing they did was shower me while eight doctors hovered around me. Four of them gave me a 50:50 change to live. The rest wouldn't say anything. What could they say - they'd never seen anything like this before. I later found out that the water from the shower contained 3,000 microcuries of radiation.
They kept me in a steel and concrete isolation tank for the next five months. I was tended by nurses wearing respirators and other protective clothing. They said it was to prevent contamination. I couldn't hear or see during much of this. I thought, I could have died.
My treatment consisted of being injected with an experimental zinc compound that bonded to the americum and let me excrete it out at a rate of 0.2 micrcuries a day.
Finally, on Valentine's Day in 1977 I was allowed to return home. My radiation count was 80% reduced but my eyes never returned. I had to wear special protective glasses. And my face was horribly scarred.
I tried to sue the government for almost a million dollars in compensation. I ended up settling for $275,000 and a lifetime of medical expenses.
In the days up to my death on August 17, 1987 I spent my time taping religious programs, walking around the city with my wife, and visiting the doctors.
* Story taken from "Book of the Nucelar Age" put out by Greenpeace.