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September 18, 2008 3:01 am

Radioactive Man' dies uncompensated

Written by Tribune Staff

They called the Powell native the Radioactive Man.

After all, Michael (Duffy) Olveda was believed to have inhaled more radiation than anyone in the history of U.S. nuclear facilities. It happened in the early morning hours of Aug. 30, 1971, when a small explosion rocked a laboratory in the plutonium-recovery building of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver.

Olveda, then 37, found himself soaking up radiation in the midst of a “hot fire,” ignited spontaneously in a container of plutonium shavings and light oil. He may have been exposed for 10-15 seconds before donning his respirator. Smoke quickly filled the room, and he estimated he was in the fire for some two minutes before finding his way out.

Olveda had worked as a technician for eight years for Dow Chemical, which leased the facility from the Atomic Energy Commission. After scrubbing surface plutonium dust in the decontamination unit, he was sent to the infirmary to check for inhaled plutonium. The results revealed he had inhaled more radiation — almost 28 times the maximum allowable level — than any person in the recorded history of operating nuclear facilities in the United States.

“It was a tragic thing,” said his sister, Sally Montoya of Powell.

The aftermath of the nuclear accident was not kind to Olveda either. He was denied compensation for the accident by his employer, Dow Chemical, who gave as one probable cause of the accident improper fit of the respirator due to interference from his beard. Olveda had worn a beard at Dow for more than two years without any ill effects or criticism from his employer.

He was later denied disability compensation on the basis that presence of plutonium in the body indicates the potential for future impairment, but a worker must wait until he has a documented disability to obtain payment. Olveda quit work for Dow after his request for disability compensation was denied. His plutonium count still read eight times the maximum lung burden.

Olveda died Aug. 30 in Louisiana of lung cancer at the age of 74, still uncompensated for his radiation poisoning, his sister said. He suffered lung pain and had trouble breathing and swallowing, she said.

Olveda contributed to medical history eight days after the accident when he became the first human to undergo a “lung lavage.” The right lung was twice flushed with saline solution in an attempt to remove inhaled radioactive particles. During the operation, the left lung was supplied with life-sustaining oxygen.

The lung lavage operation was performed at Bataan Memorial Hospital in Albuquerque, N.M. A similar operation on the left lung was scheduled for three or four days later, but Olveda called it off. He didn't think the first operation had any effect, and too much time had passed since he absorbed the radiation, he said.