Thousands flee as fire burns near nuclear weapons plant

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The Independent US

A raging wildfire was burning yesterday around the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, causing thousands of local residents and workers to flee terrified for their homes and their health.

A raging wildfire was burning yesterday around the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, causing thousands of local residents and workers to flee terrified for their homes and their health.

With both the state of Washington and the Department of Energy declaring a state of emergency, the National Guard was called in to help stop the blaze before it attacked radioactive waste left over from 40 years of plutonium production for the country's atomic weapons programme. Hundreds of firefighters on the ground and in aeroplanes were on hand to battle the fire.

It was the second brush fire in a month to threaten America's nuclear facilities, following the New Mexico blaze that laid waste to the town of Los Alamos and penetrated the government laboratories where nuclear weapons technology was developed under the Manhattan Project.

The Hanford fire was sparked by a car crash on Tuesday evening, spreading so fast that it devoured 180,000 acres of brushland and residential housing in its first 36 hours. It came within a mile of the reservations's 200 West area, where some of the worst of the nuclear waste is stored. All but a handful of workers on the reservation were evacuated, along with 7,000 residents of nearby West Richland and Benton City, where 25 homes were destroyed.

Federal officials were quick to play down fears of contamination - or worse - if the fire were to overwhelm the nuclear facility. Keith Klein, manager of the Department of Energy's Hanford office, said on Wednesday evening: "There are no known radiological releases as a result of the fire at this time." When he spoke, the wind had temporarily changed and pushed the blaze away from the waste storage sites and a nuclear energy facility. Yesterday, however, the winds picked up again and firefighters feared they might not be able to keep flames away from highly radioactive areas.

The Hanford area has a long history of chronic health problems arising from contamination that the government spent decades trying to cover up, and many local activists were sceptical yesterday about the official assurances. One nuclear group, the Heart of America Northwest, warned that the fire could burn radioactive soils and spew contaminated particles into the air.

"We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated particles," said the group's director, Gerald Pollet.

The Hanford reservation is a vast complex spread over 620 square miles in a largely arid part of south-eastern Washington along the Columbia river. It was built as part of the Manhattan Project in great secrecy in the 1940s, and for years residents of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick had no clear idea what went on there or what the dangers were. High incidences of respiratory and thyroid problems and of cancers have led to several investigations.

As for the site itself, it has turned into a radioactive contamination nightmare. British Nuclear Fuels was due to work on a clean-up but was fired from the job a month ago after Bill Richardson, the beleaguered Energy Secretrary, described the fee it was charging as exorbitant.

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