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Crews Gain in Fighting Blaze at Nuclear Site

From Associated Press

Crews made headway Thursday against a wildfire that gobbled at least 190,000 arid acres on and around the Hanford nuclear reservation and burned across three old storage sites for radioactive waste.

No radiation releases had been detected by state or federal air monitoring devices, said Keith Klein, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford office.

“We appear to have turned a major corner in terms of controlling the fire,” Klein said at a Thursday night briefing, adding that expected 40-mph winds never materialized.

The fire has raced across 160,000 acres of the federal reservation--45% of Hanford’s 560-square-mile territory--in addition to burning 30,000 acres nearby, including portions of several communities.

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Flames still burned about two miles from giant underground tanks that contain Hanford’s most dangerous radioactive waste. But Hanford officials said the fire posed no risk to the tanks, which are buried six feet.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson planned to survey the site Friday. Gov. Gary Locke was on site earlier Thursday.

Energy officials previously estimated the fire was 40% contained. Klein refused to offer a containment estimate Thursday night but did say some fire crews might be released Friday.

About 900 firefighters fought the blaze.

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Follow-up radiation tests were planned on vegetation samples and air monitoring filters were flown to a state lab in Olympia, said state Health Department spokeswoman Debra McBaugh. Initial samples of smoke from the fire detected no radiation hazard, the Health Department said.

At least 73 structures, including 20 homes, were destroyed and about 7,000 people were evacuated at the height of the blaze Wednesday, although they were allowed back into their homes Thursday afternoon. One man was seriously burned and 13 people were treated for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated for a minor leg injury.

Hanford, which contains the nation’s largest volume of nuclear waste, was established to help build the atomic bomb during World War II. Today, its workers clean up radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium production for nuclear weapons.

About noon Thursday, the fire burned over a former radioactive waste disposal area near the center of the reservation.

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The site, called a “crib,” was used to store low-level radioactive liquid waste during plutonium production. Waste was piped to the area to percolate through the soil. Department of Energy spokeswoman Julie Erickson compared it with an underground septic system.

At some point the fire also burned over two waste storage ponds that had not been used for many years, Erickson said. They were dry and overgrown with vegetation.

“The plan is to continue monitoring after the fire is contained,” said Katie Larson, another Department of Energy spokeswoman. Hanford firefighting personnel are equipped with dosimeters to detect radiation.

But so far, on-site monitoring “indicates there is no problem,” Larson said.

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All three sites are near the center of the reservation, where firefighters were working to extinguish two hot spots Thursday, Erickson said.

It was the second time in two months that a wildfire threatened a U.S. nuclear site. In May, a fire set to clear brush near Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico raged out of control, forcing evacuation of more than 20,000 people and destroying more than 200 homes in Los Alamos and nearly 40 temporary buildings at the laboratory.

“Most of the fire now is located in the Hanford area,” Benton County Undersheriff Dale Brunson said. “It’s apparently away from most of the homes now anyway and in more isolated areas.”

Once the flames have passed through dry grass and sagebrush, “there’s no fuel source there to continue the fire,” he said. The hot spots persist where fuel remains.

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About 8,000 nonessential Hanford personnel were told to stay home Thursday, leaving 400 to 500 at the site.

The fire was started Tuesday by a fatal car wreck. At the fire’s peak Wednesday, some residents had only a few minutes’ warning to get out.

“The flames were about three miles away. I could see them from my living room. They were coming fast. That’s when we split,” Richard Newby, 50, of Benton City said Thursday at an emergency shelter.

Marty Peck, 43, said he watched the fire approach his Benton City house from Rattlesnake Mountain, about two miles away.

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“You could see it jetting toward us. It was smoky and you couldn’t see the flames until it got right here. And then it exploded on the pasture,” he said. “It was just a fireball two or three times taller than our house.”

Most evacuations were in the communities of West Richland and Benton City, just south of the reservation.

Robert Pierce, 49, of Benton City suffered burns on his back and arms and was in serious condition Thursday at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, spokesman Larry Zalin said.


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