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Hanford Nuclear Site Incident: What Are The Health And Human Risks?

11 May 2017, 10:25 pm EDT By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
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The underground tunnel collapse at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation facility has triggered radiation concerns and cancer risks. The facility was supplying plutonium for nuclear weapons until 1980 and was a depository of nuclear waste for many decades.   ( Jeff T. Green | Getty Images )

Nuclear radiation concerns are up at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation facility in the United States where an underground tunnel collapsed. The site has been functioning as a depository of radioactive nuclear waste since 1980.

The nuclear waste removal at the site has been costing more than $2 billion a year and is supposed to go on until 2040.

The facility contains 56 million gallons of nuclear waste stored in 177 underground tanks. Hanford is known for providing the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

According to reports, the tunnel collapse was detected during a routine inspection. The radioactive risks are emanating from the plutonium uranium extraction facility or PUREX where railway cars had been pulling away spent nuclear fuel rods.

Threats From Plutonium And Uranium

Radioactive materials pose serious harm to the human body when decaying radioactive isotopes emit radiation, killing the DNA of cells. This further unleashes mutations and cancer.

Plutonium exposure is quite deadly for living creatures. A study in the Nature Chemical Biology reported that plutonium hangs on to liver cells as well as blood cells, and triggers alpha radiation. When inhaled, plutonium also causes lung cancer.

Thanks to the human body's preference for iron compared with plutonium for biological processes, there is scope for treating plutonium exposure by blocking the plutonium acceptance of cells.

Among the short-term treatments for plutonium, there is Diethylenetriaminepentaacetic for faster removal of plutonium from the body.

Other drugs, such as beta-thalassemia and those for osteoporosis, also help in treating plutonium exposure.

Uranium is another radioactive element supposedly present at the PUREX tunnel. The bigger risk from uranium exposure is kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Uranium, while decaying into radon, also multiplies the risk of cancer, particularly in miners.

Hanford Management Alerts Employees

Meanwhile, Hanford management has ordered employees to be alert and avoid eating or drinking and take suitable precautions against radiation.

Hanford is currently run by the Energy Department and Washington River Protection Solutions.

"It's like having Fukushima sitting in your backyard ready to go off," commented Gerry Pollet, a Democrat law maker.

According to experts, more radioactive substances may be present in the Hanford site including radioactive iodine and cesium, which can cause thyroid cancer.

A high degree of exposure to radioactive waste also triggers a condition called radiation sickness, which ruptures the gastrointestinal tract and paves way for bleeding.

In Russia's Chernobyl, 28 emergency workers lost life three months after the nuclear incident, mainly from radiation-related poisoning.

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