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Emergency Declared at Nuclear Waste Site in Washington State

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Emergency Declared at Nuclear Waste Site in Washington State

The Department of Energy declared an emergency Tuesday at a plutonium-handling facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state after a tunnel partly collapsed. Federal officials said, there was "no indication of a release of contamination at this point."


Hundreds of Workers were told to evacuate or take cover as officials responded to reports of "a cave-in of a 20 foot section of a tunnel that is hundreds of feet long that is used to store contaminated materials," according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

"The tunnel itself was breached. There was a 20-foot wide hole," a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy said by telephone from the Hanford Joint Information Center.

The tunnel, located next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX, is in the center of Hanford in an area known as the 200 East Area.

"The PUREX facility is one of Hanford's most contaminated areas," Dan Serres, conservation director at Columbia Riverkeeper, told EcoWatch. "It was the source for the majority of Hanford's weapons plutonium, and Hanford itself produced more than two-thirds of the plutonium in the U.S."

"The tunnel collapse is a disturbing event, and we hope for the safety of all the workers in the area," Serres continued. "Their work is critical to protecting our region and the Columbia River. Looking forward, we will be watching closely to see how the U.S. Department of Energy continues the cleanup effort in this area and throughout the Hanford site."

The Energy Department said via Twitter that Sec. Perry "has been briefed on the incident." The most recent update from the DOE, said crews were continuing to monitor the air as employees were being released early as a precaution.

"This is a potentially serious event," Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. "I can see why the site ordered emergency measures. Collapse of the earth covering the tunnels could lead to a considerable radiological release."

The Hanford site, in southeastern Washington about 170 miles east of Seattle, is known for being the most contaminated nuclear site in the country. The facility made more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel for nine nuclear reactors along the Columbia River. The reactors produced plutonium for America's defense program. Production ended at the facility in the late 1980s, and cleanup began in 1989, after a landmark agreement between the DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington state.

According to a report late last year from the Oregon Public Broadcasting:

"Hanford is the nation's largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks just a few hours upriver from Portland. After more than 20 years and $19 billion[,] not a drop of waste has been treated.

"Hanford sits next to the Columbia River. It was one of the original Manhattan Project sites. Its nine nuclear reactors irradiated uranium fuel rods. That created plutonium, which was extracted with chemicals, processed and shipped to weapons factories. Each step produced radioactive waste. ...

"The stored waste has to be treated in special rooms called black cells, which are too radioactive for humans to enter. The machinery in these black cells is supposed to operate for 40 years with no direct human intervention. If something goes wrong, the cells could be damaged."

Watch here to learn more about the Hanford site:

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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