A federal appeals court ruling could allow hundreds more people who claim they were exposed to radiation to sue former Hanford nuclear reservation weapons contractors.

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SPOKANE, Wash. — A federal appeals court ruling could allow hundreds more people who claim they were exposed to radiation to sue former Hanford nuclear reservation weapons contractors.

Since 1990, some 2,300 people have sued over health problems they believe were caused by exposure to radioactive emissions from south-central Washington’s Hanford site. The so-called downwinder cases are largely based on the release of iodine-131, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear weapons production.

In an amended opinion, released Friday, which expanded on several rulings last August, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored a $317,251 award to Gloria Wise. Wise was one of the six “bellwether” plaintiffs whose cases went to trial in 2005.

Federal court juries in Spokane rejected four cases, though the 9th Circuit overturned the verdicts for three last year and ordered a new trial. Just two plaintiffs suffering from thyroid cancer, including Wise, won damages.

Lawyers for the Hanford contractors had appealed the jury verdict for Wise, saying her claim was filed too late. However, the appeals court panel on Friday ruled that the statute of limitations for individual plaintiffs pursuing claims had not expired.

The ruling potentially opens the door for hundreds more people to have their cases heard. Exactly how many people might be affected wasn’t immediately known. Originally, about 2,300 filed suit, but some people have died or their cases have been withdrawn.

Richard Eymann, a plaintiffs’ attorney in Spokane, called the latest ruling a major victory.

“It now means that all the plaintiffs, if they can prove causation, can have their cases go to a jury trial,” Eymann told The Spokesman-Review newspaper in a telephone interview.

Eymann also said the ruling will put pressure on the federal government to settle the long-running litigation.

U.S. taxpayers are paying the legal bills to defend the old Hanford contractors in an agreement that dates back to the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

Kevin Van Wart, lead attorney in Chicago for the Hanford contractors, said they may appeal the statute of limitations ruling because a different appeals court has taken a different position.

“We’re still looking at the ruling to see whether we want to appeal,” Van Wart said.

Associated Press phone messages left for Eymann and Van Wart after business hours Friday were not immediately returned.

In Friday’s ruling, the 9th Circuit panel also ruled that the Hanford contractors, including E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, General Electric Co., and UNC Nuclear Industries Inc., are not entitled to blanket legal immunity because they were operating Hanford at the request of the government.

That ruling upholds an earlier ruling by the Spokane trial judge, U.S. District Judge William F. Nielsen, which the contractors had appealed.

For 40 years, Hanford made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, beginning with the Manhattan Project. The Hanford downwinders lived in eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and northcentral Idaho when plumes of radiation blew across the region from stacks on the reservation near Richland.