Thousands of “downwinders” — people living in the path of radiation releases from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — scored a legal victory yesterday when a federal appeals court ordered a lower court to reconsider two lawsuits against five former Hanford contractors. From 1944 to 1989, Hanford produced most of the nation’s plutonium for warheads; research conducted in the late ’80s suggested that people living in the vicinity had been exposed to harmful radiation, particularly from iodine-131, which is linked to thyroid disease. The downwinders sued, but in 1998, the U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington reduced the number of plaintiffs who had standing in the case to those who could prove that their risk of contracting cancer had doubled due to radiation from Hanford. But yesterday the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that standard, saying plaintiffs only needed to show that radiation exposure at levels comparable to Hanford’s would cause health problems in the general population. The plaintiffs — about 5,000 of them — are seeking damages, including medical expenses and compensation for pain and suffering.