- AmeriScan: August 13, 2003 Environment News Service (ENS)
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AmeriScan: August 13, 2003

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U.S., Netherlands Launch Anti-Nuclear Smuggling Initiative

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. and Dutch governments announced an effort Tuesday to work together in the war on terrorism by installing special equipment at Europe's busiest seaport to detect hidden shipments of nuclear and other radioactive material.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham joined Dutch State Secretary of Finance, Joop Wijn, in the Netherlands to sign the cooperative agreement for the new program aimed at thwarting illicit shipments of weapons material.

Rotterdam, which handles more than 300 million metric tons of cargo each year, will be one of the first sites for this type of new security system in Europe. The Department of Energy plans to work with other international ports in the near future.

"Terrorist groups and rogue nations trying to smuggle components for nuclear weapons is a serious threat that must be addressed," Abraham said. "Installing sophisticated radiation detection devices here, and at other key shipping centers around the world, is a major step forward in preventing the trafficking of these dangerous materials."

Security experts have warned that terrorists seeking to build nuclear weapons or so-called dirty bombs - conventional explosives laced with radioactive material - might attempt to use commercial shipping channels to smuggle the necessary nuclear components.

Thousands of commercial ships traveling between Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East pass through Rotterdam's maze of docks and container facilities.

Energy Department officials say the U.S.-Dutch agreement complements the department's "Megaports Initiative," part of the U.S. government's "Second Line of Defense" program, which is intended to identify and intercept illegal shipments of weapons materials. They say it will also work in tandem with the Homeland Security Department's Container Security Initiative, in which Customs and Border Protection agents partner with countries operating major shipping ports to help safeguard the international supply chain.

The specialized radiation detection technology to be used at Rotterdam was developed by Department of Energy laboratories as part of the overall U.S. nuclear security program to guard against proliferation of weapons materials.

"Ultimately, we hope that the Megaports Initiative will further our international nonproliferation and antiterrorist efforts and provide officials with useful evidence for prosecution of terrorists and smugglers," Abraham said. "The United States is gratified to have a close partnership with the Netherlands in this important operation in the fight against terrorism."

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Automakers Drop Challenge of California Auto Plan

DETROIT, Michigan, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. automakers announced Tuesday that they have dropped lawsuits challenging California's zero emission vehicle (ZEV) program. According to the automakers, changes made by California to its program in the spring prompted the resolution of their concerns.

The spring revisions eliminated a battery powered mandate and gave automakers the option of meeting the program's requirements by selling some 125,000 hybrids annually in California by 2010.

The announcement signals the end of a 13 year dispute between automakers and California state officials who are keen to push the state toward more fuel efficient, less polluting vehicles.

The California ZEV program - developed by the California Air Resources Board - first passed in 1990 and mandated that 10 percent of vehicles sold in the state be emissions free by this year.

A 2001 change allowed automakers to count the sale of hybrids and other fuel efficient vehicles toward the quota, but in June 2002 a federal judge put a preliminary injunction in place on the state's plan for two years.

Automakers had challenged the plan and said California was illegally trying to regulate fuel economy - something only the federal government has authority to do.

California's appeal of that injunction is still pending, but Tuesday's announcement means the automakers will drop their lawsuits once the revisions take effect.

The California Air Resources Board views the agreement as "another successful step in the board's implementation of a mobile source emission reduction program that will help ensure California citizens of continued improvements in California's air quality," said the board's chairman Alan Lloyd.

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Panel Cautions U.S. on Public Smallpox Vaccinations

WASHINGTON, DC, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - Members of the general public should not receive the smallpox vaccine except as part of a research study or other equally stringent clinical arrangement that meets the basic requirements of medical and public health ethics, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

The committee that wrote the report also recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) support the creation of registries of health care workers and others who have been vaccinated and trained in smallpox response, as part of needed plans to quickly mobilize and coordinate these personnel in the event of an outbreak.

"Preparedness for an attack using smallpox or any other bioterrorist agent depends as much on the availability of a good response plan and the ability to quickly coordinate responders as it does on the number of responders who have been vaccinated in advance," said committee chair Brian Strom, chair and professor of biostatistics and epidemiology, and of medicine and pharmacology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia.

The report was sponsored by the CDC. The Institute of Medicine is a private, nonprofit institution that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

"Smallpox is not the only threat to the nation's health, and vaccination is not the only tool for preparedness," Strom said. "The focus should continue to be on defining preparedness in each state or region and determining what else is needed to be fully ready."

When President George W. Bush announced the revival of smallpox vaccinations in late 2002, he stated that although the administration was not recommending immunization for the general public, public health agencies would work to accommodate individuals who insisted on receiving the vaccine.

But sporadic inoculations of the public could further strain health agencies' budgets and staff and unnecessarily raise significant safety concerns without necessarily contributing to preparedness, the panel says. In the report, the committee recommends that the CDC pursue a stepwise approach to accommodating the general public's wishes.

The first step should be conducting surveys to determine public demand for smallpox vaccine. The agency should then determine the funding and other resources that would be required to meet demand. Because the smallpox vaccine carries greater risks than other vaccines, the CDC and state public health agencies should then refer individuals to existing or planned smallpox vaccine trials or other similarly well structured and rigorously monitored clinical arrangements.

The system that CDC put in place to monitor and respond to smallpox vaccine safety issues appears to be functioning well overall, the committee said.

To ensure that the vaccine program continues to be carried out as safely as possible, the panel recommends, the CDC and its partners should continue to facilitate reporting of adverse events, emphasize active surveillance, and improve data collection.

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NRC Starts Special Investigation at Indian Point

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced Tuesday that a team of its inspectors have begun a special inspection at the Indian Point nuclear power plant to look into a series of unplanned shutdowns at the facility. The two unit site, operated by Entergy Nuclear Northeast, is located in Buchanan, New York.

The NRC will review the plant's operations to examine the causes of the shutdowns, the performance of plant operators as well as the reliability of equipment and electrical systems.

Over the past two years, there have been a number of unplanned reactor shutdowns that have occurred at both Indian Point 2 and 3. In all cases, the units have been operated safely, NRC reports, but the agency wants to determine if there is an underlying cause for the shutdowns.

The plant has had half a dozen unplanned shutdowns this year alone. The latest, on August 3, was due to an electrical fault in the off site power grid during an electrical storm.

In accordance with the agency's reactor oversight program, this special inspection, while independently reviewing the August 3 event at Unit 2, will be closely coordinated with a previously planned supplemental inspection at Unit 3.

That supplemental inspection was planned because a performance indicator for unplanned reactor shutdowns had crossed a threshold, requiring additional inspection effort.

The inspection will be conducted in phases over the next several weeks, according to the NRC, and the team will document its findings in an inspection report that will be issued within 45 days of the close of the inspection.

Indian Point has been the source of some concern for the NRC. In February 2000, some 20,000 gallons of reactor coolant spilled inside the plant and a small amount of radioactive steam was released. That caused the shutdown of Unit 2 for some 10 months.

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DOD Agrees to Follow California Perchlorate Rules

RIALTO, California, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) agreed last week to abide by California's safe drinking water standards for perchlorate and communities' right to know as they work to clean up contamination caused by the chemical used in rocket fuel.

The agreement was fueled by Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who has emerged as a leader in the federal effort to clean up perchlorate contamination in California communities.

"This is an important breakthrough," Boxer said. "Defense Department activities have been a major source of perchlorate contamination in California. This kind of active cooperation will help us find and fix perchlorate problems throughout the State."

The agreement between the DOD and the state includes four components. First, the military will comply with any final perchlorate regulatory standard promulgated by California, including a safe drinking water standard, and will not attempt to delay compliance until a federal standard is adopted.

Second, the DOD will form a federal/state interagency perchlorate working group to help set clean up priorities, appropriate resources, and communicate California's adopted perchlorate standards.

Third, it will provide information on California perchlorate contamination and schedules for testing.

Fourth, the Defense Department stated that its attempts to secure exemptions from certain federal environmental laws are not intended to exempt the Department from liability for cleaning up perchlorate contamination.

It is estimated that perchlorate, a suspected carcinogen, contaminates more than 500 drinking water sources in 20 states, serving well more than 20 million people.

Earlier this year, Boxer introduced two bills on perchlorate, one would establish a federal standard for perchlorate contamination in drinking water supplies by July 1, 2004. The second would guarantee a community's "right-to-know" about the use of perchlorate by companies.

The California Senator has also asked the Food and Drug Administration to investigate perchlorate contamination in food grown in the U.S.

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Oregon Wastewater Polluter Hit With $500,000 Civil Penalty

PORTLAND, Oregon, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge has assessed a $500,000 civil penalty against a race track owner for illegal discharges of manure-laden wastewater into tributaries of the Columbia Slough in Portland, Oregon. It is the highest civil penalty ever assessed against the operator of a "concentrated animal feeding operation" for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Federal District Court Judge Garr King, ruling in United States v. The New Portland Meadows Inc., found that "the risk generated by the contaminated discharge was significant" and that the defendant's history of violations "weighs heavily against The New Portland Meadows."

The ruling follows a three day trial on penalty issues held in late May 2003.

The judge determined that the company had avoided pollution control costs that resulted in substantial economic benefits to New Portland Meadows.

The New Portland Meadows, Inc. operated the Portland Meadows race track between 1991 and May 2001.

According to Randy Smith, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water quality office in Seattle, resolution of this case is a another step forward in protecting water quality in the Columbia Slough.

The ruling by King is "a real milestone for us," Smith said. "The EPA puts a high priority on protecting the Columbia Slough and the Willamette River from pathogens and other pollutants. To use these important water bodies as dumping grounds is unacceptable and unlawful."

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Less Bromine Is Good News for the Ozone Layer

BOULDER, Colorado, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - Bromine, one of the most active destroyers of the atmospheric ozone layer, has been decreasing since 1998 in the lower atmosphere and is now more than five percent below the peak reached that year, researchers report.

The ozone layer forms an invisible shield around the Earth, protecting it from the biologically damaging ultraviolet rays of the Sun.

The decline of total bromine is attributed primarily to international restrictions on industrial production of methyl bromide, according to Stephen Montzka and colleagues from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Their report will be published August 15 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

"The decrease is driven by a large and rapid decline in methyl bromide, a brominated gas that is regulated internationally by the Montreal Protocol," said Montzka.

The surprisingly large drop in atmospheric methyl bromide, some 13 percent since 1998, has more than offset the small increases still observed for bromine from fire extinguishing agents known as halons, Montzka and his colleagues report.

Bromine is about 50 times more efficient than chlorine at destroying stratospheric ozone.

"This is welcome news for stratospheric ozone because it means that less bromine and chlorine have been entering the upper atmosphere [stratosphere], where the ozone layer resides, for a number of years now," said Montzka.

Furthermore, while chlorine's decline in the lower atmosphere had been slowing in recent years, these new data suggest that the overall threat posed to stratospheric ozone from all halogenated gases continues to steadily diminish, Montzka said.

Methyl bromide is produced industrially for use as a fumigant in agriculture and in the shipment of commercial goods. It is unique among ozone-depleting substances regulated by the United Nation's Montreal Protocol, in that it also has substantial natural sources, including the oceans, wetlands, some plants, and burning vegetation.

Methyl bromide and halons together account for nearly all of the human released bromine that reaches the stratosphere.

This good news must be tempered, however, because bromine from halons is still increasing slowly, Montzka cautions, but "the surprisingly large decline observed for methyl bromide now dominates the overall trend for bromine."

Full recovery of the ozone layer is still expected to take several decades, provided atmospheric levels of both bromine and chlorine continue to drop.

The researchers note that these encouraging trends could change.

"Decreases in ozone depleting substances are a direct result of international limits on production," said Montzka. "Without continued worldwide adherence to the restrictions outlined in the Protocol, these trends could slow and delay the recovery of stratospheric ozone."

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Tiny Ocean Organisms Offer Clues to Climate Change

WALNUT CREEK, California, August 13, 2003 (ENS) - New insights into how the planet's oceans affect the climate may lie deep in the genomes of several microscopic ocean dwelling organisms, scientists say.

The genomes of the organisms were sequenced at the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and comparative studies of four types of cyanobacteria - "photosynthetic" microbes that derive energy from sunlight, just like plants - were published today on the websites of the journals Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Three of the microbes - two strains of Prochlorococcus and one of Synechococcus - were among the first organisms to have their DNA sequenced at JGI in the late 1990s, and are the first ocean bacteria to be sequenced.

Cyanobacteria are important in part because of their ability to turn sunlight and carbon into organic material.

They are the smallest yet most abundant photosynthetic organisms in the oceans and play a critical role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide, a chief contributor to global climate change.

Scientists estimate that Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus remove about 10 billion tons of carbon from the air each year as much as two-thirds of the total carbon fixation that occurs in the oceans.

The three cyanobacteria sequenced by JGI were "hand picked" to help scientists "begin to understand the physiological and genetic controls of photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation and carbon cycling," said Patrick Chain, a biologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and coauthor of the two Nature papers.

"While many questions remain," said Dr. Raymond Orbach, director of Energy Department's Office of Science, "it is clear that Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus play an immensely significant role in photosynthetic ocean carbon sequestration."

"Having the completed genome in hand gives us a first albeit crude 'parts list' to use in exploring the mechanisms for these and other important processes that could be directly relevant to this critical mission," Orbach said.

The cyanobacteria are also of interest to scientists because of their ability to turn sunlight into chemical energy a potential model for sustainable energy production.

It is worth discovering how an organism with roughly 2,000 genes "converts solar energy into living biomass basic elements into life," said Sallie Chisholm, professor of Environmental Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and coauthor of one of the Nature papers.

"These cells are not just some esoteric little creatures," Chisholm said. "They dominate the oceans. There are some 100 million Prochlorococcus cells per liter of seawater, for example."

One of the Nature papers reports on and compares the DNA sequence of two Prochlorococcus strains; the other describes the Synechococcus genome.

The PNAS paper reports on the genome of a third strain of Prochlorococcus.

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