Illinois Public Media News
Twenty University of Illinois students say the recent tornado damage in the south illustrates the need for building solar homes.
The wood frame of the Re_home is now on the Urbana campus, where a team will do the rest of the construction before September's Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC. The team's project manager, Beth Newman, said the idea is constructing something to run on solar power within days of a natural disaster.
"They could be up and running within a couple of days since the solar panels will already be installed on the roof before shipment," Newman said. "It's sort of a quick, easily assembly home that could be used without having to connect an electical grid."
Newman said her team was inspired to address disaster relief after storms that hit parts of Central Illinois last summer, including the cities of Streator and Dwight. She said the home could help in either a small or large-scale disaster.
"I guess what we're sort of focusing on is maybe some disasters that don't receive FEMA funding," Newman said. "Some of these towns that are hit by tornadoes, it's just really random, there might be only a few homes destroyed. And FEMA funding may not support them, so this is sort our alternate solution to that situation."
The re-home will remain on display on campus until the competition in September. It's located south of the Urbana quad, and west of the Pennsylvania Avenue greenhouses.
The city of Chicago has launched a program that officials say will help the taxi industry buy hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.
Mayor Richard Daley announced the program on Friday, the same day as Earth Day. It's called the Green Taxi Program and the goal is to help the city reach lower carbon emission goals. It also aims to passengers trips in environmentally sustainable vehicles.
A federal Clean Cities grant will fund the program. The program will use $1 million to reimburse the cost of certain green vehicles.
Hybrids will be reimbursed $2,000 and propane-powered vehicles can qualify for between $9,000 and $14,000. Eletric vehicles don't qualify.
(With additional reporting by the Association Press)
Ameren says its crews are working to turn the lights back on for more than 29,000 Illinois customers who were still without power Wednesday afternoon --- following Tuesday night's severe storm. That number is down from a peak of roughly 83,000 outages in Ameren Illinois service territory.
Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris said he hopes to see electricity restored to most households by Wednesday night --- but some work will take more time.
"I'll be honest with you," Morris said. "we're not going to get everybody back on (Wednesday). Some of the damage is very extensive, and we're going to have outages persisting through Thursday. It's going to be Thursday afternoon and into the evening hours and perhaps even into Friday, before every last customer is back on."
Morris said most of the remaining outages are concentrated in southern Illinois, including Carbondale, Carterville, DuQuoin and Mount Vernon. In east-central Illinois, a few hundred households were still without power Wednesday afternoon in Piatt and Macon Counties.
Morris said the severity and complexity of some of the damage is responsible for the extra time it's taking to finish repairs. For instance, he cites the Rend Lake reservoir near Benton, where 12 Ameren power poles were knocked into the water.
"We actually had to bring in specialized equipment," Morris explained. "Because these poles aren't lying by the side of lake, they're in the lake. You have to have equipment that floats --- that can get out there and repair that damage that we done."
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service say its crews are out inspecting some of the storm damage, trying to confirm whether it was the work of tornadoes. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries. Officials say the strong winds overturned some rail cars, at least one tractor-trailer and damaged dozens of buildings.
Trace amounts of radiation from Japan have shown up in Illinois, but state officials say there's no reason for concern.
Minute levels of radioactive materials have been detected in both northern and central Illinois. The state's Emergency Management Agency says radioactive iodine was found in grass clippings in Will County and in an air sample collected at a lab in Springfield.
The materials are believed to be related to the troubled nuclear reactors in Japan, but Illinois' Director Jonathon Monken says the levels are extremely low and present no danger. For example, the air sample is 200,000 times lower than what is allowed for nuclear plant effluent.
Traces of iodine have shown up in other states. In Illinois, the state has stepped up its monitoring of grass, air, milk and eggs in the wake of the Japan crisis.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the size of the evacuation zones around the six nuclear power plants in Illinois should be reviewed.
Kirk and fellow U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin held a forum Friday with a panel of four nuclear experts that resembled a congressional hearing to talk about safety in Illinois in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
Four of Illinois' 11 reactors are almost identical to those involved in Japan's nuclear crisis. Exelon Corp. owns the plants and says they're safe.
Officials sought to assure the senators that Illinois plants are safe and have multiple layers of safeguards.
Kirk and Durbin also were interested in making sure the state's stockpile of potassium iodide pills for people in evacuation zones is consistent with new 2010 census numbers.
Meanwhile, officials in Iowa were questioning just how safe are nuke power plants in and near Iowa?
Nuclear power plants in and around Iowa generally are operating safely, but there have been violations in the past as more safety questions arise because of the nuclear crisis in Japan and as Iowa lawmakers consider legislation making it easier to build another plant in Iowa, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.
Illinois has a nuclear plant in Cordova, located on the Mississippi River across from Davenport. Iowa has one nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Cedar Rapids. Nebraska has two plants on the Missouri River - The Fort Calhoun Station north of Omaha and Cooper Station near Brownville.
The Des Moines Register on Friday reported the plants have had no fines in the past five years, but have been cited by federal regulators.
The newspaper, which reviewed Nuclear Regulatory Commission records, reported that Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Station is one of three plants in the United States facing the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. That's because the plant's safety systems were found last year to be in danger of flooding, according to records.
Inspectors found the plant didn't have enough sand to fill bags that operators planned to place on a flood wall to protect buildings and equipment.
"We're going through all our procedures in fairly quick order not only for NRC, but also because of events in Japan," said Fort Calhoun spokesman Jeff Hanson.
There's an adequate stockpile of sand in place now, but the plant will continue to be inspected frequently because the violation was consider a "substantial" safety risk.
The other plants in or near Iowa were cited for less serious problems, records show.
In the past five years, the Iowa plant received notification of four violations that occurred between 2003 and 2009, said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy Resources, which owns 70 percent of the plant.
No fines were issued. The violations involved a diesel generator problem, a deficiency in drills and planning, failure to complete a checklist before moving fuel bundles and failing to properly notify health personnel.
"Protecting the health and safety of the public through safe power operations is always our top priority. We take any and all feedback from the NRC very seriously," said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy's plant in Iowa.
Nelson said two of the findings occurred and were resolved to the satisfaction of the NRC more than two years ago. Both represented "low safety significance," she said.
The other findings were related to events in 2003 and 2004, and were specifically related to proper procedure use, not plant safety, Nelson said.
The NRC determined that the plant "operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives," according to the agency's latest assessment released March 4.
Last week, NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said U.S. nuclear plants "are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena. ... We believe we have a very sold and strong regulatory structure in place right now."
But the Union of Concerned Scientist, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that focuses on environmental and safety issues, said U.S. plants have "the same key vulnerability" that led to the crisis in Japan.
"The basic problem is that the Japanese reactors lost both their normal and back-up power supplies, which are used to cool fuel rods and the reactor core," the organization said in a statement.
Victor Dricks, a NRC spokesman in Dallas, whose regional includes the Nebraska plants, told the Register that redundant safety systems, backup power supplies and several methods for shutting down reactors at U.S. plants make disasters such as the one in Japan extremely unlikely.
Most plants get their electricity from two or three high-power lines. If those should fail, there are two sets of backup diesel generators that come on automatically and are housed in buildings designed to withstand tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, Dricks said.
University of Illinois trustees have put off action on an Urbana campus wind turbine for at least three months, but speakers on both sides of the issue told trustees at their meeting in Springfield Wednesday they would prefer a quick decision.
For civil engineering student Amy Allen, the decision should be "yes". Allen, who is also president of Students for Environmental Concerns on the Urbana campus, told trustees that any further delay would just run up the cost for the wind turbine --- and perhaps kill the project entirely. She wants trustees to approve the wind turbine for its original site at South Farms.
"Re-siting the turbine and seeking an extension would kill the project," Allen said. "We ask that you approve the wind turbine at the next meeting of the board of trustees in June, or abandon it entirely, instead of consigning it to death by a thousand cuts."
But abandonment would be just fine for U of I faculty member Steven Platt. He told trustees that even if a site is found that won't disturb nearby homeowners, wind turbines are no longer on the cutting edge of energy technology.
"There are hundreds of large turbines in Illinois, thousands across the country," Platt said. "The time, if ever there was one, to erect what will amount to be a five-million-dollar symbol is long in the past."
A U of I board of trustees committee has decided to give the wind turbine project further study --- it could come up at the board's next meeting on June 9th in Chicago.
The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.
While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.
The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.
That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.
"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."
Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.
The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.
As the U.S. electric car market gears up this year, utility company Ameren is showing off one of the models.
Company spokesman Leigh Morris says its 17-day test drive of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is intended to show that the utility is prepared to handle charging for either all-electric cars as well as hybrids. He says the utility will provide free electric upgrades needed to charge the vehicle, like a new transformer in the home.
The I-MiEV is aimed at the European market, but a similar model is expected to arrive in the U.S. this fall, and has a maximum driving range of about 85 miles. Morris says Ameren is also showing off the car to give the consumer some options:
"This type of a vehicle is probalby ideally suited for somebody who does a lot of urban-type driving," he said. "Because you're not going to get in it and drive to St. Louis. It has that limitation of the 85 miles. The fact of the matter is, an all-electric car is not going to be suited for everybody."
Morris said Ameren Illinois plans to purchase four plug-in hybrid bucket trucks of its own soon.
"We're also going to be test-driving the (Chevy) Volt as well as the Nissan Leaf," he said. "And I would not be surprised if down the road as become vehicles become available, if we don't try those out as well. This is all a learning curve for everybody. I think we're really at the birth of the electric car."
The I-Miev charges with a 120-volt outlet for about 12 hours, but consumers can purchase higher-voltage charging stations. Ameren is taking the electric car to 16 cities in its market over the next couple of weeks, including Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Decatur, and the St. Louis area.
Illinois' two U.S. Senators want to know more about the safety of the state's nuclear reactors.
Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk plan a hearing to get more details on the nuclear industry in Illinois. The move comes in the wake of radiation fears in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
Durbin said with Illinois' eleven nuclear reactors, questions should be asked.
"When you consider that half the power in Illinois comes from nuclear power, we are concerned about this and should be," he said. "I have no reason to believe they are dangerous at all but I do believe this is a wake up call."
Durbin said the state's residents deserve to hear what is being done to prepare for a possible disaster. He added that he remains a supporter of nuclear energy although safety at the sites and the disposal of nuclear waste are issues that demand scrutiny.
Illinois has 11 nuclear reactors, and six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton.
VIDEO EXTRA: James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, says about a third of the country's nuclear reactors are similar to the ones affected by the devastation in Japan. He asses the stability of U.S. reactors against natural disasters. To hear more from an interview he did with WILL's David Inge, click here: http://tinyurl.com/5tcpl2e
Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.
Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.
"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.
Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.
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