Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 01, 2011

Boeing to Build More Space Crafts

Chicago-based Boeing announced new plans on Monday to build space shuttles for people and cargo. Boeing will build reusable capsules that can take up to seven people into space.

Ever since NASA's space shuttle program ended, the U.S. has been relying on Russia to get to the International Space Station. Boeing's new program is expected to provide another way to get there.

Morningstar analyst Neal Dihora said Boeing's space technology accounts for about 13 percent of the company's sales this year.

"With the space shuttle shut down, they were going to see some exits or decreases in revenue and this actually helps them over a longer time frame," Dihora said. "But it's not really that big of a material difference for the entire company as a whole."

Boeing will lease a former shuttle hangar at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The project is expected to create more than 500 jobs by 2015. More than 4,000 space-related jobs have been lost in the Cape Canaveral area.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 26, 2011

Final Work Underway on UI Reactor Building

The final elements of an old atomic reactor on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus should be removed by next spring.

The decommission process is expected to start in the next few days. U of I Head of Nuclear Plasma and Radiological Engineering, James Stubbins, says the facility housed next to the Engineering Science Building was used a lot for research and training from 1960 through 1998.

That year, he says U of I administrators chose not to renew the license for financial reasons. Stubbins says it's a decision the university should regret.

"I think in terms of the campus, it's a real loss in terms of those kinds of capabilities," he said. "The argument was about budget, but (compared to) the actual cost of running the reactor, actually this is is much more expensive than what it would have cost to continue to run the reactor."

Stubbins says the facility was less of a threat over the last several years, particularly after the fuel was removed from the reactor in 2004. He says cleaning what remains won't require workers to be greatly protected.

"What we expect is even the dust levels inside won't be enough for people to have to wear respirators," said Stubbins. "We expect a normal kind of building tearing down working environment. But because we're using saws to go through the concrete, we don't even expect so much dust to be pushed up into the air."

He says any areas with residual radioactivity should be removed first, followed by a concrete block that served as a biological shield, surrounding the reactor's core. Stubbins says any staff near the site at Springfield and Goodwin Avenues shouldn't be impacted.

The final work should be completed in May.

Categories: Education, Energy, Science

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 19, 2011

Study: 1 in 25 Teens Taking Antidepressants

Health officials say roughly 1 in 25 adolescents in the United States are taking antidepressants.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the first to offer statistics on how many kids ages 12 to 17 take antidepressants.

It's based on surveys and depression screenings of about 12,000 Americans.

The study found about 1 in 10 adults take antidepressants.

And perhaps more should - the researchers said only one third of people with depression symptoms in the study were taking medication.

The CDC report was released Wednesday. It also found that women take the drugs more than men, and whites use them more than blacks or Mexican-Americans.

Categories: Health, Science

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 15, 2011

U of Ill. Professor Joins Engineering Hall of Fame

A University of Illinois professor who created the first usable light-emitting diode will join Thomas, Edison, the Wright brothers and a select group of scientists and inventors when he's inducted into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame next month.

The university said Friday that 82-year-old Nick Holonyak Jr. will be inducted in a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 3. He will be added to the Hall of Fame along with Nikola Tesla and James Tsui.

Since its creation by Holonyak the LED has become commonplace. It is used in everything from instrument panels to head lamps used by joggers. His work has also helped create household dimmer switches, the lasers central to CD and DVD players, and fiber-optic communication.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 29, 2011

Illinois Scientists Land Presidential Award

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Two Illinois researchers have been honored by President Barack Obama as distinguished U.S. science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers.

Dr. Carla Pugh of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Gang Logan Liu of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are among 94 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

The awards honor the pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, as well as the honorees commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

"It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers-careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation," President Obama said.

Pugh is known for her research to develop a physical test that measures medical students' and doctors' ability to perform clinical breast exams. She is using plastic models embedded with data-capturing sensors and simulated tumors to measure the ability to tell the difference between a cancerous lump and a benign cyst.

Liu's research focuses on ways nano-engineering might one day be used to cure diseases and preserve the environment.

The two scientists will be invited to the White House to meet President Barack Obama and attend an awards ceremony.

Categories: Government, Politics, Science

AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 28, 2011

Brain Scan Could Study Alzheimer’s Disease

MRI brain scans are commonly used to detect brain tumors or concussions in athletes. Now a similar scan is being tested to study Alzheimer's Disease.

An MRI shows the structure of the brain -- what it looks like. Whereas an fMRI is used to show how the brain functions. It can tell which areas of the brain are more active when you are at ease.

Researchers think the fMRI can be used to detect changes in this resting state which can indicate brain disorders such as depression, autism, and Alzheimer's.

"Before I have the symptoms, I could have an fMRI test," said Dr. Tom Ala, interim director for the Center for Alzheimer's Disease at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. "The fMRI test could say 'you are cool no problem', I'm not as worried. If the fMri test says the arrow is pointing in that direction because of this test, this biomarker, I could start treatment."

Patients cannot use this technology for Alzheimer's yet because it is still in the testing phase.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Health, Science, Technology

AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 02, 2011

Quake Risk to Reactors Greater Than Thought

The risk that an earthquake would cause a severe accident at a U.S. nuclear plant is greater than previously thought, 24 times as high in one case, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data. The nation's nuclear regulator believes a quarter of America's reactors may need modifications to make them safer.

The threat came into sharp focus last week, when shaking from the largest earthquake to hit Virginia in 117 years appeared to exceed what the North Anna nuclear power plant northwest of Richmond was built to sustain.

The two North Anna reactors are among 27 in the eastern and central U.S. that a preliminary Nuclear Regulatory Commission review has said may need upgrades. That's because those plants are more likely to get hit with an earthquake larger than the one their design was based on. Just how many nuclear power plants are more vulnerable won't be determined until all operators recalculate their own seismic risk based on new assessments by geologists, something the agency plans to request later this year. The NRC on Thursday issued a draft of that request for public comment.

The review, launched well before the East Coast quake and the Japan nuclear disaster in March, marks the first complete update to seismic risk in years for the nation's 104 existing reactors, despite research showing greater hazards.

The NRC and the industry say reactors are safe as they are, for now. The average risk to U.S. reactors of core damage from a quake remains low, at one accident every 500 years, according to the AP analysis of NRC data.

The overall risk at a typical reactor among the 27 remains very slight. If the NRC's numbers prove correct, that would mean no more than one core accident from an earthquake in about 30,000 years at the typical reactor among the 27 with increased risk.

But emails obtained in a more than 11,000-page records request by The Associated Press show that NRC experts were worried privately this year that plants needed stronger safeguards to account for the higher risk assessments.

The nuclear industry says last week's quake proved reactors are robust. When the rumbling knocked out off-site power to the North Anna plant in Mineral, Va., the reactors shut down and cooled successfully, and the plant's four locomotive-sized diesel generators turned on. The quake also shifted about two dozen spent fuel containers, but Dominion Virginia Power said Thursday that all were intact.

Still, based on the AP analysis of NRC data, the plant is 38 percent more likely to suffer core damage from a rare, massive earthquake than it appeared in an analysis 20 years ago.

That increased risk is based on an even bigger earthquake than the one last week. Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion, the plant operator, says the earlier estimate "remains sound because additional safety margin was built into the design when the station was built."

The safety cushion would shrink, though, if the plant's risk is found to be greater.

Federal scientists update seismic assessments every five to six years to revise building codes for some structures. But no similar system is in place for all but two of the nation's 104 reactors - even though improving earthquake science has revealed greater risks than previously realized.

The exception is Diablo Canyon in earthquake-prone California, which has been required to review the risk of an earthquake routinely since 1985. The NRC does not require plants to re-examine their seismic risks to renew operating licenses for 20 years.

After the March earthquake in Japan that caused the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, NRC staffers fretted in emails that the agency's understanding of earthquake risk for existing reactors was out of date.

In a March 15 email, for example, an NRC earthquake expert questioned releasing data to the public showing how strong an earthquake each plant was designed to withstand. The seismologist, Annie Kammerer, acknowledged that recent science showed stronger quakes could happen. "Frankly, it is not a good story for us," she wrote to agency colleagues.

Kammerer's boss, Brian Sheron, who heads the NRC's Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, wrote in a March 14 email that updated numbers showed the government "didn't know everything about the seismicity" in the central and the eastern part of the country.

"And isn't there a prediction that the West Coast is likely to get hit with some huge earthquake in the next 30 years or so? Yet we relicense their plants," he wrote.

The NRC flagged the 27 plants for possible upgrades by calculating the likelihood of a severe accident based on 2008 hazard maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and comparing it to the seismic risk estimated in 1989 or 1994. Those data were used the last time existing reactors evaluated their earthquake hazards.

The NRC identified the 27 reactors with the greatest risk increase but did not provide the risk numbers. The AP used the NRC's data and methodology to calculate the risk increase for each reactor.

The Perry 1 reactor in Ohio tops the list with the steepest rise in the chance of core damage: 24 times as high as thought in 1989. The four other plants with the largest increases include River Bend 1 in Louisiana, up nine times; Dresden 2-3 in Illinois, eight times; Farley 1-2 in Alabama, seven times, and Wolf Creek 1 in Kansas, also seven times. The smallest increase was the 38 percent at North Anna.

A spokesperson for Exelon Nuclear, which operates the Dresden facility, said Friday that the new risk analysis is faulty because it doesn't include plant upgrades since seismic information was provided to the NRC in the mid-1990s.

Spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski says Dresden in Grundy County has "layer upon layer of safety systems" to protect against natural disasters.

Todd Schneider, a spokesman for First Energy Corp., which operates the Perry plant, said the increase in its seismic risk estimated by the NRC is misleading. He said Perry is capable of withstanding an even larger earthquake than is typical for the region.

Personnel at a handful of other plants, including Indian Point outside New York City and Oconee in South Carolina, have already redone the NRC's calculations, and they show a much lower risk of core damage from earthquakes. Those calculations have not yet been reviewed by the agency, which along with other federal agencies is developing a baseline earthquake risk for every nuclear power plant to use.

Predicting earthquake probability and damage is dicey; the Japanese nuclear industry was taken by surprise in March when a quake-driven tsunami far surpassed predictions and swamped the Fukushima Dai-ichi site.

The U.S. nuclear industry may not be fully ready, either. Current regulations don't require the NRC to make sure nuclear reactors are still capable of dealing with a new understanding of the threats.

It's not just earthquakes. It is all types of events, including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, said an NRC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the agency's recent seismic work.

The worry about earthquakes is not so much direct damage to the reactor vessel, the hardened enclosure where the nuclear reaction takes place, but to water tanks and mechanical and electrical equipment needed when disaster strikes. The failure of those systems could disable cooling needed to prevent meltdowns of radioactive fuel.

In some of the emails obtained by the AP, NRC staffers worried that U.S. reactors had not thoroughly evaluated the effects of aftershocks and the combined impact of a tsunami and earthquake. They suggested plants might need more durable piping as well as better flood barriers and waterproof storage of essential equipment. Staffers talked of a need for bigger supplies of fuel and batteries for extended losses of all electrical power. One email expressed concern about some key pumps at Dresden that might fail in an earthquake.

In a separate problem reported last month, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy acknowledged that its older control rods could get stuck if an earthquake struck when reactors were running at low power. Control rods are needed to stop the nuclear reaction. The manufacturer has alerted the operators of 35 U.S. reactors at 24 sites, who are checking whether replacements are needed. The AP documented scores of instances of such wear and tear in a range of equipment in a June investigative series showing that safety standards have been relaxed to keep aging reactors within the rules.

When the NRC ran preliminary calculations of quake risk last year, it was the first time the agency had reassessed the threat since most plants were built.

"The plants were more vulnerable than they realized, but they weren't unsafe. We look at rare, rare events," said Kammerer, the NRC seismologist.

Plants built a generation ago were designed to withstand an earthquake larger than any known to have occurred in the area. But since then, scientists have been able to better estimate the earthquakes that are possible. And in some cases, those rare quakes could be larger and more frequent than those the plants were designed for.

"If they met a certain level, they didn't look any further," Gregory Hardy, an industry consultant at Simpson, Gumpertz and Hegger in Newport Beach, Calif., said of some of the industry's earlier assessments. "Forty years ago, when some of these plants were started, the hazard - we had no idea. No one did."

Seismologists inside the agency didn't recognize that increasing earthquake risk was an issue until operators started applying to build new reactors at existing plant sites in the central and eastern United States in 2003. Those applications included a thorough analysis of the risk posed by earthquakes, which is required for all new nuclear power plants.

In some cases, the result was much higher than risk calculations performed by the industry in the early 1990s as part of a broader assessment of worst-case disasters.

"We did have some idea that the hazard was going up" in the period between the late 1990s analysis and the applications for new reactors, said Clifford Munson, a senior technical adviser in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactors. But Munson said some of the research indicated that there was disagreement on whether the ground motion predicted would damage nuclear power plants.

Kamal Manoly, another NRC senior technical adviser, said, "There was nothing alarming (enough) for us to take quick action."

But a task force requested by President Barack Obama to make U.S. safety recommendations after the Japanese accident has questioned that. Its three-month review concluded that existing reactors should re-examine their earthquake risk more often.

Some operators are expressing caution about the NRC's initial analysis, and say their own early calculations show that their facilities are at much lower risk. The differences between the calculations of government and industry have prompted some to call for a third-party review.

"It sort of defies logic to ask the regulated entity to do the seismic analysis to determine whether upgrades are necessary or relicensing is appropriate," said California Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a geophysicist who pushed a bill through the Legislature giving the California Energy Commission a role in assessing seismic risk, particularly at Diablo Canyon. "There needs to be a more arm's length relationship in getting this technical information."

There will always be uncertainties, experts say.

"If all these plants were subjected to large earthquakes, that's the only way anybody can say for sure. But the only ones we know of are in Japan," said Hardy, referring to the quake that struck in March and another in 2007 that damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.

"There is a pretty good technical feeling that U.S. plants are going to be safe," Hardy said, "but there is just a question of how much work it will take to show it.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 26, 2011

U of I Proceeding with New Engineering Facility

The University of Illinois' College of Engineering expects to break ground late this fall on a building that's been in the works for about 40 years.

The 230,000 square foot, four-story building will combine much of the research now spread between different facilities at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Nearly $50 million in state capital funds and $35 million in private donations are already committed to a project that Professor Phil Krein said was next in line to the Lincoln Hall renovations in terms of priority. It will be located just south of the Beckman Institute.

He said 2,000 students at ECE, the largest department on the Urbana campus, now split up their work in six different buildings. Krein said this will effectively house the department in one area. ECE is often mentioned on par with the same department at schools like MIT and UC Berkeley. Krein said this new building can put the U of I's department on top.

"With special emphasis these days on the electric power grid and some other basic infrastructure things, air traffic control, and so forth, the building actually can become kind of a living laboratory for power grid advances in the future as well as communications infrastructure and many other related things," he said.

Department head Andreas Cangellaris credits U of I President Hogan and Governor Pat Quinn for freeing up the capital funds for it. He said this building will allow many of the school's 2,000 students to study various innovations in the same space instead of all the buildings currently used.

"We have students who learn from things having to do with electronics and integrated circuits all the way to alternative energy, cyberphysical systems, and bio-related education that requires very special laboratories," Cangellaris said.

The U of I expects to seek out bids for construction by mid-October, with groundbreaking in November. Construction is expected to take about two and a-half years.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Ind. Asks Residents to Report Tremors from Quake

Indiana residents who felt Tuesday's earthquake that shook the East Coast are being urged to report those tremors to a federal agency.

The state Department of Homeland Security and the Indiana Geological Survey is asking Hoosiers to submit online reports if they felt any tremors at 1:53 p.m. Tuesday, when a magnitude 5.9 quake centered below Mineral, Va., rattled the East Coast.

People as far away as Michigan have reported feeling tremors from that quake. The more data scientists receive from other states where citizens reported feeling the earth shift the more accurately they can gauge the quake's intensity and the area affected by it.

To report feeling tremors, people should go to the U.S. Geological Survey website. Then, they should click on the "Did You Feel It? - Tell Us!'' link.

Categories: Government, Politics, Science

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 28, 2011

Illinois Law Seeks to Make Cancer Treatments More Affordable

Illinois is joining a growing number of states making oral chemotherapy treatments more affordable.

For years, cancer drugs were usually injected. But scientific advances have made oral treatment possible, and in many cases, preferred. The problem is they usually come with a higher cost and insurance policies will not always pick up the tab.

Governor Pat Quinn has signed a law that will require health coverage of both types of treatment at a similar cost to the patient. Supporters of the new law say it will improve the quality of care patients receive.

"As an oncologist, I see firsthand the struggles cancer patients go through as they fight this devastating disease," said Dr. Katherine Griem, chair of the American Cancer Society's Illinois chapter. "One thing they shouldn't have to struggle with is how they get the treatment they need."

Griem said the law, which will take effect in January, will give those fighting cancer one less thing to worry about.

Oral chemotherapy drugs are preferred for certain types of cancer. They are also part of the growing trend of so called 'smart drugs" that are designed to attack only cancer cells, which better protects the immune system. Griem said smart drugs target the cancer and have been found to result in fewer side effects. While they come with a higher price tag, they can also reduce therapy time and save on long term medical costs.

Categories: Business, Health, Science

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