Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Durbin, Kirk Question Nuclear Experts

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Hiring in Illinois Outpaces National Average

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

The latest government data suggest some states are recovering much faster than others from the recession, including a few that were hit the hardest.

U.S. companies have added jobs for 12 straight months, but the gains have been uneven.

The U.S. Labor Department says the unemployment rate dropped in 27 states in February, including Illinois. It rose in seven states and stayed the same in 16. Last week, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced the state's jobless rate had fallen to 8.9 percent for Februrary. That's the first time since February 2009 that the unemployment rate has been below nine percent - and the 13th consecutive monthly decline in unemployment rolls.

Job growth in Illinois stands at 1.5 percent, which slightly outpaces the national average of 1.0 percent. The industries posting the biggest job increases in Illinois include Professional and Business Services, Education and Health Services, and Trade, Transporation and Utilities.

Forty-four states have added jobs during the last year, including some that were badly battered during the downturn. Since January 2010, Illinois has added 85,000 jobs, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. California added nearly 200,000 net jobs, and Michigan created a net 71,000 jobs during the last year.

Still, six states reported a net loss in jobs in that time, including a few that weren't considered trouble spots: New Jersey, New Mexico, and Kansas.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

U.S. Postal Service Announces Sweeping Cuts

The U.S. Postal Service announced Thursday that it will reduce its workforce with layoffs and offers of buyouts and will close seven district offices from New England to New Mexico to help address record losses.

The reorganization, designed to eliminate 7,500 administrative, executive and postmaster jobs this year, came as a commission that is evaluating the Postal Service's plan to eliminate Saturday delivery concluded that one in four letters would be delayed by not just one but by two days.

The independent Postal Regulatory Commission also said that postal officials underestimated the losses the agency would suffer from handling less mail- and overestimated the cost savings.

Five-day service and a smaller workforce are among the Postal Service's strategies to become solvent after losses of $8.5 billion in fiscal 2010, the result of declining mail volumes. Projected losses for 2011 are $6.4 billion.

Once buyout decisions aimed at administrative staff are final in April, the agency plans to eliminate the jobs of thousands of postmasters and supervisors, many through layoffs, officials said.

"Nobody did anything wrong, but we're a victim of the economy and past legislation," said Anthony Vegliante, the Postal Service's chief human resources officer and executive vice president. The cuts are expected to save $750 million a year.

District offices that handle managerial work will close in Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M.; Billings, Mont.; Macon, Ga.; Providence, R.I.; Troy, Mich., and Carol Stream, Ill., the Postal Service said.

The closures will pave the way for the agency to close up to 2,000 local post offices throughout the next two years, a plan announced in January.

Vegliante said he expects about 3,000 administrators to take the buyouts, which will offer $20,000 to employees over age 50 with at least 20 years of service, or any age with at least 25 years of service. Layoffs will then be used to help reach the 7,500 goal, he said, though he would not commit to a number.

The Postal Service has eliminated 105,000 full-time positions in the last two years, among them clerks, plant workers and mail handlers. Those cuts were made mostly through attrition and early retirements.

The Postal Service announced plans for five-day service in 2009, although Congress, which must approve the change, has showed little interest in pursuing it.

Among the findings of the 211-page opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission:

- Five-day service would delay by two days delivery of 25 percent of first-class and priority mail.

- The Postal Service did not adequately evaluate the effect of five-day service on rural areas.

- While the Postal Service estimated net savings from the reduced service at $3.1 billion, the commission's estimate is closer to $1.7 billion.

- Lost revenue from mail volume declines from the service cuts would be $600 million a year, not the $200 million the Postal Services estimates.

Margaret Cigno, the regulatory commission's chief analyst, said many letters normally delivered on Saturday would not arrive until Tuesday because Saturday mail would no longer be transported and processed over the weekend. "Saturday would not just end delivery, but mail would not go out," she said.

Postal officials said they would continue supporting the plan.

"I'm comfortable that people did their due diligence," Vegliante said, calling five-day service "an inevitable question."

"Whether it's tomorrow or 10 years from now, sooner or later it's got to be dealt with."

(Photo courtesy of Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

New State Police Director Announced

After criticism over his last choice to head the Illinois State Police, Governor Pat Quinn has selected a law enforcement veteran to run the agency.

Quinn has tabbed Hiram Grau for the position. Grau spent 27 years with the Chicago Police Department. His resume includes his rise from beat cop to deputy Superintendent for the Bureau of Investigative Services for the Cook County State's Attorney. Grau's name had surfaced as a temporary fill in for Chicago's Police Superintendent Jody Weis when he stepped down this month.

Grau's appointment for the state job must still be confirmed by the Illinois Senate. Quinn's previous choice to be State Police Director never got a hearing. Jonathon Monken's lack of police experience sunk his nomination and it was later pulled. Monken has since been confirmed as head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Quinn also announced the appointment of Joe Costigan to be Labor Department Director. He currently holds a position with the Service Employees International union.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Study: More than 15% of East Central Illinois “Food Insecure

People who are fighting hunger in east-central Illinois now have some more specific numbers to make their case.

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank has long known that 15.5% of people in the 14-county region are "food insecure" - in other words, they're at risk of not finding enough healthy food. But the new "Map the Meal Gap" study breaks that number down into individual counties. Vermilion, Coles and Champaign counties have slightly higher food-insecurity rates than the average.

Cheryl Precious is a foodbank spokeswoman. She says the report points out a need for education, even if chronically-needy people usually know how to get assistance. "But a family that has had stable employment and has never really struggled, or maybe was right on the edge and had a job loss in the family and was pushed over the edge into food insecurity -- they may not be adequately equipped to make use of those resources," said Precious. "So part of it is education and awareness of the resources that are out there."

But Precious says the survey also demonstrates a need for more assistance, particularly for people who are ineligible for food stamps because they make just above the poverty requirement. She says it's a call to relax those requirements as well as to bolster food pantries and other emergency programs.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Emanuel Floats Idea to Cut City Council in Half

Reducing the size of the Chicago City Council has come up in conversations with voters and aldermen, but a spokesman for Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said he hasn't proposed it.

Emanuel transition spokesman Ben LaBolt responded Friday to a Chicago Sun-Times story that said Emanuel had broached the subject of cutting the 50-member City Council in half to save money.

The former White House chief of staff is working feverishly to put together an administration so he's ready to take office next month. Emanuel is replacing retiring Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Emanuel is under pressure to deal with the city's budget crisis.

The Sun-Times said it costs Chicago taxpayers spend $19.5 million a year for the 50 aldermen and another $4.7 million for their 19 standing committees.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Demolition to Begin on Part of Building Damaged by Fire

Some of the walls of a burned out building in Campustown will begin to come down on Friday, according to the Champaign Fire Department.

Wednesday's fire damaged a building housing Mia Za's Cafe, Zorba's restaurant, Petaya clothing boutique, and an unoccupied apartment.

The Fire Department says the city has accepted a bid from Dig It of Champaign, Inc. to tear down parts of the parapet and walls. It hopes to reopen the 600 block of Green Street by Monday, once the building and street are considered safe.

The front wall of the building on Green St. will be removed down to the limestone ribbon. On the back side of the building, the masonry down to the second floor ceiling will be taken down.

"It's in the best interest of our community, the University, and Campustown businesses to move forward," Craig Rost, Champaign Assistant City Manager, said in a statement.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Texas Find Suggests Earlier Settlers In N. America

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

Archaeologists have hard evidence that humans lived in North America much earlier than previously thought, and an Illinois researcher played a key role in nailing down the dates.

The earliest North Americans were long thought to be the Clovis people. Now archaeologists have dug up stone tools and debris from underneath a Clovis site in central Texas. The findings were discovered by researchers led by Michael R. Waters of Texas A&M University.

It was "like finding the Holy Grail," Waters said in a telephone interview. To find what appears to be a large open-air campsite "is really gratifying. Lucky and gratifying."

The trove of 15,528 artifacts included chipping debris from working stones and 56 tools such as blades, scrapers and choppers. The archaeologists sent samples to Steven Forman's lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he determined when the sediment around the objects was last exposed to sunlight.

The artifacts turn out to be about 15,000 years old - from millennia before the Clovis people. It's not the first evidence of cultures older than Clovis, but Forman says it may be the strongest.

"It appears to be that this might be kind of watershed piece of science in which people say, yes, there is really compelling evidence for pre-Clovis occupation in North America," Forman said. "It's no longer a red herring."

The small tools were "a mobile tool kit," Waters said, and of the type that could have led to the later development of the fluted points that trademark Clovis technology.

While there are other pre-Clovis sites across the country, Waters said the new find included significantly more artifacts than the others.

Anthropologist Tom D. Dillehay of Vanderbilt University, who was not part of the research team, said he is concerned that the separation of layers at the site "appears not to be as clear as the authors would have us believe."

University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis L. Jenkins said he was also initially skeptical of the find, commenting "it would have been a hard sell" from many other researchers.

Jenkins, who three years ago reported discovery of 14,000-year-old evidence of human DNA in a cave in Oregon, said he was concerned that settling or rodents had mixed up the specimens in Texas.

But, he said, Waters' team had done "incredible, meticulous scientific work." "I believe he's made the case," he said.

Jenkins said he would have preferred carbon-dating of the specimens, but that couldn't be done because there was no organic material to be tested in the newly found layer.

Steven L. Forman, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, a co-author of the paper, said the team used luminescence dating which can determine when the material was last exposed to light. They took samples by hammering black, sealed copper pipe into the layers. In a separate paper in the journal, researchers report evidence of early humans in south India more than a million years ago.

Researchers discovered more than 3,500 quartzite tools of the distinct Acheulian design used by the earliest humans in Africa starting more than 1.5 million years ago. They dated the tools to at least 1.07 million years old and some possibly 1.51 million years old.

The discovery at a site called Attirampakkam in the Kortallayar river basin helps anthropologists understand the spread of ancient people from Africa into Asia. Leading the research team was Shanti Pappu of the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Tamil Nadu, India.

The find is unprecedented for archaeological studies in India, said archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford, England, who was not part of the research team.

He said it could mean that early humans migrated out of Africa earlier than the oft-cited 1.4 million years ago, carrying the tools to southern Asia.

"The suggestion that this occurred at around 1.5 million years ago is simply staggering," he said.

The new find will likely overturn the history of ancient humans in North America. The results are out in the journal Science.

(Photo courtesy of Michael R. Waters/The Associated Press)

Categories: History, Science

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Illinois to Online, Out-of-State Shoppers: Pay Up

Illinois tax collectors have a message for residents who skirt sales taxes online and out of state: Start paying up.

The cash-strapped state will step up enforcement this year of the decades-old "use tax," which applies to many items bought online or in another state. Officials have added reminders on this year's paper and online tax forms about the tax.

The state has made a recent push to collect sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Overstock.com Inc., approving a law this month that led both companies to drop affiliates in the state.

But Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, says auditors will target "big ticket" purchases, like boats sold in Florida, over smaller purchases online.

"If you go online and buy a book on Amazon, it's your conscience that you have to live with," Hofer said.

The tax applies to any purchases made with a sales tax rate lower than Illinois' 6.25 percent, to protect in-state retailers that charge the tax.

For shoppers who didn't keep their receipts, the state has published a list of suggested "use tax" amounts based on income: $15 for people who made $20,000 last year, $27 for people making $50,000, and $52 for people making $100,000.

That's not including taxes on major purchases like boats or cars.

Residents can also pay back taxes on purchases as far back as 2004, thanks to state law passed last year.

The revenue department estimates that Internet shopping could have generated $153 million last year if online retailers were taxed at the state rate. Illinois lawmakers have tried to collect from Amazon and others, which say they shouldn't pay taxes in the state because they don't have offices there.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill this month that charges sales taxes on online purchases made through Illinois affiliates of online companies. That led to Amazon announcing it would end its relationships with state affiliates.

Hofer acknowledged the difficulty revenue auditors face with online shopping.

"How would I or one of our enforcers know if you went home every night and spent five hours shopping on Amazon?" she said.

The state won't have statistics on how many residents will pay until the end of tax season, Hofer said. But interviews with accountants suggest most people either haven't made untaxed purchases or aren't reporting them.

"I've had one client out of 300 volunteer to pay it," said Julie Herwitt, a Chicago accountant. She said she believes most of her clients don't know the tax exists.

At the Bird Armour LLC accounting firm in Springfield, fewer than 5 percent of the 350 returns finished so far have made "use tax" payments, managing member Michael K. Armour said.

"I must admit that I am surprised at the number of people that have come forward," he said.

Last year, the state collected an estimated $4 million to $6 million from the tax. The department hopes that will double this year, Hofer said.

"We expect that people will pay what they owe, recognizing this is part of their responsibility as a citizen," she said.

(Photo courtesy of Rob Lee/Flickr)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

U of I Board Hears Comments But Takes No Action On Wind Turbine

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.


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