Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 06, 2011

Kirk Backing off Support of Aid to Pakistan

Illinois' two U.S. Senators are arguing about how much financial support the U.S. should send to Pakistan.

Republican Sen. Mark Kirk made a policy speech Tuesday at the Union League Club, proposing a new warning against Pakistan.

"I think that we should rethink assistance to Pakistan, that it's naive at best and counterproductive at worst," Kirk said.

It's a reversal for Kirk, who earlier this year cautioned against cutting aid to Pakistan. He just got back from a trip to Afghanistan and said the Pakistani government supports a group of terrorists called the Haqqani network. Pakistan's government has reportedly denied those claims.

Kirk said if relations don't improve, the U.S. could get additional help from India, a heated rival of Pakistan.

But Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin disagrees.

"I will tell you that I think that would be cataclysmic," Durbin told reports Tuesday at an unrelated news conference when asked by reporters what he thought of bringing India into talks with Pakistan.

Durbin defended supporting the Pakistani government in fighting terrorism, saying the U.S. government gives a limited amount of money to the country. Spokesmen for Durbin and Kirk says the U.S. has given Pakistan $22 billion in the last decade.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 06, 2011

Gov. Quinn Plans Unspecified Job Cuts

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn says he'll announce further budget cuts later this week, and Quinn indicated Tuesday that he will include layoffs.

If the layoffs move forward, then that would break an agreement the governor made with the major state employee union.

The governor would not say how many layoffs to expect.

"We have to do what we have to do in order to make sure we get through this fiscal year with the appropriation that the General Assembly provided," Quinn said.

Quinn said lawmakers didn't appropriate enough money for him to keep his agreement with AFSCME, the union representing thousands of state employees. Before last year's election, he signed a deal with the union, pledging not to close facilities or lay off any workers though mid next year. But he has already broken part of the deal, earlier this summer when he halted pay increases.

Anytime somebody enters into contract, you expect them to live up to it," AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. "And anytime somebody gives you their word, you expect them to keep it."

But Quinn said he's not betraying the union. He claims union agreements are always subject to appropriations from the General Assembly, and if "the General Assembly appropriates less money, then everyone has to adjust to that."

That fight is still taking place in court.

"Those who are unhappy about any cuts really should visit their members of the General Assembly, their representatives and senators," Quinn said.

That said, Quinn denies the layoff threat is just an effort to force lawmakers to appropriate more money.

Meanwhile, not all lawmakers are believing the governor's threats to cut state workers and close facilities.

Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) said he hopes Quinn is serious about reining in the cost of government, but Murphy said he is also skeptical.

"My worst fear is this is sort of a political stunt on the part of the governor to go in to areas represented by Republicans and dangle large job losses to try to pressure support for his almost 9 billion dollar borrowing scheme," Murphy said.

Quinn wants to borrow to pay off a large backlog of bills but Republicans have blocked it. While Murphy has said he doesn't want to borrow or give the governor additional spending authority, some of his fellow GOP lawmakers, like State Senator Larry Bomke (R-Springfield) are less opposed to those approaches.

"What my suburban colleagues feel is the right thing to do, that's up to them," said Bomke, who represents a large number of state workers. "I'm all for keeping people gainfully employed and not laying people off when it's not necessary."

The issue is expected to get attention when lawmakers begin their fall session next month.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 06, 2011

Community Elements Will Explore Detox Program of its Own

The head of Champaign-based Community Elements says she's looking for a more 'holistic' approach to behavioral health, and that could include a possible detox program of its own for drug addicts.

Urbana's Prairie Center Health Systems closed its detox program on Thursday, after state cuts of $450,000. Community Elements CEO Sheila Ferguson Ferguson admits state funding is thin. But she said there are exceptions, including Community Elements' Respite Crisis Center, which is performing better and could receive additional state support.

"We're really giving some thought to whether or not we can serve some people with dual diagnosis that need detox," Ferguson said. "Because we hate to leave the community without anything. So, we're kind of brainstorming at this point to see if there's something that we can still partner with Prairie Center because they have some outpatient services."

Ferguson also said it is possible Community Elements could partner with local hospitals to make sure some sort of detox program continues in the area. She said she was disappointed with the decision by Prairie Center Health Systems to end talks about a possible merger. That agency's CEO, Bruce Suardini, said it wasn't feasible now, given state funding mechanisms. Ferguson said such a move is needed given the condition of state funding.

"Become more integrated, and offer mental health, substance abuse, and primary care,'" she said. "For me, mental health and substance abuse are really primary care issues that need to be addressed through physician support as well as ancillary services, like outpatient therapy counseling."

She said she also disagrees with Suardini's comments about merger negotiations, saying a number of mental health and substance abuse agencies have now chosen to join forces.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 05, 2011

Memorial Grove a Tribute to 9/11 Victims

As people remember the 10-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers looks at the 9/11 Memorial Grove inside Champaign County's River Bend Forest Preserve. He revisits the site, nine years after the first seeds at the memorial were sown.

(Photo by Tom Rogers/WILL)

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Categories: Environment, History

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 03, 2011

Illini Open Football Season With 33-15 Win Over Arkansas State

The Fighting Illini football team kicked off their 2011 campaign with a 33-15 win over Arkansas State Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium Champaign.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 267 yards, hitting on 16 of 23 attempts. A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines each eclipsed a hundred yards in receiving, Jenkins with 148 and Millines with 119. Each caught a long touchdown pass from Scheelhaase.

Jenkins said he felt motivated to keep up with Millines in the stats column.

"It's kind of a competition, actually," said Jenkins. "Honestly, when he scored, I knew I had to get me at least one. I wasn't going to let him beat me. Darius is a great receiver, but we all know who's number one. Hopefully next week I have over 100 yards against, and we just keep rolling from there."

For his part, Millines says he enjoys the rivalry with Jenkins.

"We're a duo, but we're also pushing each other as a competition," said Millines, "to see who's going to get the most catches, who's going to get the most yards, who's going to make the better plays. So that will push us to play better and play harder."

Jason Ford rushed for 93 yards, and Trulon Henry sparked the defense with 8 tackles and an interception.

Illini players said they weren't affected by the hundred degree heat index, but a lot of fans succumbed to heat-related illness. Many more left early from a game that drew a sparse crowd, officially tallied at around 45,000 attendees.

Saturday marked the beginning of the Mike Thomas era. Reporters were eager to know what the new athletic director said to Coach Ron Zook as they walked off the field.

"Congratulations and he's excited to be here," said Zook. "Obviously we're excited to have him here. And I congratulated him because I got his first win as an athletic director."

The Illini return to action at home next week against the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State.

Categories: Education, Sports

AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 03, 2011

Illinois Lawmakers Head to Cuba to Strike Business Deals

A group of Illinois lawmakers are scheduled to travel to Cuba on Tuesday, in hopes of striking deals between Cuban officials and Illinois businesses.

Representative Dan Burke of Chicago will be going on what he calls a learning mission for him and other legislators. The Democrat said Cuban imports and exports with Illinois have dropped dramatically in the past, but he thinks now is a good time to turn things around.

"Being an agricultural state, we have everything that they would potentially need, I think the controls over the commerce and industry in Cuba has been lessened in the last few months so there are business opportunities for our state based companies that might be pretty dramatic," Burke said.

Burke said the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is a reason for a decrease in exports and imports.

Taxpayers won't be footing the bill for the trip, as lawmakers will be paying their own way from either personal funds or their political accounts. Burke said the group will publish a report of the trip when they return home.

This isn't the first time Illinois politicians have visited Cuba. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first sitting U.S. governor to visit Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 02, 2011

Quinn Grants 74 Clemencies, Denies 99

Gov. Pat Quinn has granted 74 clemencies and denied 99 petitions, chipping away at a backlog of more than 2,500 cases in Illinois.

Quinn's office says that the 173 cases he addressed on Friday come from dockets ranging from 2004 to 2007. More than 2,500 clemency cases built up under Quinn's predecessor, ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Quinn has acted on 1,529 clemency petitions since taking office. He has granted 591 and denied 938.

Clemency has been in the spotlight since former Republican Gov. George Ryan pardoned several people on death row and commuted sentences of others before leaving office in 2003.

Quinn recently signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois and commuted the sentences of all 15 men who remained on death row.


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 - September 02, 2011

US Rep. Johnson Plans to Introduce Two Year Budget Plan

Republican Congressman Tim Johnson of Urbana says he will introduce legislation that would require lawmakers to approve a budget every two years, rather than each year.

The measure would also establish an appropriations cycle starting Oct. 1 of each odd-numbered year, and any budget or appropriations bill passed by one chamber would have to be voted on in the other chamber within a two-week period. Johnson said there also couldn't be any hods, filibusters once one chamber acts.

Johnson said his budget plan will also give the federal government more time to assess how well agencies and departments use money that they are appropriated.

Illinois, which has a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, is on an annual budget cycle. Meanwhile, Indiana passes a budget every other year. Johnson said Indiana's billion dollar surplus is a testament that such a plan works.

"They have a surplus every year," Johnson said. "Look at what we're doing in Illinois. Illinois is an abyss of fiscal stewardship. No state in the union is operating worse than Illinois, and it has for years. So, if Indiana is our partial model, and looking at the results they have, I in many ways am glad to look at the model."

But John Ketzenberger, president of the non-partisan Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said there isn't much connection between his state's budget cycle and its surplus. He noted that there are other reasons why Indiana has a surplus.

"There were more than a billion dollars in cuts," Ketzenberger explained. "When the recession started, more than a billion dollars in reserve, and the state used about $2 billion dollars in federal stimulus money over the course of the recession."

Ketzenberger said Indiana's biennial budget plan has helped the state by encouraging more fiscal discipline.

Johnson is running for re-election in a newly drawn 13th congressional district, which includes Champaign, Decatur, Bloomington, Springfield, and the Metro East area near St. Louis. He said he expects to get bipartisan support for his legislation.

His Democratic challenger, David Gill of Bloomington, said he would also support a two-year window for approving the federal budget. However, Gill criticized Johnson, saying his decision to vote against raising the nation's debt ceiling shows he doesn't have any credibility in tackling budget issues.

"The fact that he voted against that bipartisan deal to raise the deficit after the Democrats had compromised, and bent over backwards in terms of spending cuts and any kind of increased revenues," Gill said. "That makes me question where he's coming from and how much of his proposal for a two-year budget simply is playing politics."

Gill ran unsuccessful bids against Johnson in 2004, 2006, and 2010. Former Illinois lawmaker, Democrat Jay Hoffman of Collinsville, is also considering a run for the Congressional seat, but he hasn't announced his candidacy.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 02, 2011

Prairie Center Loses State Funding for Detox Center

An Urbana agency that treats victims of drug and alcohol abuse has again lost funding for its detox program, and this time it may be for good.

Prairie Center Health Systems CEO Bruce Suardini said it is doubtful the $450,000 will be restored by lawmakers this fall. In September of 2008, the program shut down for six months before funds were reinstated.

Suardini said the detox program still sees about 750 people per year, and after cutting off referrals Thursday night, he said more addicts won't get the appropriate treatment.

"We watch the clients carefully because it's life-threatening," he said. "So a lot of people who will now probably end up in an ER room will get treated for the day and released. And they really don't have a chance to look at the addiction and get into a long-term care kind of way to combat that addiction."

Cuts to those programs statewide equal 28-million dollars. Suardini says while a number of area legislators would back a supplemental bill to restore that money this fall, it would require 3/5ths majority in each chamber.

"The chances of that happening, and total money being restored in the state of Illinois - I'm just more pessimistic about that because of the volume of things that are on the (General) Assembly's plate," he said. "So I don't see that coming back."

But Suardini said other programs for residential care and outpatient clinics, including one in Danville, will continue to operate. But he said reduced staffing levels means clients will have to be put on a waiting list.

Meanwhile, Suardini said Prairie Center has ended talks with Community Elements in Champaign (formerly the Mental Health Center of Champaign County) about a potential merger. He said state funding mechanisms forced clients to use services separately, and a merger wasn't feasible at this time.

Community Elements CEO Sheila Ferguson says the decision was solely Prairie Center's, and was disappointed the two sides couldn't work something out.


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