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Small nuke reactors emerge as energy option, but risks loom

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Small nuke reactors emerge as energy option, but risks loom

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A global search for alternative sources to Russian energy during the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power stations, which proponents say could provide a cheaper, more efficient alternative to older model mega-plants.

U.K.-based Rolls-Royce SMR says its small modular reactors, or SMRs, are much cheaper and quicker to get running than standard plants, delivering the kind of energy security that many nations are seeking. France already relies on nuclear power for a majority of its electricity, and Germany kept the option of reactivating two nuclear plants it will shut down at the end of the year as Russia cuts natural gas supplies.

While Rolls-Royce SMR and its competitors have signed deals with countries from Britain to Poland to start building the stations, they are many years away from operating and cannot solve the energy crisis now hitting Europe. Nuclear power also poses risks, including disposing of highly radioactive waste and keeping that technology out of the hands of rogue countries or nefarious groups that may pursue a nuclear weapons program.

Those risks have been accentuated following the shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, which has raised fears of potential nuclear disaster.

In the wake of the war, however, “the reliance on gas imports and Russian energy sources has focused people’s minds on energy security,” Rolls-Royce SMR spokesman Dan Gould said.

An SMR’s components can be built in a factory, moved to a site in tractor trailers and assembled there, making the technology more attractive to frugal buyers, he said.

“It’s like building Lego,” Gould said. “Building on a smaller scale reduces risks and makes it a more investible project.”

SMRs are essentially pressurized water reactors identical to some 400 reactors worldwide. The key advantages are their size — about one-tenth as big as a standard reactor — the ease of construction and the price tag.

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The estimated cost of a Rolls-Royce SMR is 2.2 billion to 2.8 billion pounds ($2.5 billion to $3.2 billion), with an estimated construction time of 5 1/2 years. That’s two years faster than it took to build a standard nuclear plant between 2016 and 2021, according to International Atomic Energy Agency statistics. Some estimates put the cost of building a 1,100-megawatt nuclear plant at between $6 billion and $9 billion.

Rolls-Royce aims to build its first stations in the U.K. within 5 1/2 years, Gould said.

Similarly, Oklahoma-based NuScale Power signed agreements last year with two Polish companies — copper and silver producer KGHM and energy producer UNIMOT — to explore the possibility of building SMRs to power heavy industry. Poland wants to switch from polluting, coal-powered electricity generation.

Rolls-Royce SMR said last month that it signed a deal with Dutch development company ULC-Energy to look into setting up SMRs in the Netherlands.

Another partner is Turkey, where Russia is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on the southern coast. Environmentalists say the region is seismically active and could be a target for terrorists.

The introduction of “unproven” nuclear power technology in the form of SMRs doesn’t sit well with environmentalists, who argue that proliferation of small reactors will exacerbate the problem of how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

“Unfortunately, Turkey is governed by an incompetent administration that has turned it into a ‘test bed’ for corporations,” said Koray Dogan Urbarli, a spokesman for Turkey’s Green Party.

“It is giving up the sovereignty of a certain region for at least 100 years for Russia to build a nuclear power plant. This incompetence and lobbying power make Turkey an easy target for SMRs,” said Koray, adding that his party eschews technology with an “uncertain future.”

Gould said one Rolls-Royce SMR would generate nuclear waste the size of a “tennis court piled 1-meter high” throughout the plant’s 60-year lifetime. He said initially, waste would be stored on site at the U.K. plants and would eventually be transferred to a long-term disposal site selected by the British government.

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M.V. Ramana, professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia, cites research suggesting there’s “no demonstrated way” to ensure nuclear waste stored in what authorities consider to be secure sites won’t escape in the future.

The constant heat generated by the waste could alter rock formations where it’s stored and allow water seepage, while future mining activities could compromise a nuclear waste site’s integrity, said Ramana, who specializes in international security and nuclear energy.

Skeptics also raise the risks of possibly exporting such technology in politically tumultuous regions. Gould said Rolls-Royce is “completely compliant” with U.K. and international requirements in exporting its SMR technology “only in territories that are signatories to the necessary international treaties for the peaceful use of nuclear power for energy generation.”

Ramana said, however, there’s no guarantee nations will follow the rules.

“Any country acquiring nuclear reactors automatically enhances its capacity to make nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that every SMR could produce “around 10 bombs worth of plutonium each year.”

Rolls-Royce SMR could opt to stop supplying fuel and other services to anyone flouting the rules, but “should any country choose to do so, it can simply tell the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop inspections, as Iran has done, for example,” Ramana said.

Although spent fuel normally undergoes chemical reprocessing to generate the kind of plutonium used in nuclear weapons, Ramana said such reprocessing technology is widely known and that a very sophisticated reprocessing plant isn’t required to produce the amount of plutonium needed for weapons.

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Associated Press writers Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Turkey, and Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed.

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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