WorldScan: June 4, 2003

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Last Russian Weapons Grade Plutonium Reactors to Shut Down

WASHINGTON, DC, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - The Department of Energy has awarded contracts to two U.S. firms to begin shutting down the last three weapons grade plutonium production reactors in the Russian Federation.

The contracts, worth a total of $466 million, will go to Washington Group International for work on two reactors in Seversk, and to Raytheon Technical Services for work on one reactor in Zheleznogorsk, the Energy Department (DOE) said. The contractors will implement the shutdown programs for both sites.

The reactors provide heat and electricity to surrounding communities in Siberia but also make enough plutonium to produce approximately one nuclear weapon every day and a half, according to a DOE statement. The facilities will be replaced with coal fired equipment that produces heat and electricity.

At a ceremony in Vienna in March 2003, Secretary Abraham and Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev signed an agreement that would reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction by stopping plutonium production at the three Russian plutonium reactors.

At a press conference with Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov May 27 in Washington, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the awarding of the contracts "another significant step in our countries' cooperative work on a critical nuclear nonproliferation program."

The secretary said that Ambassador Ushakov will visit DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California early this month.

The three plutonium production reactors will continue to operate until the fossil-replacement plants are completed. These reactors have deficiencies in the areas of design, equipment, and materials, and are considered to be among the highest risk reactors in the world. To ensure reactor safety, high priority safety upgrades are being "expeditiously pursued, the Energy Department said. The DOE's Pacific Northwest National Lab will be responsible for necessary nuclear safety upgrades at both sites, but these upgrades will not extend the life of the reactor facilities.

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Swedish Commission Recommends Ban on Mercury Amalgam

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - The Swedish Dental Material Commission has ended its study of the effects of dental amalgam containing mercury and recommends that the amalgam be banned.

Last autumn, the Commission assigned Maths Berlin to head a commission to report on the past five years' research literature on amalgam and the health hazards, if any, of mercury. Berlin is a professor emeritus with long experience on the effects of mercury on animals and humans. He chaired the World Health Organization Task Group on Environmental Health Criteria for Inorganic Mercury in 1991, and a similar group that drew up health criteria for methylmercury.

His report, "Mercury in dental-filling materials – an updated risk analysis in environmental medical terms," builds on a similar 1997 report which identified the following health risks from mercury in dental fillings:

After a thorough review of the medical literature from 1997 through 2003, Berlin concluded that, "For medical reasons, amalgam should be eliminated in dental care as soon as possible."

This will confer gains in three respects, he wrote. "The prevalence of side-effects from patients' mercury exposure will decline; occupational exposure to mercury can cease in dental care; and one of our largest sources of mercury in the environment can be eliminated.

Dental materials left in patients' mouths should be treated as drugs for administrative purposes, Berlin said, and accordingly, toxicological and clinical testing should be required. Reporting of side effects should also take place according to the same norms that apply to drugs, he recommends.

In most studies of the effects of mercury, the subjects have been men. It is "imperative," Berlin wrote, to describe the differences, if any, between men and women in metabolism and the toxicokinetics of mercury after exposure to mercury vapor.

Epidemiological surveys of the in utero effects of mercury exposure on fetal brain development should be carried out to further clarify the hazards, if any, Berlin recommends.

Epidemiological studies designed to investigate associations, if any, between amalgam load and degenerative retinal diseases are "urgently required," he wrote.

Studies designed to find any associations that exist between thyroid disease and amalgam fillings, and coordinated clinical studies of people who undergo amalgam removal on suspicion of side-effects from mercury should be carried out, Berlin suggests.

The complete study is available online at: http://www.dentalmaterial.gov.se/Mercury.pdf

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UN Agency Urges More Mad Cow Detection Measures

ROME, Italy, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - The discovery last month of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a cow in Alberta, Canada proves that active surveillance and diagnosis programs are working, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says.

While urging all governments to continue to look for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and take precautions even if the disease, also known as mad cow, has never been identified in their countries, FAO Animal Production and Health Division spokesman Andrew Speedy emphasized that international livestock disease surveillance systems are working.

"The identification of a single case of BSE is not a cause for panic," said Speedy.

"It is good news that odd single cases of BSE are being picked up by inspection. There has been no sign of an escalation of numbers in any of the countries that have identified isolated cases. Rather, it demonstrates that active surveillance is picking up the one in a million case."

In May, Canada confirmed that it had identified a cow in Alberta that tested positive for BSE, prompting the United States and several other countries to temporarily ban imports of beef from Canada.

Besides continuing to check for the disease and applying precautionary measures, Speedy said that countries also need to assure their trading partners that they have a system in place to keep infected material out of the food chain.

Speedy recommended that countries conduct national BSE risk assessments, improve their livestock rendering standards and ban the use of meat and bone meal in animal feed. All cows and offspring found with the disease should be immediately slaughtered.

There has been no escalation in the number of BSE affected animals in any of the countries that have identified isolated cases of the disease, Speedy noted.

Investigators of Canada's mad cow crisis are close to finding the source farm of the country's only confirmed case of mad cow disease, officials say.

More than 1,160 animals from 12 farms have been killed and sent for testing, and 700 of those deemed free of the fatal disease.

The single case of BSE discovered two weeks ago prompted worldwide bans on Canadian cattle and beef and damaged the export sensitive industry.

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Dhaka Zoo to Free Tigers, Lions

DHAKA, Bangladesh, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - A zoo that was once considered one of the best in the Asia has deteriorated to the point that it must release lions and tigers back into the wild because it has too few cages to house the animals.

The Mirpur Zoo in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka is about to place 10 lions and seven Royal Bengal tigers into sanctuaries in the tropical mangrove forests of the Sunderbans.

The Sunderbans is inhabited by some 300 natural Royal Bengal tigers but has no indigenous lion population.

The animals have been identified as "excess," Mafizur Rahman, the chief administrative officer of the zoo, told the Associated Press.

The poor condition of the zoo is reflected in a letter to the editor of the "Daily Star" newspaper written by a Dhaka resident last October.

"The present condition of Mirpur Zoo is very pathetic," he writes. "The animals there are not taken care of properly. The employees eat up the entire fund and the poor animals get nothing."

The writer urges the government to invest more money and energy to rebuild the zoo and employ foreign trainers, involve local students and nongovernmental organizations to make the zoo "a safe and profitable wildlife sanctuary."

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Bulldozing of Innisfil Forest Protested

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - A forested area in Innisfil, Ontario, south of Barrie in the Lake Simcoe region, is being bulldozed to make way for suburban development. The environmental group Earthroots and local residents say that they will not allow the development to happen.

Earthroots contends that the destruction of the 43 acres of forest, inhabited by deer, fox, raccoons, wild turkeys and rabbits, is another step towards a sprawling megalopolis that stretches from Lake Simcoe to downtown Toronto.

“This province must put a stop to this pattern now with a comprehensive Smart Growth Initiative,” said Josh Matlow, Earthroots’ director. “The government’s “Road Ahead” plan should not mean roads going through Ontario’s forests.”

Innisfil residents Debbie Hanus and Gail James-Sheridan are mounting a campaign to put a stop to the 144 homes, planned for the site of the forest. They are going door-to-door in the community, encouraging local residents to sign a petition opposing the development.

Earthroots plans to lead direct actions with members of the community.

“The community will stick together and go to any measures to protect our precious greenbelt,” said Hanus. Residents say that only the provincial government can put a stop to the housing development and the destruction of the forest. They believe that the Innisfil Council is placing a larger tax base ahead of the environment.

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German Drinks Container Deposit System in Turmoil

BERLIN, Germany, June 4, 2003 (ENS) - Germany's system of deposits on disposable drinks cans and bottles has been thrown into crisis after food industry association BVE announced Tuesday that it would no longer prepare for the system's full operation by October 1, as previously promised.

Environment Minister Juergen Trittin attacked the move, which comes amidst revelations that the European Commission officially warned Germany on May 15 that the scheme is creating illegal trade barriers.

The deposits took effect in January, but without a "clearing system," meaning consumers must return containers to the point of purchase to claim back their deposit. Industry groups say the result has been chaos - consumption of beer and soft drinks is down 10 to 14 percent and "thousands of jobs" are being lost, they claim.

According to European packaging industry lobbyist Bob Schmitz, the Commission's letter to the German government was a "decisive" factor behind the decision to stop preparations for nationwide clearing, expected to cost billions of euros. There are now simply too many legal uncertainties surrounding the scheme, said BVE president Peter Traumann.

Trittin hit back in a statement as well as in comments made in Brussels today, accusing the industry of seeking yet another excuse to divert attention from its own failure to implement the clearing system since March 2002. The Commission's warning showed not that the deposits were dead but only the need to introduce a clearing system more quickly, he said.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed that the "pre-infringement" letter sent to Germany deals with the lack of a clearing system, not the deposits per se, while stressing the government's legal duty to avoid any new system causing trade barriers.

Industry sources said the letter also suggests that the German government suspend the deposits until a clearing system is in place.

Both sides are now playing for high stakes. Trittin, who represents the Green Party, said he would direct state authorities to enforce the deposits from October 1 "at every step of the trade process."

But BVE yesterday sought to go over the Green minister's head by appealing, with trade union support, directly to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Backers of the deposits say that industry's boycott of the clearing system will only accelerate the resurgence of refillable containers on the market, effectively implementing the government's own policy aims. Tetail association HDE has said that in the absence of a clearing system its members will delist all one way packaging this autumn so as to avoid the expense and complications of handling deposits.

Such a success could turn out to be the scheme's undoing, though. Were disposables to be largely eliminated from the German drinks market then so would the majority of imports, creating trade barriers on a scale that the European Union would be certain to challenge.

{The German drinks deposit story is published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London.}

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