UK Mega-Lab Generates Weather to Test Homes of Future

The thermometer sinks below zero as a blizzard of fine snow descends on two houses freshly built inside a massive laboratory in northern England.

Despite the icy conditions, the two energy-efficient homes remain cozy and warm due to their use of cutting-edge heating and insulation technology.

Welcome to Energy House 2.0 — a science experiment designed to help the world’s housebuilders slash carbon emissions, save energy and tackle climate change.

The project, based in a laboratory resembling a giant warehouse on Salford University campus near the center of Manchester, opened last month.

Rain, wind, sunshine and snow can be recreated in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Celsius to –20 Celsius, operated from a control center.

Replicating weather

“What we’ve tried to achieve here is to be able to replicate the weather conditions that would be experienced around 95% of the populated Earth,” Professor Will Swan, head of energy house laboratories at the university, told AFP.

The facility, comprising two chambers that can experience different weather at the same time, will test types of housing from all over the world “to understand how we deliver their net-zero and energy-efficient homes,” he added.

The two houses, which are quintessentially British and constructed by firms with U.K. operations, will remain in place for a few years.

Other builders will then be able to rent space in the lab to put their own properties under the spotlight.

The project’s first house was built by U.K. property firm Barratt Developments and French materials giant Saint-Gobain.

It is clad with decorative bricks over a frame of wood panels and insulation, with solar panels on the roof.

Scientists are examining the efficiency of several different types of heating systems, including air-source heat pumps.

In the living room, a hot-water circuit is located along the bottom of the walls, while further heat is provided via infrared technology in the molding and from a wall panel.

Mirrors also act as infrared radiators while numerous sensors monitor which rooms are in use.

Residents will be able to manage the technology via one single control system similar to Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa interface.

Builders estimate the cutting-edge tech will mean that the energy bill will be just one quarter of what the average U.K. home currently pays, a boon to customers reeling from sky-high energy prices.

It will also make an important contribution to Britain’s efforts to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 to combat climate change.

A parliamentary report found that, in 2019, 17% of heating emissions from buildings came from homes — making their contribution similar to all the petrol and diesel cars driving on Britain’s roads.

Environmental campaigners have long called on the U.K. government to increase energy efficiency and insulation support for existing homes across Britain.

‘Alexa of home energy’

“One of the key technologies that we’re trying on this house is almost like a building management system for residential buildings,” said Tom Cox, U.K. technical director at Saint-Gobain.

“It’s almost like the Alexa of the home energy system — and that can be automated as much as the occupant wants.”

And now with their mega-laboratory, scientists and companies no longer have to wait for extreme swings in the weather.

“We can test a year’s worth of weather conditions in a week,” added Cox.

The “ultimate goal is to create that environment which is comfortable and cost effective and commercially viable to deliver,” added Cox.

“At the same time (we are) addressing the sustainability issues that we have in construction.”

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Breast Cancer Is Leading Cause of Cancer Deaths Among Women

As it marks World Cancer Day, the World Health Organization is calling for action to tackle breast cancer, the most common and leading cause of cancer deaths among women.


Every year, more than 2.3 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and nearly 700,000 die of the disease, which disproportionately affects women living in low- and middle-income countries.


WHO officials say women who live in poorer countries are far less likely to survive breast cancer than women in richer countries.   


“Breast cancer survival is 50 percent or less in many low- and middle-income countries, and greater than 90 percent for those able to receive the best care in high income countries,” says Bente Mikkelsen, director of the Noncommunicable Diseases Department at the WHO.


She says the odds are stacked against women who live in poor countries, noting many must sell their assets to pay for the treatment they need.   


She notes that women also are discouraged from seeking and receiving a timely diagnosis for their condition because of the stigma attached to breast cancer.   


“A woman subjected to racial and ethnic disparities will receive lower quality care and be forced to abandon treatment,” she says.


WHO data show more than 20 high income countries have successfully reduced breast cancer mortality by 40 percent since 1990. It finds five-year survival rates from breast cancer in North America and western Europe is better than 95 percent, compared to 66 percent in India and 40 percent in South Africa.


Mikkelsen says by closing the rich-poor inequity gap, some 2.5 million lives could be saved over the next two decades.


“Time is, unfortunately, not on our side. Breast cancer will be a larger public health threat for tomorrow, and the gap in care will continue to grow.  


She says that “by the year 2040, more than 3 million cases and 1 million deaths are predicted to occur each year worldwide. Approximately 75 percent of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries.”


Coinciding with World Cancer Day, the WHO is launching a global breast cancer initiative to tackle the looming threat. The initiative contains a series of best practices for addressing this significant public health issue.


The strategy rests on three main pillars: early-detection programs so at least 60 percent of breast cancers are diagnosed and treated as an early-stage disease; starting treatment within three months of diagnosis; managing breast cancer to ensure at least 80 percent of patients complete their recommended treatment.


Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, says, “Countries with weaker health systems are least able to manage the increasing burden of breast cancer … so, it must be a priority for ministries of health and governments everywhere.


“We have the tools and the knowhow to prevent breast cancer and save lives,” he says.   


Benjamin Anderson, medical officer and lead of the WHO’s global breast cancer initiative, says one of the best ways to implement the initiative is through primary health care systems.   


“The patient pathway is the basis of the three pillars of the global cancer initiative framework. What we anticipate is that by using awareness, education in the public, combined with professional education, it sets us up for the diagnostic processes that must take place and the treatment that has to follow.”  


The World Health Organization warns failure to act now to address cancer in women, including breast cancer, will have serious intergenerational consequences.


It cites a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that reported that because of “the estimated 4.4 million women who died from cancer in 2020, about 1 million children became maternal orphans in that year,” 25 percent of which was due to breast cancer.


Mikkelsen observes, “the children whose mothers die from cancer experience health and educational disadvantages throughout their lives.”


WHO officials acknowledge the cost of drugs to treat breast cancer could be a matter of life or death. It notes the price of certain oral drugs is less than $1, while others range from $9,000 to $10,000.


As many countries are unable to negotiate prices, they say the WHO is working to increase the availability and affordability of breast cancer medication.

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UN Weekly Roundup: Jan. 27-Feb. 3, 2023 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch. 

Two years since Myanmar military coup

The U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar warned Tuesday that two years after its coup, Myanmar’s military will try to legitimize its hold on power through sham elections this year, and he urged the international community not to recognize or engage with the junta.

Humanitarians await ‘guidelines’ from Afghan Taliban on women aid workers

The U.N. humanitarian chief said Monday he is awaiting a list of guidelines from Taliban authorities to allow Afghan women to work in the humanitarian sector, following a decree last month that has restricted their work. Martin Griffiths said he also asked Taliban officials if they are not going to rescind their decree now, then they should extend exemptions to cover all aspects of humanitarian work.

Iran dismisses IAEA report

Iran’s atomic energy organization on Wednesday dismissed a report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog that said Tehran had made an undeclared change to uranium enriching equipment at its Fordow plant. The IAEA said its inspectors found a modification to an interconnection between two clusters of centrifuges that was substantially different than what Iran had declared.

Red Cross warns world dangerously unprepared for next pandemic

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned Monday in its World Disaster Report that the world is dangerously unprepared for the next pandemic, and this will have severe health, economic and social consequences for countries around the world.

In brief 

— The World Health Organization said Monday that COVID-19 continues to be a global health emergency. Following a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on January 27, WHO Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic is probably at a transition point that must be carefully navigated. The committee offered temporary recommendations including continuing vaccinations especially for high-risk groups. The health agency says as of January 29 there have been more than 753 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 6.8 million deaths globally.

— WHO also launched a new initiative Friday to reach the target of saving 2.5 million women’s lives from breast cancer by 2040. The campaign seeks to promote early detection, timely diagnosis and comprehensive management of breast cancer. WHO says there are more than 2.3 million cases of breast cancer annually, making it the most common cancer among adults. In 95% of countries, breast cancer is the first or second leading cause of female cancer deaths. Survival rates vary dramatically both between and within countries, with nearly 80% of deaths from both breast and cervical cancer occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Saturday is World Cancer Day.

— The Food and Agriculture Organization said Friday that global food commodity prices had dropped in January for the 10th consecutive month. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 131.2 points in January, 0.8% lower than in December and 17.9% below its peak in March 2022. The price indices for vegetable oils, dairy and sugar drove the January decline, while those for cereals and meat remained largely stable. Wheat prices were down by 2.5% as production in Australia and Russia outperformed expectations. The FAO said low domestic prices could result in a small cutback in wheat plantings in Russia, the world’s largest exporter, while the impact of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine are estimated to reduce winter wheat area plantings by 40%. Record plantings are forecast in India.

— The U.N. said that an inter-agency aid convoy delivered five truckloads of medications, shelter materials, tool kits, hygiene items and solar lamps to the Zaporizhzhia region in the southeast Ukraine on Thursday. The supplies are headed for people in Huliaipole, where about 3,000 people remain close to the front line. Humanitarians say the community has been without electricity and water since March, as power stations were damaged by fighting and cannot be repaired because of the ongoing hostilities. This is the second convoy this week to reach frontline communities, after a convoy reached Donetsk region on January 31. U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths will brief the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian situation on February 6.

What we are watching next week

On February 6, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief member states on his priorities for the year ahead. With the world facing conflicts, inflation and climate catastrophes, look for him to amplify his calls for unity and urgent action.

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Have We Been Visited by Aliens? Depends on Whom You Ask

Logistics manager Nicholas Rehak was visiting his parent’s home in Baltimore County, Maryland, several years ago. He was standing on the back deck one night when he noticed a bluish white light.

“It was shaped in a damn near perfect oval and it started to rise,” Rehak told VOA. “I’m talking straight up vertical, no deviation. It sat there for nearly 30 seconds and then suddenly it vanished — like a lamp when someone pulls the plug. Just sudden darkness.”

Perhaps it was a drone. Rehak said that was his first thought.

“But I’ve never seen a drone take off perfectly vertical like that, from ground to sky without so much as a wobble,” he continued. “It was far too low to the ground to be a larger aircraft. So what was it? If I close my eyes, I can still see the light plain as day.”

For decades, Americans have reported sighting unidentified flying objects — commonly referred to as UFOs — zigging, zagging and hovering in the sky. Many were ridiculed for their assertions.

Now, however, the U.S. government is tracking and studying reports of what they refer to as unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). More than 350 new cases have been reported to the government since March 2021, according to an unclassified document released last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That number far exceeds what was reported over the 17 years prior, suggesting either a dramatic increase in sightings or a greater willingness to report them.

“It’s no longer embarrassing to talk about,” said Steve Mort, a New Orleans, Louisiana, resident. “I’ve always known true extraterrestrial UAPs exist — they’re likely our ancestors checking back in on us. The only thing I’m shocked by is that the government is officially confirming this.”

The January report, however, cautions against making such conclusions. While approximately half of the 366 reported UAP sightings remain unexplained, the ODNI wrote its “initial characterization does not mean positively resolved or unidentified.”

In other words, the U.S. government says it does not know what many of the mysterious objects are. And while the Department of Defense and NASA are taking steps to investigate UAPs, an impatient and imaginative American public is debating the mystery on its own.

Extraterrestrial life

Many in the scientific community say there is nothing particularly unusual about the steps the government is taking.

This includes American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“If there’s something in your night sky and you don’t know what it is, maybe it’s harmful, right?” Tyson said, speaking with VOA. “Well, investigating that potential harm is the entire mission statement of the military.”

“It’s nothing deeper than that,” he continued, “other than there are many people out there who wish it was something deeper despite having a lack of evidence to prove it.”

While there is a wide variety of opinions on whether extraterrestrial life has visited Earth, there appears to be a consensus that life likely exists beyond Earth.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in June 2021, 65% of Americans say they believe intelligent life exists on other planets.

“Each time we build a bigger telescope, we discover more and more galaxies in our ever-expanding universe,” said Robert Sheaffer, an author and investigator of UAPs. “Our universe is so unimaginably vast, it would be foolish to claim there are no other planets with life, or with intelligent civilizations.”

Differing conclusions

Americans as a whole appear divided on whether UAPs are extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting our planet. But the percentage who do believe in alien visitation has grown.

A YouGov survey last September found 34% of Americans believe UFOs are alien ships or alien life forms. An equal percentage said they didn’t know what accounts for UFOs while 32% believed they had a natural scientific explanation.

In a similar survey by Newsweek/Princeton in 1996, only 20% of Americans believed UFOs were evidence of extraterrestrial life while 51% said they could be explained by natural science.

Tyler Ogilvie, a musician from Syracuse, New York, said he recently spotted a mysterious spacecraft zooming overhead.

“I was legitimately convinced I was seeing something mystical or otherworldly,” he told VOA. “It was incredible … until a sobering Google search proved otherwise. It turned out I was looking at Elon Musk’s Starlink [a series of satellites launched by SpaceX to provide broader internet access].”

“But I think it’s a valuable experience,” Ogilvie added. “I learned how quickly the human mind can be convinced of something that it wants to believe is true. I want to believe it because I think it would make more sense out of our seemingly meaningless existence if we could put it into the perspective of the universe as a whole.”

Others agree.

“I think we don’t want to be alone,” Nicholas Rehak said.

“It gives me goosebumps to dream of what might be out there,” said Carl Fink, a software developer in New Orleans, “and contemplating the cosmos helps me consider the possibility of things I couldn’t previously imagine.”

Tyson said imagining life in other parts of the universe is part of a longer trend in human history.

“We used to think our planet was the center of the cosmos, but then through the help of Galileo and others we learned we orbit a sun,” the astrophysicist explained. “But at least everything in the universe orbited our sun … until we learned it didn’t. We’d go on to learn that other stars in the galaxy have their own planets, and that, in fact, there are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in our universe and we’re not at the center of anything.”

He added, “It’s good for our ego to understand that the universe literally doesn’t revolve around us and that we’re probably not the only life form out there.”

‘Where is the evidence?’

Are the UAPs being reported to the U.S. government in record numbers proof that alien life forms are finally reaching out?

Tyson is a skeptic.

“You’re telling me that a million humans are airborne at any given time — with cellphones that can take photos and capture video — and none of us have gotten clearer footage of these supposed alien spacecraft?” he said. “We have the technology to livestream these encounters, so where is the evidence? I know, I know. Everyone wants to meet the aliens, but for me — and I don’t want to stop anyone from investigating the lights in the sky, of course — there’s not enough evidence of visiting aliens to pique my interest.”

The Pentagon office responsible for tracking and studying sightings has preliminarily identified 163 of the recent reports as “balloon or balloon entities” while others have been attributed to weather events, birds, drones, or airborne debris such as plastic bags.

Still, 171 other reported sightings since March 2021 remain unexplained. Are they aliens? Foreign governments spying on America? Secret U.S. weapons tests?

“UAPs can be anything,” said Emily Songster, a music teacher in Asheville, North Carolina. “But imagining the possibility of life on other planets coming to visit us makes for a more fun and interesting world. I think that’s why many people look to aliens for answers and, personally, I’m glad we’re beginning to officially take these things seriously.”

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Two-Century-Old Mystery of Waterloo’s Skeletal Remains

More than 200 years after Napoleon met defeat at Waterloo, the bones of soldiers killed on that famous battlefield continue to intrigue Belgian researchers and experts, who use them to peer back to that moment in history.

“So many bones — it’s really unique!” exclaimed one such historian, Bernard Wilkin, as he stood in front of a forensic pathologist’s table holding two skulls, three femurs and hip bones.

He was in an autopsy room in the Forensic Medicine Institute in Liege, eastern Belgium, where tests are being carried out on the skeletal remains to determine from which regions the four soldiers they belong to came from.

That in itself is a challenge.

Half a dozen European nationalities were represented in the military ranks at the Battle of Waterloo, located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Brussels.

That armed clash of June 18, 1815 ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions of conquering Europe to build a great empire, and resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 soldiers.

The battle has since been pored over by historians, and — with advances in the genetic, medical and scanning fields — researchers can now piece together pages of the past from the remains buried in the ground.

Some of those remains have been recovered through archeological digs, such as one last year that allowed the reconstitution of a skeleton found not far from a field hospital the British Duke of Wellington had set up.

But the remains examined by Wilkin surfaced through another route.

‘Prussians in my attic’

The historian, who works for the Belgian government’s historical archives, said he gave a conference late last year and “this middle-aged man came to see afterwards and told me, ‘Mr Wilkin, I have some Prussians in my attic'”.

Wilkin, smiling, said the man “showed me photos on his phone and told me someone had given him these bones so he can put them on exhibit… which he refused to do on ethical grounds”.

The remains stayed hidden away until the man met Wilkin, who he believed could analyze them and give them a decent resting place.

A key item of interest in the collection is a right foot with nearly all its toes — that of a “Prussian soldier” according to the middle-aged man.

“To see a foot so well preserved is pretty rare, because usually the small bones on the extremities disappear into the ground,” noted Mathilde Daumas, an anthropologist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles who is part of the research work.

As for the attributed “Prussian” provenance, the experts are cautious.

The place it was discovered was the village of Plancenoit, where troops on the Prussian and Napoleonic sides bitterly fought, Wilkin said, holding out the possibility the remains might be those of French soldiers.

Scraps of boots and metal buckles found among the remains do point to uniforms worn by soldiers from the Germanic side arrayed against the French.

But “we know that soldiers stripped the dead for their own gear,” the historian said.

Clothes and accessories are not reliable indicators of the nationality of skeletons found on the Waterloo battlefield, he stressed.

DNA testing

More dependable, these days, are DNA tests.

Dr Philippe Boxho, a forensic pathologist working on the remains, said there were still parts of the bones that should yield DNA results, and he believed another two months of analyses should yield answers.

“As long as the subject matter is dry we can do something. Our biggest enemy is humidity, which makes everything disintegrate,” he explained.

The teeth in particular, with traces of strontium, a naturally occurring chemical element that accumulates in human bones, can point to specific regions through their geology, he said.

Wilkin said an “ideal scenario” for the research would be to find that the remains of the “three to five” soldiers examined came from both the French and Germanic sides.

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US May Lift Protections for Yellowstone, Glacier Grizzlies

The Biden administration took a first step Friday toward ending federal protections for grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, which would open the door to future hunting in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state officials provided “substantial” information that grizzlies have recovered from the threat of extinction in the regions surrounding Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

But federal officials rejected claims by Idaho that protections should be lifted beyond those areas, and they raised concerns about new laws from the Republican-led states that could potentially harm grizzly populations.

“We will fully evaluate these and other potential threats,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday’s move kicks off at least a year of further study before final decisions about the Yellowstone and Glacier regions.

State officials have insisted any future hunts would be limited and not endanger the overall population.

However, Republican lawmakers in the region in recent years also adopted more aggressive policies against gray wolves, including loosened trapping rules that could lead to grizzlies being inadvertently killed.

As many as 50,000 grizzlies once roamed the western half of the U.S. They were exterminated in most of the country early last century by overhunting and trapping, and the last hunts in the northern Rockies occurred decades ago. There are now more than 2,000 bears in the Lower 48 states and much larger populations in Alaska, where hunting is allowed.

The species’ expansion in the Glacier and Yellowstone areas has led to conflicts between humans and bears, including periodic attacks on livestock and sometimes fatal maulings of humans.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed the administration’s announcement and said it could lead to the state reclaiming management of a species that’s been under federal protections since 1975. He said the grizzly’s recovery “represents a conservation success.”

The federal government removed protections for the Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzlies in 2017. Wyoming and Idaho were set to allow grizzlies to be hunted when a judge restored those protections in 2018, siding with environmental groups that said delisting wasn’t based on sound science. Those groups want protections kept in place so bears can continue moving into new areas.

“We should not be ready to trust those states,” said attorney Andrea Zaccardi, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

U.S. government scientists have said the region’s grizzlies are biologically recovered but in 2021 decided that protections were still needed because of human-caused bear deaths and other pressures. Bears considered problematic are regularly killed by wildlife officials.

A decision on the states’ petitions was long overdue. Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Thursday had filed notice he intended to sue over the delay. Idaho’s petition was broader than the ones filed by Montana and sought to lift protections nationwide.

That would have included small populations of bears in portions of Idaho, Montana and Washington state, where biologists say the animals have not yet recovered to sustainable levels. It also could have prevented the return of bears to other areas such as the North Cascades region.

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Australia to Legalize MDMA And Magic Mushrooms for Medical Use

Australia’s drugs watchdog on Friday announced that psychedelic substances MDMA and psilocybin — more commonly known as ecstasy and magic mushrooms — will soon be used in the treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress.

Psychiatrists will be able to prescribe the two substances from July, the Therapeutic Goods Administration said after finding “sufficient evidence for potential benefits in certain patients.”

The two drugs are currently “prohibited substances” and can only be used in closely controlled clinical trials.

The administration said they had been found to be “relatively safe” when administered in a medical setting and provided an “altered state of consciousness” that could help patients.

Mike Musker, a mental health and suicide prevention researcher at the University of South Australia, welcomed the move as “long-awaited.”

“There are many people in the community experiencing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression, particularly army veterans and people who have worked in emergency services, where standard psychiatric drugs have not worked and offer no relief,” he said.

Musker said the two drugs “reduce inhibitions” and could help people process difficult images and memories.

For now, the use of MDMA and psilocybin will be limited to the treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress.

But advocates hope to one day use them for alcohol dependence, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders.

Psychedelics have been used by Indigenous peoples for millennia, but Western researchers only started seriously looking into their potential uses in the middle of the last century.

The drugs became symbols of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and were banned.

Authorities in Canada and the United States are among those who have already permitted the medical use of MDMA and psilocybin.

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France Seeks Strategy as Nuclear Waste Site Risks Saturation Point

At a nuclear waste site in Normandy, robotic arms guided by technicians behind a protective shield maneuver a pipe that will turn radioactive chemicals into glass as France seeks to make safe the byproducts of its growing reliance on atomic power.

The fuel-cooling pools in La Hague, on the country’s northwestern tip, could be full by the end of the decade and state-owned Orano, which runs them, says the government needs to outline a long-term strategy to modernize its aging facilities no later than 2025.

While more nuclear energy can help France and other countries to reduce planet-warming emissions, environmental campaigners say it replaces one problem with another.

To seek solutions, President Emmanuel Macron, who has announced plans to build at least six new reactors by 2050, on Friday chairs the first of a series of meetings on nuclear policy that will discuss investments and waste recycling.

“We can’t have a responsible nuclear policy without taking into account the handling of used fuel and waste. It’s a subject we can’t sweep under the rug,” a government adviser told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We have real skills and a real technological advantage, especially over the United States. Russia is the only other country that is able to do what France does in terms of treatment and recycling.”

La Hague is the country’s sole site able to process and partially recycle used nuclear fuel.

France historically has relied on nuclear power for around 70% of its energy, although the share is likely to have fallen last year as the nuclear fleet suffered repeated outages.

Since the launch of the site at La Hague in 1976, it has treated nearly 40,000 tons of radioactive material and recycled some into nuclear fuel that can be reused. The waste that cannot be recycled is mixed with hardening slices of glass and buried for short-term storage underground.

But its four existing cooling pools for spent fuel rods and recycled fuel that has been reused risk saturation by 2030, according to French power giant EDF, which runs France’s 56-strong fleet of reactors, the world’s second biggest after the United States.

Should saturation happen, France’s reactors would have nowhere to place their spent fuel and would have to shut down — a worst-case scenario that led France’s Court of Audit to designate La Hague as “an important vulnerability point” in 2019.

Cool pools and deep clay

EDF is hurrying to build an extra refrigerated pool at La Hague, at a cost of $1.37 billion, to store spent nuclear fuel — a first step before the waste can be treated — but that will not be ready until 2034 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, France’s national agency for managing nuclear waste last month requested approval for a project to store permanently high-level radioactive waste.

The plan, called Cigéo, would involve placing the waste 500 meters below ground in a clay formation in eastern France.

Construction is expected in 2027 if it gets approval. Among those opposed to it are residents of the nearby village of Bure and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Jean-Christophe Varin, deputy director of the La Hague site, told Reuters Orano could be flexible to ensure more recycling is done at the facility and there were “several possible scenarios.”

However, he said they could not be worked on in detail in the absence of a strategic vision. Orano, for which EDF accounts for 95% of its recycling business, says it needs clear direction from the government no later than 2025, to give it time to plan the necessary investments.

The costs are likely to be high. Just keeping up with current operations at La Hague costs nearly $330 million a year.

Options EDF and Orano are considering include finding a way to recycle the used fuel more than once, but critics say the recycling itself creates more radioactive waste and is not a long-term solution. For now, the backup plan is to fit more fuel containers into the existing pools.

After being cooled in a pool for about seven years, used nuclear fuel is separated into non-recyclable leftovers that are turned into glass (4% of the material), plutonium (1%) to create a new nuclear fuel called MOX, on which around 40% of France’s reactors can run, and reprocessed uranium (95%).

The uranium in the past was sent to Russia for reenrichment and return for use in some EDF reactors, but EDF stopped doing that in 2013 as it was too costly.

In spite of the war in Ukraine, which has made many in the West avoid doing business with Russia, EDF is expected to resume sending uranium to Russia this year as the only country able to process it. It declined to confirm to Reuters it would do so.

The facility at La Hague, with its 1980s-era buildings and Star Wars-style control rooms, has its limitations.

“If we had to process MOX fuel in large quantities, the facility today isn’t adapted for it,” Varin said. “For multicycle recycling, the technology is not the same, so the modernization or replacement of installations” would require “significant” investments, he said.

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Eye Drops Recalled After US Drug-Resistant Bacteria Outbreak

U.S. health officials said Thursday a company is recalling its over-the-counter eye drops that have been linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week sent a health alert to doctors, saying the outbreak included at least 55 people in 12 states. One died and at least five others had permanent vision loss.

The infections, including some found in blood, urine and lungs, were linked to EzriCare Artificial Tears. Many said they had used the product, which is a lubricant used to treat irritation and dryness.

The eye drops are sold under the name EzriCare and are made in India by Global Pharma Healthcare. The Food and Drug Administration said the company recalled unexpired lots of EzriCare Artificial Tears and another product, Delsam Pharma’s Artificial Tears.

The FDA recommended the recall based on manufacturing problems including lack of testing and proper controls on packaging. The agency also blocked import into the United States.

The infections were caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Investigators detected it in open EzriCare bottles, but further testing was underway.

EzriCare, the company that markets the eye drops in the U.S., said it is not aware of any evidence definitively linking the outbreak to the product, but that it has stopped distributing the eye drops. It also has a notice on its website urging consumers to stop using the product.

Infections were diagnosed in patients in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. A person in Washington died with a blood infection.

The outbreak is considered particularly worrisome because the bacteria driving it are resistant to standard antibiotics.

Investigators found the bacteria were not susceptible to any antibiotics routinely tested at public health laboratories. However, a newer antibiotic named cefiderocol seemed to work.

How could eye drops cause infections in the blood or lungs? The eye connects to the nasal cavity through the tear ducts. Bacteria can move from the nasal cavity into the lungs. Also, bacteria in these parts of the body can seed infections at other sites such as in the blood or wounds, CDC officials said.

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Punxsutawney Phil Sees Shadow, Forecasts Six More Weeks of Winter

A legendary U.S. groundhog, from the (east central U.S.) town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, was pulled from his burrow early Thursday, with local officials declaring he saw his shadow, indicating, according to legend, there will be at least six more weeks of winter.

The annual observance of Groundhog Day on February 2 brings thousands of revelers to the town—located about 105 kilometers northeast of Pittsburgh—each year. Local officials, dressed in top hats and long coats, make a show of pulling the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil from his underground burrow to get his forecast.

The event is held shortly after dawn, around 7:15am, but the festivities begin as early as early as 3:30am with live entertainment and fireworks.

According to the organizer’s website, the tradition of seeking a weather forecast from a groundhog—a large rodent and member of the squirrel family—began in the town in 1886. Its origins go back to both Christian and pagan observances in Europe.

The pagan ritual marked the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In Christian tradition, the feast day of Candlemas was when the church would distribute candles needed for the rest of winter, and it evolved into a prediction for how much longer winter would last.

Historians say the Germans began the tradition of involving an animal to the prediction process, using a hedgehog, a small, spiny animal common in parts of Europe. Germans immigrating to the eastern United States, where there are no hedgehogs, kept up the tradition by turning to groundhogs.

While the tradition and the celebration that accompanies it has stood the test of time, the groundhog has not had a good track record of accurately predicting winter weather. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reports Punxsutawney Phil has been right roughly 40% of the time over the last 10 years.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

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