Science  08 Feb 2002:
Vol. 295, Issue 5557, pp. 945

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  1. Nuclear Shutdown

    Operations at a research nuclear reactor in the Netherlands were set to shut down this week after Dutch and European authorities expressed concerned about its safety. The High Flux Reactor (HFR) in Petten, owned by the European Union's Joint Research Centre, will remain closed pending a review by outside experts.

    The 40-year-old reactor is used for energy-related research and makes more than half of all medical isotopes used in Europe. The apparent growth of a tiny, 18-year-old crack in the reactor vessel plus allegations by an operator of unsafe practices triggered the shutdown.

    NRG, the company that operates HFR, claims the reactor is safe and says the whistleblower acted as part of a long-running labor conflict. Although he agrees that the crack is harmless, Dutch environment minister Jan Pronk last weekend said he wants experts to examine the lab's “safety culture.”

  2. Water Warning

    The National Academy of Sciences has waded into a battle over water policy in Northern California and Oregon with a report criticizing the judgment of federal fisheries biologists.

    Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service recommended water restrictions to protect two endangered species of suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and a downstream species of Coho salmon. The recommendations came in the middle of a regional drought and touched off angry protests by farmers and calls for an independent review of the move.


    The committee's report, issued this week, found no clear connection between water levels and conditions that promote algal blooms and other problems that degrade water quality and can kill fish. At the same time, the committee said there was no evidence to support an alternative plan from the Bureau of Reclamation to release more water than normal to farmers.

    Glen Spain, a fisheries expert with the Institute for Fisheries Resources in Eugene, Oregon, says the academy's conclusions put federal biologists in “a difficult box.” The report suggests they shouldn't raise or lower Klamath Lake water levels, Spain says, although current levels contributed to the fish's plight. The agencies must come up with a new plan by 1 April to protect the fish during the upcoming growing season.

  3. Exodus, Chapter 7

    Marvin Cassman, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in Bethesda, Maryland, announced this week that he is heading to California in May to head up a new state-funded quantitative biology institute. Cassman is the seventh top administrator to leave the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the past 2 years, including former NIH director Harold Varmus. One vacancy has been filled: Andrew C. von Eschenbach, formerly of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, took the oath as director of the National Cancer Institute on 4 February.

    At NIGMS, Cassman says, he favored a “complex systems” approach that applied engineering, computational science, physics, and other quantitative disciplines to basic biology. Now he intends to implement this strategy as head of “QB3,” a quantitative biology consortium that includes University of California (UC) schools in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz. Lab construction will begin soon at UCSF's Mission Bay campus; the budget has not been set.

  4. Delayed Again

    The long-awaited operation of a nuclear research reactor in Garching, outside Munich, has again been delayed, this time because of safety concerns in the wake of the 11 September attacks. The federal environment ministry says that FRM-II, which is also a neutron source, needs to develop rules for dealing with accidents and a better plan for the disposal of its spent fuel, highly enriched uranium, to prevent its use in a bomb. The delay comes amid the finalization of plans by Germany's red-green government to phase out nuclear energy production.

    FRM-II was completed in August 2000, and Germany's radiation protection agency gave it a thumbs-up in December for experimental operation. The Bavarian government, which has to gain the approval of federal authorities, said it would submit a revised application by May, and federal officials have promised a speedy review.