Toxins in shark fins linked to human ills

MIAMI, Feb. 23 (UPI) — U.S. researchers say a neurotoxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans, including Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, has been found in shark fins.

Scientists at the University of Miami say high concentrations of the BMAA neurotoxin suggest consumption of shark fin soup and cartilage pills may pose a significant health risk for degenerative brain diseases.

Sharks are among the most threatened of marine species worldwide, primarily killed for their fins alone to fuel the growing demand for the soup, an Asia delicacy, a UM release said Wednesday.

“Estimates suggest that fins from as many as 70 million sharks end up in soup,” researcher Neil Hammerschlag said. “As a result, many shark species are on the road to extinction.

“Because sharks play important roles in maintaining balance in the oceans, not only is shark fin soup injurious to the marine environment, but our study suggests that it is likely harmful to the people who are consuming them,” he said.

Seven species of shark — blacknose, blacktip, bonnethead, bull, great hammerhead, lemon and nurse sharks — were tested for the study.

“The concentrations of BMAA in the samples are a cause for concern, not only in shark fin soup, but also in dietary supplements and other forms ingested by humans, ” study co-author Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, said.

“Not only does this work provide important information on one probable route of human exposure to BMAA, it may lead to a lowering of the demand for shark fin soup and consumption of shark products, which will aid ocean conservation efforts,” Hammerschlag said.

Study: Clouds losing altitude globally

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Researchers say the sky is falling, after a fashion, as data from a U.S. satellite show clouds around the world are losing altitude.

If future observations confirm that as a trend, it could have an important effect on global climate change, they said.

“We don’t know exactly what causes the cloud heights to lower,” researcher Roger Davies of the University of Auckland in New Zealand said. “But it must be due to a change in the circulation patterns that give rise to cloud formation at high altitude.”

Researchers said clouds that are lower in the atmosphere would more efficiently cool the planet and could possibly offset some global warming caused by greenhouse gases, LiveScience.com reported.

Davies and his colleagues have analyzed 10 years of data from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer on NASA’s Terra spacecraft and found that global average cloud height decreased by around 1 percent from 2000 to 2010, a distance of 100 to 300 feet.

Most of the reduction stemmed from fewer clouds forming at very high altitudes, the researchers reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Bill would make turtle California symbol

SACRAMENTO, Feb. 23 (UPI) — California, which already has a state flower, a state bird and even a state fossil, may soon have an official marine reptile, lawmakers say.

A bill introduced in the state assembly would add the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle to a growing list of symbols that includes the California quail; the gray whale; the California poppy; the garibaldi, the state marine fish; and the saber-tooth cat, the state fossil; the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

The symbolic act, a part of raising awareness about the threatened creatures, comes as the federal government is setting aside 41,000 square miles of the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington as critical habitat for leatherback turtles, which have been on the endangered species list since 1970.

The population of the turtles, which can weigh 2,000 pounds and measure 8 feet long, has dropped by more than 95 percent in the last thirty years because of disease, the harvesting of their eggs and entanglement in fishing gear.

The designation as a state reptile is part of a “coordinated worldwide conservation effort” to save the sea turtles from extinction, Assemblyman Paul Fong, the bill’s sponsor, said.

It “will demonstrate California’s commitment to protecting leatherback sea turtles and our ocean’s ecosystem,” he said.

Warning on impact of mining in Norway

SALT LAKE CITY, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Scientists say they’re concerned about the practice of dumping millions of tons of waste rock from mining operations into deep Norwegian fjords.

The Norwegian Institute for Water Research, which says debris from mining operations has been dumped on the seafloor for decades with little consideration of its likely impacts, is conducting studies to assess the consequences.

“The mining companies send these tailings down a long pipe, down below the euphotic zone, below 200m (650 feet), and essentially smother everything on the seafloor,” institute research scientist Andrew Sweetman told BBC News. “All the animals that live in the sediments that provide food for larger invertebrates and fish, for example, will be killed off.”

The euphotic zone is the layer of water that receives enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur.

Sweetman made the remarks at the biennial Ocean Sciences Meeting in Salt Lake City.

Lisa Levin — director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. — said the Norwegian situation is a classic example of an activity being conducted without fully considering the consequences.

“Industry is moving steadily deeper,” she said. “Three thousand meters (9,800 feet) is now routine, and we know what can happen.”

China’s lost ‘Atlantis’ unearthed

XUYI, China, Feb. 23 (UPI) — An ancient city long-considered China’s “Atlantis” has been unearthed in the country’s Jiangsu Province, researchers say.

Archaeologists said farmers often find bizarre rectangular stones in their fields, and huge amounts of broken tiles and piles of carved stones were discovered during construction of a bridge 25 years ago.

These artifacts made people think of the ancient city of Sizhou, a mysterious “lost” city of local legend, which in 1680 was supposedly lashed by a powerful storm that forced residents to flee.

Before they escaped to become refugees, the story goes, they tried carrying earth from elsewhere to cover the town to hold the flood at bay.

In the last year, archaeologists from Nanjing and Huai’an museums located the lost city, covering nearly a square mile, with five-sixths of it buried under the Huaihe River’s sediment, China Daily reported.

The rest of the city remains underwater, archaeologists said.

“Sizhou is perhaps better preserved than Italy’s ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried in volcanic ash,” Hu Bing, deputy director of Huai’an Museum’s archaeology department, said.

“No one knows how many treasures are buried in the ancient city,” he said.

Solid ‘buckyball’ carbon found in space

PASADENA, Calif., Feb. 23 (UPI) — Astronomers using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope say they’ve discovered buckyballs in a solid form in space for the first time.

Previously the microscopic carbon spheres had been found only in gas form in the universe, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., reported Wednesday.

Buckyballs, formally known as buckminsterfullerine, are made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged into a hollow sphere like a soccer ball and named after architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes.

The Spitzer telescope detected tiny specks of matter consisting of stacked buckyballs around a pair of stars called “XX Ophiuchi” 6,500 light-years from Earth, and found enough to fill the equivalent in volume of 10,000 Mount Everests, JPL said.

“These buckyballs are stacked together to form a solid, like oranges in a crate,” astronomer Nye Evans of Keele University in England said. “The particles we detected are minuscule, far smaller than the width of a hair, but each one would contain stacks of millions of buckyballs.”

The research team said it was able to identify the solid form of buckyballs in the Spitzer data because they emit light in a unique way that differs from the gaseous form.

“This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed,” said Mike Werner, project scientist for Spitzer at JPL. “They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.”

Samsung announces ‘mil-spec’ cellphone

RIDGEFIELD PARK, N.J., Feb. 23 (UPI) — Samsung says its new Rugby Smart phone, set for a U.S. debut in March, meets military-grade levels of toughness to face the hard knocks of extreme usage.

The company says the Android phone is built to meet both the U.S. military Mil-spec 810f and the IP67 international standards for ruggedness, CNET.com reported.

The phone should be able to survive submersion in 3 feet of water for 30 minutes and prolonged exposure to dust, driving rain, extreme temperatures and falls onto hard surfaces, Samsung said.

While previous “tough” phones have been big and considerably bulky, the Rugby Smart is only slightly larger and thicker than a typical phone at 4.8 inches long, 2.5 inches wide and half an inch thick.

The Smart sports mid-range smartphone specifications like Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a 3.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, 4 gigabytes of internal memory and a microSD card expansion slot.

The GSM phone will run on AT&T’s HSPA “4G” data network, not the carrier’s much faster LTE infrastructure, CNET.com reported.

‘Virtual’ divers can explore ocean reef

BRISBANE, Australia, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Google Earth users can soon take “virtual” scuba dives onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef through panoramas of underwater landscapes, researchers say.

A research survey will map the Great Barrier Reef and allow virtual divers to experience the unique ecosystem through thousands of 360-degree, high-definition views of underwater vistas in the same way Google’s street view takes users through urban environments.

Coral reefs and their marine life will be photographed and mapped by a pair of unmanned submarine cameras during the survey, beginning in September sponsored by Google, non-governmental organizations and British insurance company Catlin.

“Most people who dive the Barrier Reef do so to depths up to about 20 meters. But 93 percent of the reef lies at between 30-100 meters, where light still penetrates. These areas are rarely if ever dived,” project chief scientist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

“Our specially made James Bond-like submersibles will capture for first time in history the unique marine life down there — and whether it is under threat from climate change,” he said.

The images will be posted on Panoramio, Google Earth, Google Maps and be seen via a custom-made 360-degree viewer, he said.

“We will seek the global audience’s help in assessing the health and composition of the reef,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. “The public can help us scientists study in close detail the size of the corals and the number of fish, and spot things like coral bleaching and unique breeding habits.

“Hopefully, virtual diving will raise awareness about climate change,” he said.

Genetic changes threaten food production

HAIFA, Israel, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Genetic changes in wild progenitors of wheats and barleys, staple foods for humans and animals, may threaten future food production, an Israeli study indicates.

Genetic changes in the last three decades imply a risk for crop improvement and food production, the University of Haifa said in a release Wednesday.

“The earliness in flowering time and genetic changes that are taking place in these important progenitor wild cereals, most likely due to global warming, can negatively affect the wild progenitors.” Eviatar Nevo of Haifa’s Institute of Evolution said.

“These changes could thereby indirectly deteriorate food production,” Nevo said.

The progenitors, wild emmer wheat and wild barley, provide the genetic basis for wheat and barley cultivars, which earlier studies found are themselves under constant genetic erosion and increasing susceptibility to environmental stresses, researchers said.

“The ongoing global warming in Israel is the only likely factor that could have caused earliness in flowering and genetic turnover across the range of wild cereals in Israel,” Nevo said. “This indicates that they are under environmental stress which may erode their future survival.

“These changes threaten the best genetic resource for crop improvement and thereby may damage food production.”

“Wild emmer wheat is the world’s most important genetic resource for wheat improvement, and it is up to us to preserve it,” he said.

Mozilla to open ‘agnostic’ apps store

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Open-source non-profit software development organization Mozilla says it is working on an operating-system-agnostic apps store.

Mozilla said its goal is a “people-centric” market where users and developers have freedom, choice and opportunity when searching for apps for several operating systems in one place or developing one application for all available devices.

“The Web is the largest platform in the world. We are enabling the Web to be the marketplace, giving developers the opportunity to play on the biggest playing field imaginable,” Mozilla innovation chief Todd Simpson told theinquirer.net.

“We believe the Web has no competition when it comes to nurturing creativity and generativity,” Mozilla said in a blog post introducing the “agnostic” store concept — and the world “generativity.”

“And we cannot wait to see all the amazing apps that will be built using open web technologies allowing developers to build apps once and deploy everywhere,” the post said.

Mozilla said it expects to launch the apps store later this year, theinquirer.net reported.

Study: U.S. urban forests declining

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — U.S. urban forests are losing ground as tree cover in urban areas is declining at a rate of about 4 million trees per year, a Forest Service study indicates.

Tree cover in 17 of the 20 cities analyzed declined while 16 cities saw increases in impervious cover such as pavement and rooftops, a USFS release said Wednesday.

Land that lost trees was for the most part converted to either grass or ground cover, impervious cover or bare soil, it said.

The greatest percentage of annual loss in tree cover occurred in New Orleans, Houston and Albuquerque, researchers said.

The findings from New Orleans were expected due to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they said.

Tree cover ranged from a high of 53.9 percent in Atlanta to a low of 9.6 percent in Denver, while cities with the greatest annual increase in impervious cover were Los Angeles, Houston and Albuquerque, the study found.

“Our urban forests are under stress, and it will take all of us working together to improve the health of these crucial green spaces,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said.

Forest researchers at the USFS Northern Research Station used satellite imagery to measure tree cover.

“Trees are an important part of the urban landscape,” Michael T. Rains, director of the Northern Research Station, said.

“They play a role in improving air and water quality and provide so many environmental and social benefits. As our Forest Service Chief says, ‘ … urban trees are the hardest working trees in America.’ This research is a tremendous resource for cities of all sizes throughout the nation.”

The Pirate Bay site to go ‘underground’

LONDON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — The Pirate Bay file-sharing site said it would adapt and go underground rather than shut down as it faces legal blocks in Britain.

On Monday Britain’s High Court ruled The Pirate Bay is facilitating copyright infringement and said it would decide in June whether British Internet service providers must block their customers from accessing the site, the BBC reported.

In response, The Pirate Bay said it would be moving to new methods of file distribution making it harder for authorities to track.

“The 29th February is the last day we offer torrents in its current form. Then it will be all magnets, which works pretty much the same,” the site said on its official Facebook page.

The Pirate Bay does not host the illegal files but allows users to search and access copyrighted content.

“Please understand that it’s a necessary move in the saga known as The Pirate Bay,” the Facebook posting said. “Not having torrents will be a bit cheaper for us but it will also make it hard for our common enemies to stop us.”

In 2009 the Swedish courts found the founders of The Pirate Bay guilty of helping people circumvent copyright controls although the site is still functioning.

“This [change] means nothing in terms in legality,. It is all about evasion and a more secure way of encrypting the sources of the file,” analyst Mark Mulligan said of The Pirate Bay’s recent posting. “Magnets send information about the file rather than its location.”

Study: Climate change will up storm surges

PRINCETON, N.J., Feb. 23 (UPI) — Changing climate could make flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms far more common in low-lying coastal areas, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers from Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said regions such as the New York City metropolitan area that have experienced a disastrous flood roughly every century could instead become submerged every one or two decades, a Princeton University release reported.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, they said projected increases in sea level and storm intensity brought on by climate change would make devastating storm surges — the destructive mass of water pushed inland by large storms — more frequent.

Citing New York City as an example, researchers said stronger storms and a 3-foot rise in sea level due to climate change would turn so-called “100-year floods” with depths 5.7 feet above tide level into events that could occur every 25 years.

“Coastal managers in cities like New York make daily decisions about costly infrastructure that would be affected by such storms,” Princeton geoscience professor Michael Oppenheimer said. “They need a reliable indicator of the risk.”

Knowing the frequency of storm surges may help planners design seawalls and other protective structures, researchers said.

“When you design your buildings or dams or structures on the coast, you have to know how high your seawall has to be,” lead study author Ning Lin at MIT said, noting Manhattan’s seawalls now stand a mere five feet high.

“You have to decide whether to build a seawall to prevent being flooded every 20 years.”

Future aircraft may taxi without engines

LINCOLN, England, Feb. 23 (UPI) — British engineers say they’re looking at ways to design aircraft that are able to generate electricity by harnessing energy from the landing gear.

Researchers from the University of Lincoln say future aircraft could use this electricity to power the plane as it taxis to and from airport gates, reducing the need to use the jet engines. This would save on aviation fuel, cut emissions and reduce noise pollution at airports, Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council said Thursday in a release.

The energy produced by a plane’s braking system during landing, currently wasted as heat produced by friction in the brakes, would be captured and converted into electricity by motor-generators built into the landing gear, engineers said.

The electricity would be stored and then supplied to the in-hub motors in the wheels to provide “engine-less” taxiing, they said.

“Taxiing is a highly fuel-inefficient part of any trip by plane with emissions and noise pollution caused by jet engines being a huge issue for airports all over the world,” research leader Paul Stewart said.

“Currently, commercial aircraft spend a lot of time on the ground with their noisy jet engines running,” he said. “In the future this technology could significantly reduce the need to do that.”

Invasive plant saving Australian lizards

CHICAGO, Feb. 23 (UPI) — An Australian lizard may have been saved from extinction at the hands of invasive toxic toads by an invasive species of plant, researchers say.

Cane toads, introduced in Australia in the 1930s to control a beetle pest in sugar cane crops, quickly became an ecological disaster of their own because they produce toxins called bufadienolides, deadly to many native Australian species that feed on frogs and toads, an article in The American Naturalist reported.

Bluetongue lizards are one of the vulnerable species, but some bluetongue populations seem less vulnerable to the toxins, researchers said.

“Some lizard populations were vulnerable to bufotoxins whereas others were not — and the populations with high tolerance to bufotoxins included some that had never been exposed to toads,” researcher Richard Shine of the University of Sydney said.

The reason, Shine and his colleagues said, is likely an invasive plant species known as mother-of-millions, imported from Madagascar as an ornamental plant, that has become part of the diet of bluetongues in some regions and happens to produce a toxin that’s virtually identical to that of the cane toad.

The researchers suggest the plant drove strong selection for lizards that could tolerate bufotoxins — a remarkable example of evolution over a relatively short period of some 20 to 40 generations of lizards.

“Now it appears we have a population of eastern bluetongue lizards that are able to defend themselves well against cane toads — even though they’ve never actually met one — whereas the devastation of the cane toads on the northwestern lizard population continues,” Shine said. “Eating this plant has pre-adapted the eastern blueys against cane toad poisons.”

Group urges Pacific monument fishing ban

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — U.S. conservationists say they want the federal government to prohibit commercial fishing in sensitive and pristine Pacific Island marine national monuments.

The Marine Conservation Institute filed a formal petition to the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce asking them to enforce a ban President George W. Bush declared when he established the monuments over three years ago.

The monuments, covering 193,000 square miles, are the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — a collection of isolated coral island possessions — the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in American Samoa, and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument.

“When President Bush designated these magnificent areas for preservation, he specifically directed that commercial fishing be prohibited in them immediately,” William Chandler, MCI vice president for government affairs, said Wednesday in a release.

“But now, over three years later, the fishing ban and associated penalties for illegal fishing within the monuments have yet to be put into place.”

Illegal fishing within the monuments threatens these pristine marine ecosystems and their populations of corals, rare reef fish, overfished tuna, sea turtles, whales and seabirds, the institute said.

“It is hard to believe a clear directive of the president has gone unimplemented for so long,” Chandler said.

“We’re just trying to get the Administration to do what the presidential designation documents say. There is simply no justification for delay.”

‘Faster than light’ experiment to be rerun

ROME, Feb. 23 (UPI) — A European experiment suggesting particles traveled faster than the speed of light will be rerun after experts found it may have been flawed, officials said.

Scientists reported two “anomalies” — including a problem possibly caused by a loose cable — in the instrumentation used to measure the speed of neutrino particles traveling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso underground particle physics laboratory near Rome, Italian news agency ANSA reported.

The anomalies do not necessarily invalidate the original findings, scientists said, which called into question Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity which says nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light.

Researchers said the experiment would be repeated with after the anomalies are corrected.

“New measurements with short-pulsed beams are scheduled for May,” CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said in a statement.

Geology may have driven species extinction

WICHITA, Kan., Feb. 23 (UPI) — Biodiversity booms and busts every 60 million years could be tied to a geological cycle of periodic uplifting of the world’s continents, U.S. researchers say.

Study leader Adrian Melott at the University of Kansas says periodic increases in the amount of the isotope strontium-87 found in marine fossils corresponds to previously discovered low points in marine biodiversity in the fossil record roughly every 60 million years.

A periodic uplifting of the continents, Melott said, is the most likely explanation for the increase in the isotope in marine fossils, since it leads to erosion of landmasses that would release the isotope into the marine environment.

The massive continental uplifts suggested by the strontium data would reduce sea depth along the continental shelf where most sea animals live, researchers said.

That loss of habitat due to shallow water, Melott and collaborators report, could be the reason for the periodic mass extinctions and periodic decline in diversity found in the marine fossil record.

“What we’re seeing could be evidence of a ‘pulse of the earth’ phenomenon,” Melott said. “There are some theoretical works which suggest that convection of mantle plumes, rather like a lava lamp, should be coordinated in periodic waves.”

The result of this convection deep inside the earth, he said, could be a rhythmic throbbing that pushes the continents up and down.

The research is published in the March issue of The Journal of Geology.

Peru tests Green Skies fuel-saving project

LIMA, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Peru has tested new U.S. technology that saves aviation fuel, reduces pollution and ensures smooth navigation for civilian airliners.

The performance-based navigation technology was used on a LAN airliner that flew non-stop Thursday from Cusco, near Peru’s Machu Picchu tourist attraction, to Lima in a landmark demonstration of the gadgetry’s capacity to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

GE Aviation, which developed the technology, said the demonstration marked a major departure in an international effort to wean airspace management from outmoded infrastructures which, in some industry analysts’ view, no longer match the sophistication of modern aircraft.

The Green Skies of Peru project is a collaboration of LAN, GE Aviation, Peru’s air navigation service provider CORPAC and regulator DGAC.

The project is touted as a system that provides “a highly efficient, predictable flight path throughout the entire flight.”

This contrasts with older systems that depend on a single performance-based navigation path for arrival or departure. The system can also solve operational challenges at individual airports, saving time and cost.

“GE and the Green Skies of Peru team have demonstrated that future air traffic management concepts are attainable today,” said Giovanni Spitale, general manager of GE Aviation’s PBN Services. “PBN programs like this take dedication and teamwork to ensure that benefits are achievable by all stakeholders.”

The company says GE-designed PBN departure, en route, arrival and approach procedures will save participating airlines on average 19 track miles, 6.3 minutes, 450 pounds of fuel and 1,420 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per flight.

The new flight paths enable increased capacity at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, a major regional hub, while helping reduce the carbon footprint at Cusco. LAN flies the route 11-17 times a day, depending on the season, using its Airbus fleet.

The highly accurate paths also provide capable-aircraft with precise lateral and vertical arrival and departure guidance and improve the air traffic management variance and flow for controllers, benefiting all airspace users in the region.

LAN Peru Chief Executive Officer Jorge Vilches said introduction of the new technology was “big news for our country and will be of great benefit to all our passengers.”

Since the demonstration flight, LAN is examining the system’s workability under various operating conditions before finalizing deployment.

In 2009, GE, in collaboration with IATA, designed and deployed Required Navigation Performance approach procedures for LAN at Cusco to improve access into the airport that is flanked by the Andes Mountains. Before the RNP paths, it was typical for one or more of LAN’s scheduled flights per day into Cusco to be delayed or diverted due to poor weather and low visibility.

Since the RNP paths have been in use at Cusco, LAN has reduced cancellations from 12 to five, flight delays by 45 percent and un-stabilized approaches by 94 percent per month on average.

During the first year of RNP use at Cusco, more than 30,000 of LAN Peru´s passengers avoided flight cancellations or delays, thanks to the technology. With the success of the Cusco paths, LAN selected GE Aviation in 2010 to develop an RNP program at five other airports it serves including Lima.

RNP, an advanced form of PBN technology, allows aircraft to fly precisely defined flight paths without relying on ground-based, radio-navigation signals. RNP paths can be designed to shorten the distance an aircraft has to fly en route and to reduce fuel burn, exhaust emissions and noise pollution.

Because of RNP’s precision and reliability, the technology can help air traffic controllers reduce flight delays and alleviate air traffic congestion.

GE has designed and deployed more than 345 RNP flight paths around the world since 2003.

Kuwait abandons nuclear power option

KUWAIT CITY, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Kuwait has decided to abandon civilian nuclear power production.

The decision was prompted by the March 11, 2011, nuclear disaster at the Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan, which was devastated by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and then hit by a tsunami, causing widespread destruction at the six reactor complex.

Accordingly, Kuwait is scrapping plans formulated last July to build four nuclear reactors by 2022.

Officials at the Kuwaiti government at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research made the announcement, Kyodo news agency reported Wednesday.

Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research scientist Osama al-Sayegh and two colleagues said the Fukushima incident resulted in the public questioning the necessity of building nuclear power plants in oil-rich Kuwait.

There was also the question of where Kuwait would store the radioactive waste generated by the NPPs.

Kuwait’s interest in nuclear power began three years ago, when the country announced plans to invest in nuclear to preserve its oil reserves. Kuwaiti officials signed agreements with the United States, France and Russia, all leading nuclear power producers, to boost bilateral cooperation in developing an indigenous civilian atomic energy infrastructure.

The country’s interest in NPPs began in earnest in September 2010 when Kuwait’s National Nuclear Energy Committee told the media that it was considering options for four planned 1,000 megawatt NPP reactors and would release a national “road map” for developing civilian nuclear electrical power generation in January 2011.

The fallout from the Fukushima tragedy, however, saw Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah order that the National Nuclear Energy Committee be dissolved for months.

Fukushima’s travails haven’t deterred Kuwait’s Persian Gulf neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, from pressing forward with its plans to construct four NPPs in a remote area outside Abu Dhabi. The first plant there is scheduled to be online in 2017, representing the first Arab country to develop a NPP.

Kuwait’s reluctance to abandon nuclear power has not surprised local analysts.

“A couple of months ago there was an announcement that Kuwait was rethinking its nuclear plans,” Robin Mills, an energy researcher in Dubai, told the Financial Times. “But I wouldn’t draw wider implications into the (Persian) Gulf’s nuclear policy.

“The (United Arab Emirates) program is going ahead and seems to be on schedule, construction has started.

“Then you’ve got Saudi and Jordan, which are some way behind, but also made quite a lot of commitment to their nuclear programs. If anything, the Saudi push on nuclear has been increasing.”

India to push ahead with nuclear power

NEW DELHI, Feb. 23 (UPI) — India needs nuclear energy to sustain its economic growth, a government official said.

Speaking in New Delhi Wednesday at the International Nuclear Symposium, Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Srikumar Banerjee said, “Without nuclear energy, the economic growth of the country would be slowed down.”

While acknowledging concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami last March 11 that led to a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Banerjee said India can’t renounce nuclear power.

“There is no point in avoiding the questions that have come up in people’s minds — we need to address them head-on,” Banerjee said. “It is important for the public to understand India cannot renounce nuclear power,” he said.

“There is a fear that accidents will have extensive consequences on human population and the environment. It is important to drive home the point that technology will not allow that to happen.”

Banerjee has insisted that India’s existing nuclear power facilities are safe.

Speaking Monday in advance of the symposium, he said: “All atomic energy plants in the country are totally secured as per the international standards and are also capable of dealing with natural calamities like (a) tsunami or earthquake.”

Meanwhile, anti-nuclear protesters this week announced a 72-hour hunger strike against the commissioning of two reactors at the Kudankulam nuclear power project site in Tamil Nadu.

India’s energy consumption — fueled mostly by coal — continues to grow about 6 percent annually, yet nearly 40 percent of households have no access to electricity.

Banerjee cited a study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay that says India’s renewable energy sources would yield less than half the anticipated electricity demand by 2070, when sources of fossil fuels become scarce.

Also speaking Wednesday at the symposium, organized by the World Nuclear Association, Indian Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said India aims to have 63,000 megawatts of installed nuclear capacity by 2032.

India has 20 nuclear power plants in operation with an installed capacity of 4,780 megawatts, and another seven reactors under construction.

The increase in nuclear power generation, Shinde said, would come from both domestic technology and imported reactors.

“Nuclear technology has several distinct advantages — it is compact and highly manageable in terms of handling, transportation and storage of the fuel,” he said, adding that it is greener than all other power generation technologies.

API: Counter prices with regional reserves

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Rising gasoline prices in the United States could be offset by more domestic oil and natural gas production, the American Petroleum Institute said.

Gasoline prices in the United States have escalated in recent weeks in part because of tensions with oil-rich Iran.

API Chief Economist John Felmy said the United States should look at regional oil and natural gas resources to shield domestic markets from foreign turmoil.

“The industry must be allowed to develop at home more of its ample crude oil and natural gas resources,” he said in a statement. “More U.S. barrels on crude markets would help drive down crude costs and reduce gasoline prices.”

Iran said it was cutting crude oil shipments to France and the United Kingdom, a largely symbolic move meant as retaliation for Western sanctions on Tehran. Iranian oil executives said, however, that European countries could secure crude oil shipments if they signed contracts with the government.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said tapping into the strategic petroleum reserve could offset market concerns about Iran.

“It is essential that the United States have an aggressive strategy for releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to combat the speculators capitalizing on the fear in oil markets and to send a message to Iran that we are ready, willing, and able to deploy our oil reserves,” he wrote in a letter to the White House.

An executive from French supermajor Total told the Platts news service this week that talk of high oil prices was to blame for high oil prices.

Caracas defends Syrian oil shipment

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 23 (UPI) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez defended an oil sale to Syria by saying his is a free country that can trade with whichever country it wishes.

A Venezuelan ship carrying oil arrived in Syria last week, one day before the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution censuring Damascus for its crackdown on dissidents.

The shipment was confirmed for The New York Times by Commodity Flow, a company using satellite data to track shipping traffic.

Chavez defended the shipment by saying nobody’s questioned sales to the United States, one of his country’s greatest adversaries. Venezuela is among the largest exporters of oil to the United States.

“We are a free country,” he was quoted as saying.

The Times states the shipment runs in opposition to efforts to isolate Syria, though U.S. State Department officials said sanctions on Damascus don’t prohibit oil shipments to Syria.

Venezuela has some of the largest oil reserves in the world and the newspaper reported that Chavez is able to make political gains by using petroleum revenue to finance social programs.

Chavez, who has been diagnosed with cancer, is up for re-election this year.