KILLER WHALE: An orca killed its trainer at SeaWorld Orlando on Wednesday in front of a horrified audience, grabbing the woman in its jaws and thrashing her around underwater until she drowned. Some details of the attack remain unclear, however — police say the trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, slipped into the tank beforehand, while many eyewitnesses say she was pulled in by the orca, a 30-year-old male named Tilikum. Either way, it was the third human death since 1991 that's been linked to Tilikum, and only about a dozen of the park's 29 trainers were authorized to work with him due to his large size and checkered past. But Tilikum had never killed a trainer before — one previous death was a tourist who fell into his pool, and another was a man who apparently sneaked into the park at night — and Brancheau was one of SeaWorld's most experienced whale trainers. Orcas are naturally vicious killers of fish and seals, but there's no record of one killing a person in the wild, experts say. One marine biologist tells LiveScience that Tilikum probably didn't intend to kill Brancheau, since orcas are powerful animals that need to come up for air less often than people, generally failing to understand the difference in lung capacities. But one witness did tell MSNBC that Tilikum wasn't responding to directions during an earlier show in the day, behaving in a way that other onlookers described as being like an ornery child. SeaWorld suspended orca shows at all its parks following the attack to review procedures, and officials say they haven't decided yet what to do with Tilikum. (Sources: Associated Press, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, LiveScience)
RUBBLE TROUBLE: When Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was flattened by a major earthquake last month, the reverberations traveled much farther than the actual seismic waves did. The disaster was a wake-up call for dense, hastily built cities around the world, which have been growing exponentially — and not always wisely — in Third World countries from China to Chile in recent decades. The [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] Times reports today on these teetering megacities, which some seismologists call "rubble in waiting," and examines the daunting prospects of overhauling an urban center like Istanbul (pictured) or Tehran to make it quake-ready. The best hope for many sprawling, older cities, says the director of an Istanbul earthquake institute, is for the inevitable quake to hold off long enough for engineers to replace the weakest buildings as owners and tenants move out. "If the quake gives us some time, we can reduce the losses just through turnover," says Dr. Mustafa Erdik. "If it happens tomorrow, there'll be a huge number of deaths." (Source: New York Times)
DAMNED YANKEE: Vermont's Senate voted Wednesday not to extend the life of the state's controversial nuclear power plant, dealing a high-profile blow to the old generation of U.S. nuclear plants just a week after President Obama began awarding billions of dollars to build a new generation of them. The 26-4 vote means the Vermont Yankee plant (pictured) won't get another 20 years added to its already 37-year life, but state senators say they weren't voting against Vermont Yankee as much as they were voting against Entergy Corp., the Louisiana-based utility that owns the plant. The first strike was a cooling-tower collapse in 2007, followed by an AP report last month of radioactive tritium leaking from the plant's underground pipes; when Entergy officials gave inaccurate information to legislators about those leaks — at times under oath — it was too much for many in Vermont to bear. "The 26-to-4 vote sent Entergy Louisiana a clear message: Enough is enough," Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin said Wednesday. "Vermonters deserve better than an aging, unreliable nuclear power plant owned by an untrustworthy out-of-state corporation." Entergy said in a statement that it plans to continue urging lawmakers and the public to let the plant continue operating beyond its 2012 expiration date. (Sources: Burlington Free Press, AP)
LOST IN SPACE: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (pictured) was grilled on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as several U.S. senators told the former astronaut that his space agency needs to pick somewhere specific and go there. The Senate subcommittee hearing is a response to President Obama's proposed 2011 federal budget, which would transform the way NASA has operated for the last 50 years, scrapping an ambitious moon mission and opting to let private companies build new shuttles instead of making them in-house. Obama and others have defended the changes as realistic and money-saving, but Sen. David Vitter, R-La., expressed his concern that NASA's budget would simply be adrift in space without a clear plan. "Resources without vision is a waste of time and money," he told Bolden, adding that he plans to fight the changes "with every ounce of energy I have." Bolden countered that NASA does have a vision — going to Mars — but that it's a decade away and will require major improvements to the agency's existing technology. "We want to go to Mars," Bolden said. "We can't get there right now because we don't have the technology to do it." To help develop that technology, he added, NASA's new plan would invest in creating in-orbit fuel depots, inflatable spaceship parts, new propulsion techniques and other innovations. (Source: AP)
GOLD PHONES: Mining companies go to a lot of trouble to extract metals like gold and silver from the earth, putting miners' safety as well as the surrounding environment at risk with every new mine they dig. But as a new U.N. report points out, humans are overlooking a much more accessible gold mine right in front of our faces: cell phones, TVs, computer screens and other "e-waste." Most mining companies must dig up a ton of ore to get one gram of gold, but the same amount of gold can be found in 41 mobile phones — just one example of the ways we could save ourselves the hassles and hazards of mining for metals by exploiting our vast "e-waste" resources instead. The U.N. estimates that 40 million tons of discarded electronics wind up in the trash each year, all while new gold, silver and copper are still being mined to make new products. The United States leads all countries with about 3 million tons of e-waste expected to be generated in 2010, according to the U.N. report, followed by China's 2.3 million, and most of it isn't recycled. One prominent use of recycled e-waste, however, is the Vancouver Winter Olympics' gold, silver and bronze medals, which were made using melted-down circuit boards. (Source: Der Spiegel)
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Photo (SeaWorld Orlando sign): Matt Stroshane/Getty Images
Photo (Istanbul): John Foxx/Getty Images
Photo (Vermont Yankee): Toby Talbot/AP
Photo (Charles Bolden): Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Photo (cell phone): [skipwords]maine[/skipwords].gov
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