Albuquerque, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — It wasn't long after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and World War II ended that the United States began to realize it had to do something with the waste that was being generated by defense-related nuclear research and bomb-making that would continue through the Cold War — and indefinitely.
Tainted with plutonium and other elements, the waste — gloves, clothing, tools and other materials — couldn't be left just anywhere, so it was decided that a repository would be dug deep into the desert in southeastern New Mexico.
What is the waste isolation pilot plant?
WIPP is the United States' only permanent underground repository licensed to take what is known as transuranic waste, or waste generated by the nation's nuclear weapons program that's contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium. There are a few other commercial facilities in the U.S. that accept low-level waste, but none involves hoisting the waste to such depths.
Carved out of an ancient salt formation about half a mile (0.8 kilometers) deep, the subterranean landfill is located outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, a once sparsely populated area that is now home to a major oil and gas boom.
Following years of research, Congress initially mandated the construction of the repository as a research and development project. It's far beyond the experimental stage after 20 years of operation and more than 12,380 shipments.
Packaged in drums, special boxes and other containers, the waste is placed inside a series of rooms that have been excavated out of the salt layer. Some waste has to be handled remotely and is placed in holes bored into the walls. When the rooms are full, they are sealed off.
Why new mexico?
In the 1950s, some of the world's top scientific minds began to weigh the options for what to do with this waste. They concluded deep geologic repositories would be the best way to deal with materials that would take a very long time to decay.
Initial efforts focused on an abandoned salt mine in central Kansas. Technical issues prompted a search for a more suitable site. The focus turned to New Mexico, where evaporation of the ancient Permian Sea eons ago had left behind a thick bed of salt.
Scientists say the benefit of salt is it's nearly impermeable. And since the layer in southeastern New Mexico is so old and expansive, they consider it more stable.
Is wipp safe?
Government officials and nuclear experts say yes. Watchdog groups that monitor the federal government's nuclear weapons programs have other opinions and often cite safety lapses and instances over the decades in which radioactive materials have been mishandled.
Their best evidence is a 2014 radiation release that forced the closure of the repository for nearly three years and led to sweeping policy changes. The release was the result of waste being inappropriately packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Scientists, though, say disposing of the waste in the salt bed will keep it isolated from groundwater sources and the surface. The idea is the salt naturally creeps, healing its own fractures and filling in voids, so the waste will eventually be entombed.
Critics say the creeping of the salt isn't always a gentle process, as the repository has documented numerous instances in which chunks of the ceiling have fallen in areas that haven't been maintained.
Where does the waste come from?
More than a dozen national laboratories and government sites across the country package up waste and ship it to WIPP.
The first shipment — two boxes from Los Alamos — arrived with much fanfare in the pre-dawn hours of March 26, 1999. Residents lined the streets in Carlsbad and waved flags as the truck rolled through. At the repository, hundreds of employees waited at the main gate for a moment some thought would never come.
Idaho National Laboratory has sent more than 6,200 shipments to WIPP, followed by the Rocky Flats site outside of Denver. Waste also has come from the Hanford Site in Washington state and the Savannah River complex in South Carolina.
Officials say more than 14 million miles (22.5 million kilometers) have been traveled by the transport trucks, with only some minor fender-benders.
What's being done to modernize wipp?
Managers and workers at WIPP say they're still dealing with the effects of the 2014 release. Due to contamination of some of the underground disposal areas, workers have to wear protective suits and respirators. Adequate ventilation also is an issue.
The price tag for installing a new ventilation system, sinking new shafts and making other improvements totals more than $500 million.
Managers say the work is necessary and no different than someone sprucing up a 30-year-old home. Some of the earliest underground passages constructed at WIPP date back to 1983.
Officials are also looking at replacing some of the equipment used for mining the salt and moving the waste. Options include more efficient diesel engines or electric-powered vehicles.
Baghouz, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced Saturday they have liberated the last area held by the Islamic State in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, declaring victory over the extremist group and the end of its self-declared Islamic caliphate.
"Baghouz is free and the military victory against Daesh has been achieved," tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.
Elimination of the last IS stronghold in Baghouz marks the end of the militants' self-declared caliphate, which at its height blanketed large parts of Syria and Iraq. The campaign to take back the territory by the U.S. and its partners has spanned five years and two U.S. presidencies, unleashed more than 100,000 bombs and killed untold numbers of fighters and civilians.
But the weekend announcement, in a tweet, was anti-climactic, and on the ground sporadic gunfire continued. A day earlier, President Donald Trump declared that Islamic State militants no longer control any territory in Syria.
Associated Press journalists in Baghouz on Saturday reported hearing mortars and gunfire directed toward a cliff overlooking Baghouz, where U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were carried out a day earlier. SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told the AP Friday that there were still IS fighters hiding in caves near Baghouz and that clearing operations were still underway.
At its height, the Islamic State group ruled a third of both Syria and Iraq, holding millions of people hostage to its harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law. The group carried out large-scale massacres and documented them with slickly produced videos circulated online. During a rampage through Iraq's Sinjar region in 2014, it captured thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority and forced them into sexual slavery. Many remain missing to this day.
The group also used its caliphate as a launchpad for attacks around the globe, including the assaults in Paris in 2015 that killed more than 130 people.
While it imposed an unforgiving version of Islamic law through public beheadings and crucifixions, the group also carried out the mundane duties of governance in its territories, including regulating prices at markets and building infrastructure.
IS no longer controls any territory in Syria or Iraq, but continues to carry out insurgent attacks in both countries. It also maintains affiliates in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Palm Beach, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he has reversed his administration's decision to slap new sanctions on North Korea, with his press secretary explaining that the president "likes" leader Kim Jong Un and doesn't think they're necessary.
It's unclear, however, which sanctions the president was referencing in his tweet, which took Treasury officials by surprise.
"It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea," Trump wrote from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida.
"I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!"
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about which sanctions Trump was referring to, or what large-scale sanctions were poised to be added to existing ones already imposed on North Korea.
On Thursday, his administration did sanction two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions — the first targeted actions taken against Pyongyang since Trump and Kim met in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month for negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In addition to Trump's talks with North Korea, the U.S. is knee-deep in delicate trade negotiations with China.
A person familiar with the action told The Associated Press that Trump's tweet was not a reversal of existing sanctions, but that the president was talking about not going forward with additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time. The person was not authorized to discuss the president's comments and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It's unclear whether Trump's decision was related to North Korea's move on Friday to abruptly withdraw its staff from a liaison office with South Korea. The development is likely to put a damper on ties between the North and South and further complicate global diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program. The withdrawal also is seen as a major setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has sought improved relations with North Korea alongside the nuclear negotiations between the North and the United States.
North Korea said it was withdrawing its staff under instructions from unspecified "higher-level authorities," according to a Unification Ministry statement. It didn't say whether the withdrawal would be temporary or permanent. South Korea called the North's decision regrettable and urged the North to return its staff to the liaison office soon.
It was the latest example of Trump's governance-by-tweet, which has often sent agency heads scrambling, trying to figure out what he meant and trying to implement policy proclamations that have not gone through traditional vetting processes. That includes when Trump announced, via tweet, that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military.
And it came hours after Trump made the official announcement that Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria had been reduced to zero from an airport tarmac, using a printed map he held upside-down, instead of a formal statement or ceremony.
His North Korea tweet prompted reporters to bombard officials at the White House National Security Council and Treasury Department with questions. All declined to comment. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a brief statement saying only that Trump "likes Chairman Kim and he doesn't think these sanctions will be necessary."
When the administration announced the sanctions on Thursday against the Chinese shipping companies, administration officials briefed reporters. They said Thursday's sanctions were evidence the U.S. was maintaining pressure on North Korea in an effort to coax its leader to give up his nuclear weapons program.
The Treasury Department sanctioned Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd. for using deceptive methods to circumvent international and U.S. sanctions and the U.S. commitment to implementing existing U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Calls to the two companies rang without response Friday or were answered by people who immediately hung up the phone.
The Treasury Department, in coordination with the State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard, also updated a North Korea shipping advisory, adding dozens of vessels thought to be doing ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean tankers or exported North Korean coal in violation of sanctions.
Two senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. policy on North Korea, said that illegal ship-to-ship transfers that violate U.S. and international sanctions have increased and that not all countries, including China, are implementing the restrictions. They said the deceptive practices include disabling or manipulating ship identification systems, repainting the names on vessels and falsifying cargo documents.
Washington, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — Special counsel Robert Mueller closed his long and contentious Russia investigation with no new charges, ending the probe that has cast a dark shadow over Donald Trump's presidency. The Justice Department was expected to release the main findings as soon as Saturday.
Even with the details still under wraps, the end Friday of the 22-month probe without additional indictments by Mueller was welcome news to some in Trump's orbit who had feared a final round of charges could ensnare more Trump associates, including members of the president's family.
For now, the report is accessible to only a handful of Justice Department officials while Attorney General William Barr prepared to release the "principal findings" soon.
The Justice Department said the report was delivered by a security officer Friday afternoon to the office of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then it went to Barr. Word of the delivery triggered reactions across Washington, including Democrats' demands that it be quickly released to the public and Republicans' contentions that it ended two years of wasted time and money.
The next step is up to Barr, who is charged with writing his own account of Mueller's findings and sending it to Congress. In a letter to lawmakers , he declared he was committed to transparency and speed. He said he could provide details as soon as this weekend.
The White House sought to keep some distance from the report, saying it had not seen or been briefed on the document. Trump, surrounded by advisers and political supporters at his resort in Florida, stayed uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter.
With no details released at this point, it's not known whether Mueller's report answers the core questions of his investigation: Did Trump's campaign collude with the Kremlin to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of the celebrity businessman? Also, did Trump take steps later, including by firing his FBI director, to obstruct the probe?
But the delivery of the report does mean the investigation has concluded without any public charges of a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, or of obstruction by the president. A Justice Department official confirmed that Mueller was not recommending any further indictments.
That person, who described the document as "comprehensive," was not authorized to discuss the probe and asked for anonymity.
That's good news for a handful of Trump associates and family members dogged by speculation of possible wrongdoing. They include Donald Trump Jr., who had a role in arranging a Trump Tower meeting at the height of the 2016 election campaign with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was interviewed at least twice by Mueller's prosecutors. It wasn't immediately clear whether Mueller might have referred additional investigations to the Justice Department.
All told, Mueller charged 34 people, including the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and three Russian companies. Twenty-five Russians were indicted on charges related to election interference, accused either of hacking Democratic email accounts during the campaign or of orchestrating a social media campaign that spread disinformation on the internet. Five Trump aides pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller and a sixth, longtime confidant Roger Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering.
It's unclear what steps Mueller might take if he uncovered what he believes to be criminal wrongdoing by Trump, in light of Justice Department legal opinions that have held that sitting presidents may not be indicted.
In his letter to lawmakers, Barr noted the Justice Department had not denied any request from the special counsel, something Barr would have been required to disclose to ensure there was no political inference. Trump was never interviewed in person, but submitted answers to questions in writing.
The mere delivery of the confidential findings set off swift, full-throated demands from Democrats for full release of Mueller's report and the supporting evidence collected during the sweeping probe. As Mueller's probe has wound down, Democrats have increasingly shifted their focus to their own investigations, ensuring the special counsel's would not be the last word on the matter.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared it "imperative" to make the full report public, a call echoed by several Democrats vying to challenge Trump in 2020.
"The American people have a right to the truth," Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement.
Democrats also expressed concern that Trump would try to get a "sneak preview" of the findings.
"The White House must not be allowed to interfere in decisions about what parts of those findings or evidence are made public," they said in a joint statement.
It was not clear whether Trump would have early access to Mueller's findings. Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders suggested the White House would not interfere, saying "we look forward to the process taking its course." But Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told The Associated Press Friday that the legal team would seek to get "an early look" before they were made public.
Giuliani said it was "appropriate" for the White House to be able "to review matters of executive privilege." He said had received no assurances from the Department of Justice on that front. He later softened his stance, saying the decision was "up to DOJ and we are confident it will be handled properly."
The White House did receive a brief heads-up on the report's arrival Friday. Barr's chief of staff called White House Counsel Emmet Flood Friday about 20 minutes before sending the letter went to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary committees.
The chairman of the Senate panel, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was keynote speaker Friday night at a Palm Beach County GOP dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Early in the evening, the president appeared on a balcony to wave at the crowd of more than 600 enjoying cocktails and appetizers by the pool, according to party vice-chairwoman Tami Donnally, who attended the event.
Barr has said he wants to make as much public as possible, but any efforts to withhold details is sure to prompt a tussle between the Justice Department and lawmakers who may subpoena Mueller and his investigators to testify before Congress. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., threatened a subpoena Friday.
Such a move would likely be vigorously contested by the Trump administration.
The conclusion of Mueller's investigation does not remove legal peril for the president . Trump faces a separate Justice Department investigation in New York into hush money payments during the campaign to two women who say they had sex with him years before the election. He's also been implicated in a potential campaign finance violation by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who says Trump asked him to arrange the transactions. Federal prosecutors, also in New York, have been investigating foreign contributions made to the president's inaugural committee.
No matter the findings in Mueller's report, the investigation has already illuminated Russia's assault on the American political system, painted the Trump campaign as eager to exploit the release of hacked Democratic emails and exposed lies by Trump aides aimed at covering up their Russia-related contacts.
The special counsel brought a sweeping indictment accusing Russian military intelligence officers of hacking Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and other Democratic groups during the 2016 campaign. He charged another group of Russians with carrying out a large-scale social media disinformation campaign against the American political process that also sought to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
Mueller also initiated the investigation into Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, who pleaded guilty in New York to campaign finance violations arising from the hush money payments and in the Mueller probe to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal. Another Trump confidant, Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied about his pursuit of Russian-hacked emails ultimately released by WikiLeaks.
Mueller has also been investigating whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation. Since the special counsel's appointment in May 2017, Trump has increasingly tried to undermine the probe by calling it a "witch hunt" and repeatedly proclaiming there was "NO COLLUSION" with Russia.
But one week before Mueller's appointment, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, later saying he was thinking of "this Russia thing" at the time.
Miami, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — Every year, hundreds of pregnant Russian women travel to the United States to give birth so that their child can acquire all the privileges of American citizenship.
They pay anywhere from $20,000 to sometimes more than $50,000 to brokers who arrange their travel documents, accommodations and hospital stays, often in Florida.
While the cost is high, their children will be rewarded with opportunities and travel advantages not available to their Russian countrymen. The parents themselves may benefit someday as well.
And the decidedly un-Russian climate in South Florida and the posh treatment they receive in the maternity wards — unlike dismal clinics back home — can ease the financial sting and make the practice seem more like an extended vacation.
The Russians are part of a wave of "birth tourists" that includes sizable numbers of women from China and Nigeria.
President Donald Trump has spoken out against the provision in the U.S. Constitution that allows "birthright citizenship" and has vowed to end it, although legal experts are divided on whether he can actually do that.
Although there have been scattered cases of authorities arresting operators of birth tourism agencies for visa fraud or tax evasion, coming to the U.S. to give birth is fundamentally legal. Russians interviewed by The Associated Press said they were honest about their intentions when applying for visas and even showed signed contracts with doctors and hospitals.
There are no figures on how many foreign women travel to the U.S. specifically to give birth. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, estimated that in 2012, about 36,000 foreign-born women gave birth in the U.S., then left the country.
The Russian contingent is clearly large. Anton Yachmenev of the Miami Care company that arranges such trips, told the AP that about 150 Russian families a year use his service, and that there are about 30 such companies just in the area.
South Florida is popular among Russians not only for its tropical weather but also because of the large Russian-speaking population. Sunny Isles Beach, a city just north of Miami, is even nicknamed "Little Moscow."
"With $30,000, we would not be able to buy an apartment for our child or do anything, really. But we could give her freedom. That's actually really cool," said Olga Zemlyanaya, who gave birth to a daughter in December and was staying in South Florida until her child got a U.S. passport.
An American passport confers many advantages. Once the child turns 21, he or she can apply for "green card" immigration status for the parents.
A U.S. passport also gives the holder more travel opportunities than a Russian one; Americans can make short-term trips to more than 180 countries without a visa, while Russians can go visa-free only to about 80.
Traveling to the U.S. on a Russian passport often requires a laborious interview process for a visa. Just getting an appointment for the interview can take months.
Some Russians fear that travel opportunities could diminish as tensions grow between Moscow and the West, or that Russia might even revert to stricter Soviet-era rules for leaving the country.
"Seeing the conflict growing makes people want to take precautions because the country might well close its borders. And if that happens, one would at least have a passport of a different country and be able to leave," said Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist for the Latvia-based Russian website Meduza that is sharply critical of the Kremlin.
Last year, Zhegulev sold two cars to finance a trip to California for him and his wife so she could give birth to their son.
Trump denounced birthright citizenship before the U.S. midterm election, amid ramped up rhetoric on his hard-line immigration policies. The president generally focuses his ire on the U.S.-Mexico border. But last fall he mentioned he was considering executive action to revoke citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens on American soil. No executive action has been taken.
The American Civil Liberties Union, other legal groups and even former House Speaker Paul Ryan, typically a supporter of Trump's proposals, said the practice couldn't be ended with an order.
But others, like the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration, said the practice is harmful.
"We should definitely do everything we can to end it, because it makes a mockery of citizenship," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken Russian lawmaker, said the country can't forbid women from giving birth abroad, and many of them also travel to Germany and Israel.
"Trump is doing everything right, because this law is used as a ploy. People who have nothing to do with the U.S. use it to become citizens," Zhirinovsky said.
Floridians have shown no problem with the influx of expectant mothers from Russia.
Yachmenev, the agency manager, says he believes it's good for the state because it brings in sizable revenue.
Svetlana Mokerova and her husband went all out, renting an apartment with a sweeping view. She relished the tropical vibe, filling her Instagram account with selfies backed by palm trees and ocean vistas.
"We did not have a very clear understanding about all the benefits" of a U.S. passport, she said.
"We just knew that it was something awesome," added Mokerova, who gave birth to a daughter after she was interviewed.
Zemlyanaya said that even her two nights in the hospital were a treat, like "a stay in a good hotel."
In contrast to the few amenities of a Russian clinic, she said she was impressed when an American nurse gave her choices from a menu for her meals.
"And then when she said they had chocolate cake for dessert, I realized I was in paradise," Zemlyanaya added.
She even enjoyed how nurses referred to patients as "mommies," as opposed to "rozhenitsa," or "birth-giver" — the "unpleasant words they use in Russian birth clinics."
Zemlyanaya said she was able to work remotely during her stay via the internet, as were the husbands of other women, keeping their income flowing. Yachmenev said his agency doesn't allow any of the costs to be paid by insurance.
Most of the families his agency serves have monthly incomes of about 300,000 rubles ($4,500) — middling by U.S. standards but nearly 10 times the average Russian salary.
Yachmenev said he expects that birth tourism among Russians will only grow.
Business declined in 2015 when the ruble lost about half its value, but "now we are coming back to the good numbers of 2013-14," he said.