AP answers your questions on the news, from thorium fission to malpractice and health costs

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ask AP: Thorium fission, health care costs

When most people think of nuclear fuel, uranium and plutonium come to mind. Should a different fuel — something called thorium — be used in our nuclear reactors instead?

A reader wondering about the safety of thorium fission submitted one of the questions in this edition of “Ask AP,” a weekly Q&A column where AP journalists respond to readers’ questions about the news.

If you have your own news-related question that you’d like to see answered by an AP reporter or editor, send it to newsquestions@ap.org, with “Ask AP” in the subject line. And please include your full name and hometown so they can be published with your question.

You can also find Ask AP on AP Mobile, a multimedia news portal available on Internet-enabled mobile devices. Go to www.apnews.com/ to learn more.

Until recently, there was a lot reported about malpractice suits and skyrocketing insurance premiums for doctors being among the leading causes of the rapidly rising cost of medical care. Is this issue addressed in the bill that is being prepared in Congress now?

Bob Meyer

Kimbolton, Ohio

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says health care costs go up when doctors practice defensive medicine by ordering unneeded tests to protect themselves from being sued. But the insurance premiums that doctors pay for malpractice coverage are not themselves a major contributor to costs.

The budget office says slapping limits on jury awards in malpractice cases would lead to less defensive medicine, reducing the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years. That’s not a huge amount in the $2.5-trillion-a-year U.S. health care system, but it is real money.

The Democratic health care bills in Congress don’t deal with medical malpractice. President Barack Obama says he’s opposed to limits on jury awards, but open to looking for alternatives in which patients injured by a doctor or hospital error can get compensation without having to go to court.

Doctors want the health care legislation to address malpractice, but trial lawyers — generous campaign contributors to Democrats — are trying to stave off any major changes.

The outlook for such reforms in the future is uncertain.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

AP Health Care Writer


I have been reading a lot about thorium fission as a possible replacement for uranium and plutonium in the next generation of nuclear reactors. I have read that thorium is more plentiful, avoids altogether the issue of weapons-grade material proliferation, and has less waste that decays more quickly than that from uranium and plutonium.

Seems too good to be true. What is the truth about this? And if it is that good, is there any federal funding to get a pilot reactor up and running?

Mike Collins

La Crosse, Wis.

Experts say while thorium fuel has some advantages, the benefits are modest at best.

“A lot of the hype one hears about thorium fuel is indeed too good to be true,” said Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Lyman said thorium can be used as a fuel in a fission reactor, where it would play a role similar to uranium-238. But it cannot replace uranium and plutonium. To start a chain reaction, thorium would have to be used together with either enriched uranium, uranium-233 or plutonium.

Thorium is more plentiful, but there is enough readily available uranium to meet projected world demand through 2070, said Felix Killar of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Plutonium is a viable energy source too.

Killar said fission of thorium produces uranium and plutonium that still could be used for nuclear weapons, just in smaller quantities. It also does produce waste, and there still would be the need for long-term disposal.

Lyman said Norway and India, which have vast thorium reserves, are exploring the technology, as is China.

There have been some federally supported projects over the years, but Lyman said he is not aware of any significant effort at this time.

Mark Williams

AP Energy Writer

Columbus, Ohio

I want to know why the government decided to issue a $6,500 homebuyers’ tax credit only to those who have owned their current homes for more than five years. I feel it is discriminatory not to include second-time homebuyers who haven’t owned homes as long.

Eric Ladwig

Tyler, Texas

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a former real estate executive who helped to craft the extended credit with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., originally wanted all move-up homebuyers to be eligible for the $6,500 tax credit, his press secretary Sheridan Watson said.

But because of cost concerns, the Senate agreed the credit would be limited to those who have lived in their homes for five years or more. Structuring the credit this way — as opposed to, say, saving on costs by reducing the credit amount or tightening restrictions based on the homebuyer’s income — has the greatest impact on the housing market and economy, Watson said.

Watson said the credit as it stands now captures more than half of all homeowners.

The Senate Finance Committee estimates the cost of the $6,500 credit and the extension of the $8,000 credit for first-time homebuyers — defined as those who have not owned a home in the last three years — to be $10.8 billion over 10 years.

About 1.4 million first-time homebuyers qualified for the original credit through August. The National Association of Realtors estimates that 350,000 of them would not have bought their homes without the credit.

To qualify for either credit, buyers must sign a purchase agreement by April 30, 2010, and close by June 30.

J.W. Elphinstone

AP Real Estate Writer

New York

Have questions of your own? Send them to newsquestions@ap.org.

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