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a decision for the birds

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture and animal rights activists reached an out-of-court agreement in October to amend the Animal Welfare Act, the matter is far from settled. Or so say groups representing biomedical researchers who claim the USDA caved in to protesters without bringing researchers into the negotiations. "It's outrageous that the USDA was more concerned in responding to the activist community than to the research community . . . the research community was not allowed to come to the table," charges Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research. The amendment would stretch the law to cover the use of birds, rats, and mice in laboratories. Activist groups sued the agency two years ago to amend the act, which is the only federal law dealing with research animals.

Agriculture officials opted for negotiations after a federal judge ruled in June that it didn't have jurisdiction to exclude the animals from the law. Groups like the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and the Association of Medical Colleges had urged the USDA to end the negotiations and fight on in court—claiming that the amendment creates unnecessary and expensive paperwork that won't give the animals further protection and will cost researchers millions of dollars.

The NABR estimates that the cost could be between $80 million and $280 million. Trull says other regulations in place already give these animals protection. "It will be a regulatory burden—extra paperwork—that won't affect their treatment." But Trull adds: "All is not lost." A Congressional appropriations bill covering the USDA won't allow proposed rule changes to proceed until September 30, 2001. "That gives us time for more discussions," she says. And Trull wouldn't rule out a legal appeal, either.

While the additional red tape would not stop the use of rats, mice, and birds in research, clearly animal rights groups hope the new burden would force some researchers to forgo using the critters. That, Trull says, could have grave consequences. Medical research, particularly in such areas as Parkinson's Disease, would stall if rats and mice were not used, she says. The USDA's claim that it capitulated because it feared losing in court was "pathetic," Trull adds, because researchers believe that, ultimately, the case could have been won on its merits.

quotable

"All teachers should cancel their membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. They have defended anonymous, hate-filled reviews written by people who were never students of these teachers."
—Daniel Curzon-Brown, one of two instructors at City College of San Francisco who dropped their lawsuit against Teacher Review, a Web site that posted anonymous—and sometimes vulgar—critiques of teaching performance. They did so after the ACLU moved to have the suit dismissed, an action that could have made the instructors liable for the site creator's legal fees.

nuclear technology enters stone age

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—A nuclear reactor with no possibility of a meltdown? With no maintenance downtime longer than a weekend? With efficiency greater than any existing nuclear facility, producing electricity at a price to rival almost any fossil-fuel plant? This is the promise of pebble-bed reactor technology, and it now looks increasingly likely that South Africa will be the proving ground where this heady theory is tested against commercial reality.

This year, the South African government gave its blessing for the national utility, Eskom, to begin a final feasibility study into a plan that would begin producing the first commercial pebble-bed reactor in 2002 and dozens more in subsequent years. In May, Philadelphia-based PECO Energy pledged a $7.5 investment for the project, and British Nuclear Fuels will invest millions more.

Their joint company, PBMR, plans to build 110-megawatt reactors that are one tenth the size of typical nuclear plants. The fuel will be contained in baseball-sized "pebbles" of silicon carbide and graphite, about 9 grams of uranium oxide per pebble. Helium passing over 310,000 pebbles will be heated from 540 to 900 degrees Celsius to drive turbines and create electricity. But the inert gas will not pick up any radioactivity, so an accidental helium release will not carry the same dangers as a vapor release from a conventional water-cooled plant. More important, the graphite-lined pressure vessel is designed to operate at such high temperatures, with no steel plumbing and no water to boil off, that a meltdown is impossible.

Still, though the pebble-bed design produces waste in smaller and less volatile quantities than traditional atomic facilities, it does not solve the dilemma of how to dispose of that waste. And the history of the nuclear industry is riddled with simple plans that proved complicated in practice. But in a time when both energy prices and greenhouse gases are rising, a lot of people will be hoping that South Africa can make these plans work.

a winning formula for comedy

photo courtesy of comedy centralWhat's the best way to break into show business, short of being Madonna's first-born child? If you're Nancy Pimental, you start with an engineering degree.

Pimental, 35, has put together quite a Hollywood resume in the past few years. She's the recently crowned co-host of Comedy Central's hit game show Win Ben Stein's Money. Serving as announcer, questioner, and comic relief, Pimental is the teasing, wisecracking foil to the more buttoned-down, dry-witted host Ben Stein. Taking sarcastic jabs at contestants and host alike, she holds her own with the brainy Stein—a former Nixon speechwriter who catapulted to fame thanks to his now-famous turn as a teacher ("Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?") in the seminal '80s flick Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The show is just the latest coup for Pimental. She was also a writer for Comedy Central's notoriously crass but hilariously satirical animated series South Park, and she's the author of a romantic comedy that will begin filming in March starring Cameron Diaz. Not bad for a woman who was raised in a small Massachusetts town where, she says, "you were supposed to do something practical" for a career.

Heeding that advice, Pimental graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering. Outside of several stints as a summer intern during college, however, she has never worked as an engineer. Instead, she focused her attention on her longtime interest in theater. After enrolling in acting school in Boston, Pimental took an improvisational comedy class, and was hooked. She later spent a year with Guilty Children, an improv comedy group, then headed to Los Angeles and toiled as a stand-up comic and actor for nearly six years. It was during this time that she began to write scripts.

Pimental eventually got her first break with a South Park script, and the doors kept on opening from there. The big one, financially speaking, came in 1999 when she sold her screenplay to Columbia Pictures for $1.5 million. She notes with chagrin, though, that it has become known in industry circles as "The Nancy Pimental Project" because she has yet to come up with a title.

But if her still-eponymous movie has made her name well known among insiders in the biz, it is Pimental's role as resident wiseacre on Ben Stein that is making her a recognizable face to the general public. In the show, Stein pits himself against three contestants in a battle over $5,000 of "his" money. Pimental had a tough act to follow in replacing Jimmy Kimmel—the popular, motormouthed original co-host—but Stein certainly thinks she is measuring up. "She was our best applicant," he said shortly after Pimental was selected, "mostly because she's naturally funny, but also because she was prepared [and] knew the show."photo courtesy of comedy central

She may get along great with Stein, but what about being accepted more generally in the boy's club that is the comedy world—where Jerry Lewis can dismissively remark that he doesn't find any female comedians funny. Pimental feels that her education in the male-dominated engineering environment prepared her for that kind of atmosphere. "At any school, there are professors who think that women can't do it," she says. As a result, "I know how to be a girl, but I know how to be a dude, too," she says, flashing a little of her mock-serious TV persona.

The show films 130 episodes per season, all of them in a hectic five-week period. It's exhausting, but Pimental says it will leave her time to pursue more writing projects. Though Columbia has eagerly expressed interest in her next script, whatever it might be, she's taking her time deciding what to do next. "I don't just sit down and write," she says. "I outline and think everything out beforehand," something that she credits to her engineering education, which also imbued her with perhaps the most important trait for a comic: confidence. After all, "There aren't many more difficult things than engineering," she says. Some people felt abandoning engineering was "a huge risk, that I was throwing away my education, but I really feel like I have a strong left and right side of my brain," she says. "It's just that the right side prevailed." And once you've survived organic chemistry, facing a television audience of millions just doesn't seem so scary anymore.

—Ray Bert is senior editor of Prism.