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Nation in brief: Death sentences fewest in 30 years

The number of death sentences handed out in the United States dropped in 2006 to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago, reflecting what some experts say is a growing fear that the criminal justice system will make a tragic and irreversible mistake.

Death sentences fell in 2006 to 114 or fewer, according to an estimate from the group. That is down from 128 in 2005, and even lower than the 137 sentences the year after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. It is also down sharply from the high of 317 in 1996.

A total of 53 executions were carried out in 2006, down from 60 in 2005. Executions over the past three decades peaked at 98 in 1999.


Nuclear weapons chief dismissed

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman on Thursday dismissed the chief of the country’s nuclear weapons program because of security breakdowns at the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory and other facilities.

Linton Brooks said he would leave in two weeks to three weeks as head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a post he held since May 2003.

Bodman said the nuclear agency under Brooks, a former ambassador and arms control negotiator, had not adequately fixed security problems. “I have decided it is time for new leadership at the NNSA,” Bodman said.

Battle Creek, Mich.

Cereal City’s fate wasn’t so Grrreat!

Snap. Crackle. Flop.

Cereal City USA, an attraction devoted to the breakfast food that made the city of Battle Creek famous, closed for good Thursday after years of soggy attendance figures.

“We make this decision with great sadness,” said Cheryl Beard, chairwoman of the Heritage Center Foundation, the organization that operated the nine-year-old facility.

Cereal City started in 1998, filling a gap left when Battle Creek-based Kellogg Co. ended its 80-year tradition of giving public tours of its production plant. It featured a mock cereal factory, a cereal museum and interactive exhibits.

Kellogg provided some early philanthropic support and allowed the foundation to use some of its licensed characters, including Tony the Tiger, but attendance fell off sharply after the attraction’s first year.

Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

Russian rocket burns on re-entry

A spent Russian booster rocket re-entered the atmosphere Thursday over Colorado and Wyoming, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing flaming objects in the sky at the time the rocket was re-entering, NORAD spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly said.

No damage was reported, and any debris that may have hit the ground was not believed to be hazardous, NORAD said.

NORAD identified the rocket as an SL-4 that had been used to launch a French space telescope in December, and Kelly said U.S. spacewatchers knew the rocket was coming down.


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Explosion rocks Wisconsin refinery, forcing evacuations

UPDATED: 4:54 p.m.

updated  A tank containing crude oil or asphalt exploded at a large refinery in Wisconsin on Thursday, injuring several people and prompting fire officials to urge people living near the still-burning plant to evacuate their homes.