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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

September 28, 2001

Air Date: September 28, 2001

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Plutonium Reprocessing

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Vice President Cheney's energy plan calls for renewed research into reprocessing nuclear power plant waste, but experts say the reprocessed material can also be used to make nuclear bombs. Princeton professor Frank von Hippel discusses the security risks with host Steve Curwood. (05:40)

Train Travel / Anna Solomon-Greenbaum

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The terrorist attacks of September 11th are affecting more than our nation's airlines. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on how the train systems are coping, and how the federal government might step in to help. (05:45)

Health Note

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Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports on the latest EPA testing at the site of the World Trade Center disaster. (01:15)

Almanac: Petrified Forest

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This week, facts about the first petrified forest. One hundred and fifty years ago, an army captain looking for a way through the desert, came upon one of the largest areas of petrified trees in the world. (01:30)

Taliban Oil

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Some analysts say the United States' recent diplomatic history with Afghanistan was based almost solely on oil policy. Host Steve Curwood discusses this view with journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." (06:50)

Pipedreams / Anne Marie Ruff

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A natural gas pipeline may bring cheap fuel to Turkey, and much needed income to Turkmenistan. But as producer Anne Marie Ruff reports, a proposed route through the Caspian Sea may pose an environmental threat to Central Asia. (06:20)

News Follow-up

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New developments in stories we've been following recently. (01:30)

Technology Note

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Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports on how pilots in the cockpit might one day be identified by their heartbeat. (01:30)

Mystery Moose

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Host Steve Curwood speaks with Rick Ward, a biologist from the Yukon Territory in Canada. It appears that some hunters there shot what they thought was a bull moose. But despite its set of antlers, the moose wasn't as manly as it appeared. (03:30)

Thai Tigers / Orlando de Guzman

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Tigers around the world are threatened with extinction. In Thailand, there's a conservation effort to save the Indochinese tiger. Orlando de Guzman reports. (11:25)

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Plutonium Reprocessing

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As America rethinks its national security in the wake of September 11th, some of the key questions involve nuclear power plants. An explosive breach in a reactor containment vessel could result in the spread of dangerous radiation over hundreds of square miles. And a common method of dealing with nuclear power plant waste creates plutonium, which can easily be made into nuclear bombs. That method is called reprocessing, and while it is used in Europe and Japan, for years the U.S. has declined to do it, saying the plutonium could fall into the wrong hands.

But the current White House energy plan now calls for more research into reusing plutonium. Writing in the latest edition of Science magazine Princeton physicist Frank von Hipple says security risks are only part of the problem of recycling nuclear waste.

VON HIPPEL: The spent fuel, that is, the fuel after it's been irradiated, is full of fission products, a whole zoo of radioactive species which emit very penetrating gamma radiation. So, that in fact if you were a few feet away from this spent fuel after, even 50 years after it's discharged, you could get a lethal radiation dose within tens of minutes. And so it has to be stored inside a very heavy shielding, a foot or more of concrete and steel, in order for people to work around it. But once it's separated, it's only a hazard if you inhale it. And so, if you have a good, tightly sealed container of plutonium, then you can safely carry it around and no way a terrorist or some kind of thief who'd sell it to God knows who could steal it and carry it off very easily.

CURWOOD: What's the danger with this stuff?

VON HIPPEL: Well, the danger is that plutonium not only has a fuel value but it's actually nuclear weapons materials. And this problem of trying to commercialize a nuclear weapons material as a fuel, we realized what the implications of it were, only fully when after India used this process, which we had provided to them for civilian purposes, to separate out the plutonium for their so-called peaceful nuclear test, in 1974.

CURWOOD: Now, how much of this plutonium that's been reprocessed from power plant uranium, how much of it already exists in the world?

VON HIPPEL: In Europe and Russia, Western Europe and Russia mostly, a little, some in Japan as well, there's about 200 tons, which is equivalent of about, it could be made into more than 25,000 nuclear weapons.

CURWOOD: How much of a security risk is this stuff?

VON HIPPEL: It depends on which country it's in. When, in 1994, I was working in the White House I went to visit the Russian plutonium, because we were worried about the security of Russia's plutonium stocks. I went to a warehouse which had 30 tons of this stored in a building, a 50-year-old warehouse, which was secured at that time only by a padlock.

CURWOOD: Once a terrorist gets a hold of plutonium, let's say reprocessed from a nuclear power plant, what would they have to do to make a bomb out of it?

VON HIPPEL: Well, this plutonium in the Russian facility and in most places is in the form of a plutonium oxide. They'd have to turn it into a metal. In the case of the Nagasaki bomb the metal was in the form of a sphere and then that sphere was surrounded by high explosive around it. And so when the detonators went off the plutonium was actually crushed into a higher density and at that higher density the mass became super critical--that is, it would sustain an explosive neutron chain reaction.

CURWOOD: How much of an education would someone need to be able to make this bomb? A sophisticated nuclear physicist, or a grad student, or what?

VON HIPPEL: There's been an argument about whether a sub-national group could pull together the skills necessary to do this. You'd need to understand some plutonium chemistry; you'd need to understand some physics. The argument never was decisively settled, but I guess I'm of the school that would rather not find out whether a non-governmental group could do this.

CURWOOD: Now, the United States stopped research into reprocessing uranium fuel from power plants into plutonium back in, what, the 1970s.

VON HIPPEL: In the '70s, that's right, we ended the attempt to commercialize this technology, after India's nuclear test.

CURWOOD: Vice-president Richard Cheney's energy plan now calls for new research into reprocessing this type of fuel. What do you think of this?

VON HIPPEL: Well, I think it would be a terrible mistake. I don't really worry that this would lead to commercialization of this reprocessing, because it's turned out to be very expensive and the people who've gotten into this business regret it a lot and would like to get out of it as fast as they can. But, it does undercut our arguments to encourage other people to accelerate the end of their involvement in reprocessing plutonium separation.

CURWOOD: But this research would be a different kind of processing, isn't it? I'm told it's pyro-processing, I guess a heat process, that leaves the reprocessed fuel somewhat radioactive so it's maybe a little bit easier to carry but it's not something you'd want to put in the back of the trunk of your car and carry around with you.

VON HIPPEL: Well, as designed, this process would not separate out the clean plutonium that the current civilian processes separate out, and to that degree it would be better. But it wouldn't be better than leaving the plutonium unseparated in the first place. And if there's no reason to do it, there's no environmental reason to do it, it's counterproductive in terms of it brings you 90% of the way or more to clean plutonium, and it's a process that's so costly that the utilities would never invest in it at this point. The question is, why do R. & D. on this?

CURWOOD: Frank von Hippel is an expert in nuclear arms control and energy at Princeton Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Thanks for speaking with us, Professor von Hippel.

VON HIPPEL: My pleasure.

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Train Travel

CURWOOD: Since the attacks of September 11th, air travel in the United States is off sharply, and many of those who took to the skies are now taking the train. Rail is booming and looking for money from Congress to help meet the new demand. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what could be a shift in the nation's transportation policy.

[AMBIENT RAILROAD SOUNDS]

GREENBAUM: At Washington's Union Station passengers are lining up at Gate E. They're waiting to board the train to New York. Some of them are regulars, but many are new to the rails.

WOMAN: With the added security, therefore, it's National Airport being closed; it's just a lot faster to come by train, I think.

GREENBAUM: Others are simply nervous to fly. They're not sure when or if that will change. One man says the train, at least, feels safer.

MAN: If you can find any silver lining in this whole situation, it might be that this is helping Amtrak. I've heard the ridership is, in fact, up by something like 30, 35 percent.

GREENBAUM: That surge has leveled out, but still, across the country Amtrak is seeing a steady increase in ridership. Scott Leonard is president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. He says September 11th should be a wake-up call to take our entire transportation system more seriously. Think of it, he says, as a three-legged stool.

LEONARD: All other developed nations in the world have all three legs in place except for the United States. We have a third leg that's so small it makes the whole stool wobbly.

GREENBAUM: That third leg is the rail system. The nation's biggest carrier, Amtrak, has been losing money for years, and it's up against a Congressional deadline: show a profit by the end of 2002, or face possible liquidation. Leonard hopes the recent attacks might make some lawmakers realize how crucial the train system is. One Congressman who's paying attention is Amo Houghton. He's a Republican from New York State. Even before the attacks, he'd co-sponsored legislation to develop 12 high speed rail corridors throughout the nation. A bond sale by Amtrak would cover the $12 billion price tag. Now, says Houghton:

HOUGHTON: We started in a rather modest basis, but I think September 11th has turned the whole thing on its ear, and I think there are many opportunities even beyond what we've suggested.

GREENBAUM: Republic Don Young, of Alaska, has also introduced a bill. It would provide $71 billion toward developing high speed rail. Other lawmakers are saying money to develop the rail system might be part of the economic stimulus package they're working on now. Amtrak itself has asked for more than $3 billion to boost security and capacity on its trains--big money for a corporation whose budget last year was less than $250 million.

Houghton says his bill had Congressional support before the attacks. Now?

HOUGHTON: I think it's going to be an easy sell.

GREENBAUM: It's not just lawmakers on the Northeast Corridor who've spoken up for passenger rail expansion. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican Senator from Texas.

HUTCHISON: Amtrak has been a stepchild and I think we can no longer afford to allow that to happen. And we have seen Amtrak step up to the plate in this air crisis, and I think we've shown that people will ride Amtrak if it's reliable. And I want to make it reliable all over the country.

GREENBAUM: But support is not unanimous. Congressional critics say Amtrak's been a perpetually disorganized money loser. Republican Senator John McCain, of Arizona, doubts that new funding will come easily.

McCAIN: Amtrak has no credibility with a lot of us, and that's something they're going to have to overcome.

GREENBAUM: But the debate about mismanagement of Amtrak is an old one. Today, like everything else, it will be about security, and lawmakers may have a hard time arguing against that. Alan Pisarski is a travel consultant. He worked for the Department of Transportation in the 1970s.

PISARSKI: Twenty or twenty five years ago, there was always a part of policy that was concerned with supporting military needs, national preparedness, national emergency planning, and I think over the years that had kind of faded.

GREENBAUM: Now, Pisarsky says, the old worries are back and the entire transportation system will be looked at in a different light, with a focus on redundancy and reliability rather than capacity. He thinks lawmakers probably will pay the rail system more attention and he says that may please urban planners and environmentalists, who've been trying for years to get more people onto trains. But Pisarsky says despite those efforts, the number of people driving cars has continued to grow, and he says the recent attacks may, in fact, accelerate that trend.

PISARSKY: Being in control of the vehicle yourself, having control over when it goes, where it goes, how it goes, I think is really going to be reemphasized and is going to be a strong, strong factor. As concerns grow about security, people are going to be shifting away from any large grouping, any large clustering, of populations. Whether it's in terminals, whether it's in large city centers. And I would expect that it would shift the focus more to a dispersal of both travel behavior and travel patterns.

GREENBAUM: It'll likely be months before any decisions are made about expanding the nation's rail system in the long term. Some lawmakers are urging the administration to put Amtrak's request for emergency funding on the fast track. So far, there's been no word on the $3 billion package from the Department of Transportation. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

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Health Note

CURWOOD: Coming up, how America's thirst for oil influenced U.S. relations with the Taliban. First, this Environmental Health Note with Diane Toomey.

TOOMEY: The Federal Environmental Protection Agency continues to test air and dust samples at 16 locations throughout lower Manhattan. The agency says it found high asbestos readings in dust samples in the first few days after the attack but says they've since subsided. On a recent day, three of fifteen samples showed asbestos levels the EPA called marginally above what is considered a concern for long-term exposure. In areas with these elevated readings, the agency has sent in industrial strength vacuum cleaners equipped with special filters to help in the cleanup. But some area residents and businesses are not reassured. They've hired private firms to do their own testing. One of those companies found high asbestos levels in dust samples taken a few blocks from Ground Zero, but the EPA says this doesn't contradict its data.

The EPA, at the request of a community board, will be testing about a dozen apartments and schools in lower Manhattan for asbestos, as well as dioxin, mercury, lead, and PCB’s. That's this week's Health Update. I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Almanac: Petrified Forest

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One hundred and fifty years ago U.S. Army Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves was leading a geological survey to find a railroad route through the desert of Eastern Arizona. What he discovered in the process was the nation's largest petrified wood forest. A geologist on Captain Sitgreaves' team immediately recognized the fossils as conifer trees that had died about 225 million years ago. The trees had been washed down a stream and buried in volcanic ash and silt. Over time the trees became petrified, as water seeped into the logs and replaced wood fiber with silica, which then crystallized. Captain Sitgreaves had seen petrified wood before, but never so much in one place. Whole petrified tree trunks were strewn over the desert.

When the railroad was completed, much of the wood was carted away to the East Coast, where it was used in building fine furniture. In the 1890s, people used dynamite to blow apart larger logs and get at the gems inside.

To protect the wood, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt worked to get the area declared a national monument, in 1906, and it became a national park in 1962. But the theft of petrified wood remains a problem today. Park officials say about 12 tons go missing from the park each year. Still, every year, about 100 pounds of petrified wood is mailed back to the park by visitors who later felt maybe just a little bit guilty about stealing it. And that's this week's Living on Earth Almanac.

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Taliban Oil

CURWOOD: One of the ironies of the current crisis of terrorism is that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban both enjoyed American support not so very long ago. In the '80s, the U.S. encouraged fighters from across the Arab world to go to Afghanistan and repel the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets were defeated, this force stayed in Afghanistan and from there began exporting their violent politics.

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has been covering these developments for decades. He's author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," and he joins me from his office in Lahore, Pakistan.

Mr. Rashid, some folks say the United States/Afghanistan policy in the 1990s focused on oil and gas to the exclusion of other key issues. How fair is that analysis?

RASHID: Well, between 1994 and 1997, the U.S. in fact was supporting the Taliban in the sense that it was allowing Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, its two allies in the region, to back the Taliban. And this was because the U.S. and U.S. oil companies were interested in building oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia across Afghanistan, through Pakistan, to the Gulf. And this would be an alternative route to the intense gamesmanship that was going on between the Americans, the Russians, and the Iranians about building new pipeline routes from Central Asia. So, you know, there was the hope at one time, by U.S. policymakers, that the Taliban would provide a kind of security force for these pipelines, because these pipelines were crossing Southern Afghanistan, which is the heartland of Taliban control.

CURWOOD: What U.S. companies were involved in this oil interest?

RASHID: Well, there were several, but the most important was Unocal. Unocal had a plan to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to transport Turkmen gas across southern Afghanistan to Pakistan, and then on to India, and then possibly on to the Gulf. Unocal set up offices in Taliban controlled areas, gave quite a lot of financial help and aid to the Taliban, and U.S. State department officials were very supportive of this process.

There was another oil company, an Argentinean oil company called Bridas, who were also in competition with Unocal, and one of the first acts of the U.S. State Department was, in fact, to convince the Pakistanis and the Turkmens to dump Breedas in favor of Unocal. So there was this intense gamesmanship going on between these two oil companies which was being watched very closely by other U.S. oil companies in central Asia to see if this would work. And really, this kind of fell apart after the Taliban took Kabul and the U.S. media began a kind of intensive depiction of Taliban repression, and also then in '96, of course, you get the return to Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden. So then the U.S. kind of support for its oil companies and the strategy of building pipelines through Afghanistan falls apart.

CURWOOD: How does the American thirst for oil and gas play into the present diplomacy now with Afghanistan?

RASHID: Well, you know, in the last ten years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been what I call a new great game between Russia, the United States, China, Iran, the European companies, for control of the new oil and gas resources that have been discovered in the Caspian Sea and in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Now, this, you know, it's a two-pronged game, basically, between trying to buy up oil fields and gas fields and also, of course, deciding on what routes this energy can be exported. Because Central Asia is totally landlocked, distances are huge, and the U.S. strategy has been essentially to keep, new oil pipelines should not be built through Russia and they should not be built through Iran. And of course Iranian strategy has been to try and persuade the Central Asian and the oil companies to build routes through Iran.

So this game has continued and has unfortunately resulted in probably destabilizing Central Asia and not allowing adequate international pressure to get the Central Asian regimes, who have also become very authoritarian, very repressive, not to get them to carry out economic reforms, democratic reforms. This is creating a major crisis in Central Asia.

We have to see now how much this gamesmanship is going to continue after this war in Afghanistan.

CURWOOD: How does Iran play into this situation now?

RASHID: Iran is a major rival. Iran offers one of the shortest export routes for the Central Asian republics for their oil and gas, because building pipelines across Iran straight to the Gulf, where tankers could pick up oil and gas, is not a long distance. But U.S. sanctions against Iran and the ban on U.S. companies doing business in Iran has prevented U.S. companies from taking advantage of this.

The Europeans, on the other hand, have taken advantage of this. They are in Iran in a very big way. European oil companies are building pipelines and developing the oil and gas resources of Iran. And this is one of the causes of resentment for U.S. oil companies.

CURWOOD: The U.S. depends a lot on oil from the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states that are there. How does that dependence impact the diplomacy and military options now for the United States dealing with the Afghanistan and the terrorism situation?

RASHID: Well, it does impact a lot on the U.S. role in Central Asia. I mean, Central Asia is being seen now by the oil companies as the last virgin territory, if you like, for unexplored oil and gas resources in the world. So U.S. interests sees it as vital to secure some of this oil and gas, not perhaps in the short-term, but in the long term, in case there are problems in the Middle East, in case other sources of supply dry up. What is needed to secure U.S. interests in central Asia, oil interests, is a stable Afghanistan, where terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan don't come into Central Asia and destabilize the regimes.

CURWOOD: What about Saudi Arabia? Is it going to be destabilized by the U.S. presence there in Central Asia?

RASHID: Well, again, I think this depends a lot on the Middle East and the point is the Americans are taking, they're going to take military action in Afghanistan. And at the same time, if there's an eruption in the Palestinian territories against Israel, the Saudis and the Arabs, who are presently supporting the American action in Afghanistan, are going to be under enormous pressure to dump the Americans. This is the real dilemma. This is a moment when I think American pressure on Israel to keep tensions with the Palestinians at a minimum is going to be required. But this should lead to also a long-term strategy of trying to restart the Middle East peace process.

CURWOOD: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. His book is called, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Thank you for joining us.

RASHID: Thank you.

Related link:
"Taliban - Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid">

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Pipedreams

CURWOOD: One of the natural gas pipelines on the drawing board for Central Asia promises to bring the cheap, clean fuel to Turkey and prosperity to the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, and avoid the politics of Iran and Afghanistan. But, as Anne Marie Ruff reports, the proposed route under the Caspian Sea may pose an environmental threat.

[MUSIC]

RUFF: In Turkmenistan, most people make a difficult living from the land, grazing goats and cattle on eroded hillsides or growing cotton and wheat with precious water in the dry desert ground. But people dream of a future when the country's natural gas and oil reserves will improve their lives. For now, Turkmens use their gas to fill their run-down Russian made cars. Gas is cheap here, about 8 cents a gallon. It means that many people can drive, even though the average monthly wage is only $25. But most people, like English teacher Kakajan Abedaev, think cheap gas is not enough.

ABEDAEV: It's really frustrating for us, the frustrating point for the Turkmen people is that we can't get our gas outside. This is one of the main factors right now.

RUFF: Because the country is landlocked, it has very limited access to foreign markets and the foreign currency those markets would bring. In an attempt to access markets, foreign oil and gas companies have proposed building four different natural gas pipelines with the Turkmen government. The first would run west, under the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan and Georgia, to Turkey. A second would run south, through Iran. The third would run east, through Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India. And the last proposed pipeline would travel 4,000 miles to China, along the Old Silk Road, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Dan Rutz is an American working in Turkmenistan. He is hoping one of the pipelines would be built, since it would jump-start the energy sector and his oil spill response business, Genwest Systems.

RUTZ: I mean, that’s the whole game here. All depends on their pipelines.

RUFF: While the simplest route would be through Iran, sour relations between Iran and the U.S. have scared away foreign investors, and fighting in Afghanistan has halted work on a pipeline to Pakistan in India. So, in the last few years the trans-Caspian Sea pipeline has looked most likely. But the plan is complicated by the fact that the inland sea is bordered by five countries that harvest fish from the sea. Dan Rutz says environmental risks will be felt beyond Turkmenistan.

RUTZ: The risk of putting a pipeline under the Caspian, then, you might look at it more as like a risk to neighboring countries. They're not getting any benefit from this risk that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan might take if that's where the pipeline goes. So Iran or Russia are the ones that are saying, hey, what's the deal with this pipeline?

RUFF: The Iranian government would prefer to see a pipeline run through their country, so they have raised environmental concerns about the trans-Caspian route. But Dan Rutz sees Iran's concerns as hypocritical.

RUTZ: They've got their own underwater oil pipelines and that's coming off the southern Iranian coast, to Kharg Island, where their tank farm is, and there's not much risk with that at all.

RUFF: Many Turkmen people, like English teacher Kakajan Abedaev, cannot dismiss the risks of damaging the sea floor or contaminating the Caspian sea quite so easily.

ABEDEAV: Well, of course everyone in this region is worried about that, I think.

RUFF: But most people are not willing to say so. Kakajan was one of the few people willing to speak to a Western journalist in Turkmenistan, where the government and military maintain a strong presence.

[MILITARY EXERCISE]

RUFF: Turkmenistan retains much of the character of the former Soviet Union, suppressing opposition and controlling the state's television stations, which frequently broadcast songs praising the country's president, Turkmenbashi.

[TURKISH NATIONAL SONG]

RUFF: The media, and the Secret Police, make both Turkmens and foreigners reluctant to speak out, and Dan Rutz says civil society organizations here have none of the influence enjoyed in the U.S. or Europe.

RUTZ: The NGO’s here are looking to get involved, or they have an active voice but maybe not any sway on the government at this point, but they're just looking at how to find information, how to find out information and how to get involved.

RUFF: But even without active NGO opposition the trans-Caspian pipeline may never be built, as natural gas has been found in Azerbaijan, much closer to the Turkish market. So Turkmenistan's best remaining hope to get their gas out looks like a 4,000 mile pipeline to China. One foreign oil company representative said this unlikely route was actually the most feasible and would even have some environmental benefits. By allowing China to substitute natural gas for coal, China could reduce their air pollution and free up many of the trains they use for transporting coal. Ironically, Kakajan dreams of an economy independent of the pipelines.

ABEDAEV: In the future, I hope Turkmenistan is not going to sell its gas and its oil, it's not going to be dependent on that, because now, we're trying to build our own economy.

RUFF: But foreigners and Turkmens alike agree that, in the short term, the oil and gas sector looks like the only engine available to drive the development of Turkmenistan.

ABEDAEV: We need money; we can't get money if we can't get our oil and gas outside.

[OUTDOOR SOUNDS]

RUFF: In the capital of Ashgabat gleaming malls and monuments have already been built in anticipation of oil and gas money flowing in. But that future looks to be many years off. So Turkmens will continue to depend on their herds and their farms for survival.

For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff, in Turkmenistan.

[TURKMEN MUSIC]

CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

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News Follow-up

CURWOOD: Time now to follow up on some of the news stories we've been tracking lately. Some environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy, claiming its use of sonar technology is harming marine animals. The Navy is using sonar tests to estimate the range at which submarines can be detected. But Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the Navy failed to prepare mandatory environmental impact statements for the waters in which the testing is being done.

REYNOLDS: In dark ocean waters sound is to marine species much like sight is to human beings. And so if we begin to interfere with the ability of these species to hear and be heard, we potentially are interfering with their very survival.

CURWOOD: So far, autopsies of the five whales stranded in the Bahamas found hemorrhaging around the brain and ear bones. The Navy concedes that it is highly likely that the use of sonar is contributing to the whale strandings.

This past July we talked with National Academy of Science’s Paul Portney, chairman of the committee that drafted a report on government fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles. The committee determined that available technologies could improve fuel use by as much as 40% within the next 15 years. Now, auto makers are objecting to the report, claiming scientists on the panel miscalculated. Paul Portney says the committee was under the gun to finish the report.

PORTNEY: We finished it about a month late but even that was hurrying it at a pace that I think I and the other committee members felt was probably too fast for comfort.

CURWOOD: The Academy will hold a public hearing on October 5th that will include auto makers and environmental groups to reconsider recommendations of the July report.

In a new development on the climate change front, Britain has started a national emissions trading plan to curb pollution from greenhouse gases. The program allows companies that exceed emissions reductions to sell credits to other companies. Now, the first trade has been made. Chemical company Dupont agreed to sell 10,000 emissions credits to the Japanese investment company Marubeni. Both have a large presence in the U.K. The trade was handled by Natsource, a firm that broker-deals in energy related products. Jack Cogen, president of Natsource, says that between 50 and 60 companies were in the running for this first trade.

COGEN: What we do as brokers is we find hopefully multiple buyers and multiple sellers and we run actions. Not like a Sotheby’s where you stand up with a gavel, but we're always trying to get sellers to sell at a lower price and buyers to buy at a higher price until the point where they actually meet and agree.

CURWOOD: The final asking price remains undisclosed but Mr. Cogen says this first trade was two months in the making. And that's this week's follow-up on the news from Living on Earth.

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Technology Note

CURWOOD: Just ahead: Hope for rare Asian tigers in the back country of Thailand. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber.

GRABER: In the wake of September 11th, there's been a lot of talk about how to improve airline security and, in particular, how to keep terrorists from hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into a target. The answer to one question could help. How could air traffic controllers make sure the person in the pilot seat is actually the pilot? Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say they may have an answer. You see, many things about humans are distinct--our fingerprints, our irises, our voice patterns, even the patterns of our heartbeats. And the Georgia Tech techies say they can recognize heart beat patterns, using radio waves. They came up with this idea during the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta. They wanted to collect information about the heartbeats of athletes who won gold medals. Of course, they couldn't hook up sensors and wires to athletes during competition, so they developed a radar device, using low level radio waves, that would detect heart movements as small as half a millimeter from about 100 feet away. With such a device placed in the cockpit, the signal could then be transmitted to the air traffic controller coordinating the flight. More research is needed to see if the recognition holds up as people age, or when they're in traumatic situations such as a hijacking. If research on this technology continues, there may be an easy and safe way to know exactly who's sitting behind the controls. That's this week's Technology Note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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Mystery Moose

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Recently hunters in the Yukon territory of Canada shot a young bull moose, or so they thought. Despite the fact that the moose had a set of antlers, the hunters soon discovered that the animal was missing a few other things you might expect to find on a male moose. Here to talk about this mystery moose is Rick Ward, a biologist with the Yukon government. Mr. Ward, please describe for me what these hunters found when they went to butcher the moose

WARD: Well, when they got up to the animal and started to handle it, they realized that, except for the fact that it had antlers, it appeared in every other respect to be a cow moose.

CURWOOD: I gather these hunters got in touch with authorities because it's not legal to shoot a cow moose, and I guess this is how you heard about the incident, huh?

WARD: Well, it's not legal to shoot a cow moose, but I suspect it was more the fact that they realized that this was something quite unusual and they wondered what was going on.

CURWOOD: What did you think, when you heard about a cow moose with antlers?

WARD: Well, I was actually quite excited, I was quite interested, of course. I've never seen a hermaphroditic moose before, and in fact I've never talked to anybody who has said that they have seen them, so it is quite unusual. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see the animal personally, because it was disposed of before I had a chance to get there.

CURWOOD: What is there in the way of pictures?

WARD: We do have some pictures but unfortunately the person who took them is not going to get any awards for photography, so they're a bit fuzzy and they don't show things as well as they might. Dead moose photography is definitely a specialized skill, I suspect.

CURWOOD: Well, what do you make of this animal?

WARD: At the genetic level, there are a couple, several possible explanations in fact, in terms of having multiple X and multiple Y chromosomes or perhaps having only one X or Y chromosome. But, in this case, I suspect, although I'm not sure because we haven't had a chance to do the necessary analysis, but I would expect that it was a hyperactive adrenal gland, perhaps, that was putting out more testosterone than it should.

CURWOOD: How do you think the moose regarded this moose?

WARD: Well, that's an interesting question and one that I've been asked several times. It's hard to say. But there is some evidence that it, in fact, bred successfully in the past, so apparently it got along reasonably well with the other moose and, at least on some occasions, things went as they should.

CURWOOD: What did they do with this moose?

WARD: Well, the moose actually also had a fairly significant infection where it had either impaled itself on some sharp object or where it had been injured by another moose. So our enforcement people suggested that the hunter not eat the moose, and it was given to a dog musher, to be used as dog food.

CURWOOD: I've heard that you're trying to get the antlers. Any progress in that?

WARD: Not yet. I'm still working on it. I've been talking to the local folks up there, and they said that they would try to get in touch with the hunter and see if they could get them for me.

CURWOOD: Now, Mr. Ward, I understand that there was another sighting of a moose like this a number of years ago. What do you suppose it has to do with, you know, that snow that falls up there in Yukon?

WARD: Well, I expect that it's probably just a coincidence that these two animals were shot in the same general area.

CURWOOD: Rick Ward is a biologist with the Yukon government. Hey Rick, thanks, thanks so much.

WARD: You're quite welcome.

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Thai Tigers

CURWOOD: It is illegal to hunt or sell tigers anywhere on earth, yet three tiger species are already extinct and in most places the majestic animal's future is threatened. In Thailand, though, a movement is under way that is raising hopes for the survival of the nation's remaining wild tigers. Orlando de Guzman reports.

[JUNGLE NOISES]

DE GUZMAN: One of the least explored rain forests in Southeast Asia can be found here, at Kaen Krachan National Park. This is Thailand's largest preserve and it straddles the Tenasserim mountain range that divides Thailand and Burma.

[WATER SOUNDS]

LYNAM: We've going to raft on the river about 30 kilometers, and we're going to stop off at a number of different places along the way where we see sandy banks, and there are a couple of salt licks along the way, too, and we're going to check out the signs of large mammals that are in the area.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. Tony Lynam is a tiger biologist with the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society. He's been conducting the first surveys of Indochinese tigers in Kaen Krachan in ten years.

LYNAM: Kaen Krachan is one of the most remote wilderness areas in the whole of southeast Asia. It's like no other place. When you come in here, you sense a feeling of awe, because there are no people here. And we're just starting to scratch the surface of looking at the wild life.

DE GUZMAN: Kaen Krachan is home to several species of carnivores including leopards, civets, wild dogs, and two species of bear. The park also supports several herds of elephant, wild cattle and hundreds of bird species. For the most part this 1,800 square mile park is untouched by poachers and hunters because it's so remote. Great sections of Kaen Krachan are only accessible during the dry season, from December to April, when the risk of acquiring a deadly strain of malaria is low and when the park's rivers are tame enough to explore by raft.

[LOUD WATER SOUNDS]

DE GUZMAN: We're off, down the Petchburi River, which tumbles and meanders through dense rain forest.

[WATER SOUNDS]

DE GUZMAN: Two hours down the rapid, we stop to rest next to a boulder tossed against the sand bank. Immediately, Dr. Lynam spots the unmistakable tracks of a tiger, large paw impressions about five inches across.

LYNAM: Look at this. This animal has come up here and it's walked back the same way. See that? It's walked up here, it's walked back, walked up here, walking back. The tigers are probably moving from that side of the river, swimming across this deep channel, coming up here along the bank and walking along, maybe going all around this bend, here, and way down the stream. So they do swim, and they're probably swimming across the river and just crossing the channel.

D EGUZMAN: During the dry season, the Petchburi River becomes the main highway and feeding ground for tigers in this park. Many of the higher mountain streams have dried up. Tigers and their prey come down here to drink. In January, Dr. Lynam set up 41 camera traps around the 21 mile stretch of the Petchburi River, and captured photos of four tigers. That's the most he's ever photographed in one survey. Dr. Lynam believes Kaen Krachan could be supporting as many as 50 tigers, potentially one of the largest tiger populations in Southeast Asia.

LYNAM: If we have the opportunity to extend our surveys to other parts of the park, I think we're going to find more tigers. We're going to find that this area supports a thriving population of tigers. That's what all the evidence suggests so far.

DE GUZMAN: This is encouraging news. The Indochinese tiger, the sub-species that's found here, is facing extinction throughout Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, despite international conventions that outlaw the sale and trade of tigers.

[TEMPLE MUSIC]

DE GUZMAN: A forest temple in Kanchanaburi Province, about 100 miles west from the capital city of Bangkok. According to Buddhist tradition temple grounds are sacred and it's a sin to harm animals living around monasteries. For this reason this temple has become a refuge for tiger cubs rescued from poachers working along the Thai-Burmese border.

[SOUND OF TIGER]

DE GUZMAN: This two year old male tiger, Pai Yo, was rescued by Thai border police a year and a half ago. Pai Yo lives with seven other tigers at this temple.

[SOUND OF TIGER]

DE GUZMAN: They're kept in cages no larger than a one car garage. All the tigers here have become domesticated, relying on the monks for food and daily walks around the temple. Luang Ta Jan, the abbot of this temple, says it's becoming difficult to take care of the cubs especially now that they're getting bigger.

[TA JAN SPEAKING THAI]

VOICEOVER: Some of the villagers around here are poachers, and sometimes they will bring the tiger cubs to us after they have shot and killed its parents. The poachers believe that by giving us the cubs to take care of they will be forgiven of their sins. These tigers won't be the last to come here. As long as the poaching continues, we will have more and more tiger cubs ending up at our temple.

DE GUZMAN: In the illegal wildlife market, just about every part of the tiger has some value. Tiger bones are much sought after in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is ground up and made into treatments for rheumatism. There's no scientific proof that this remedy is effective, nor is there any evidence that eating other tiger parts, such as the penis, scalp, or claws, can increase sexual virility in men. Steve Galster is the director of WildAid, a U.S. organization that monitors the trade in exotic animals.

GALSTER: If you look at how much money tiger bone is fetching on the black market, you then start to understand why people are going after it. You know, we're talking $300 per kilogram in some cases, plus you've got the bones, the whiskers, the penis, the skin. After you shoot a tiger and kill it, market it, wholesale it, you might get ten to even 30 thousand dollars for the animal.

DE GUZMAN: The demand for tiger body parts and the high price they fetch in the black market have created highly organized criminal rings around southeast Asia. Poachers often cross international boundaries. Tigers hunted in Laos may end up in Vietnam or China. Steve Galster says these poachers are one of the biggest threats to tigers in the region.

GALSTER: Definitely the trade in tigers is organized. I mean, this has been going on for a while. You take a look at Burma where there used to be a lot of tigers, you're doing surveys now there through WCS, they're finding there's very few left. They've cleaned them out. And you're talking about forests where they still have other animals. These are precision hunters. They went in, they cleaned out the tigers, because there was a trade.

DE GUZMAN: While the black market for tigers is a significant threat, biologist Tony Lynam of the Wild Life Conservation Society has been documenting another, possibly more damaging threat to tigers in the wild. What's going unnoticed, and unchecked, is that tigers are being starved out of the forest.

LYNAM: The threat that is really knocking out tiger populations all over the country--and this is not just isolated to Thailand, it's also something that's happening in neighboring countries-- is the hunting of animals that tigers eat, the prey species, the sandbar, the wild boar, the gaor, other species of animals that make up the tigers' prey. That's happening at a very alarming pace, and it's not being controlled, for the most part, in most areas.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

DE GUZMAN: At Thailand's oldest and most famous national park, called Khao Yai, in Central Thailand, a more aggressive anti-poaching program is under way. Here, a recent survey by the Wild Life Conservation Society has found that tigers are almost extinct in the park, and their prey species are being hunted by poachers. A team of five rangers from the Thai Royal Forestry Department wade through chest high razor grass deep inside Khao Yai, in search for poachers. But these aren't ordinary park rangers. They're armed with high-powered assault rifles, global positioning systems, and long-range radios. These rangers are being supported by WildAid and the Wild Life Conservation Society and trained by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Chonpon Sayadan, the leader of this patrol, says looking for poachers is a very dangerous job.

[SAYADAN SPEAKING THAI]

VOICEOVER: The reason why we have to carry guns is to protect ourselves, so that if we meet people who are going to use force against us, we can return fire. Two years ago, we ran into a group that was armed with automatic rifles, AK-47s, and they shot and killed one of our officers.

DE GUZMAN: Before the patrol started, officials estimated there were between 300 to 500 poachers in Khao Yai at any given time. Now, poaching has been disrupted and poachers have retreated into the more remote areas of the park, beyond the reach of the rangers. Officials say it's impossible to patrol the entire park, but say they've managed to reduce poaching significantly. But despite the program's apparent success, there are fears that it may have come too late for Khao Yai's tigers.

For the past two years, Dr. Lynam of the Wild Life Conservation Society has been setting up camera traps and looking for tiger tracks inside Khao Yai. What he's found is alarming: all evidence suggests there are fewer than 10 tigers left at Khao Yai.

LYNAM: So what it suggests to us is that tigers are really quite endangered here; tigers are on the verge of extinction in this park.

DE GUZMAN: Even if efforts to save these few remaining tigers prove to be too late, conservationists hope that by improving the way this park is managed, Khao Yai can serve as a model, and warning, for other parks in Asia trying to save their endangered tigers. For Living on Earth, this is Orlando DeGuzman, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.

Related link:
WildAid
Wildlife Conservation Society">

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CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. Next week, it's well known that tobacco can cause serious health problems for people who smoke. But now medical researchers are finding that even people who just pick the crop are also getting sick.

MAN: One quarter of your workers are sick, not because of the flu, not because of pneumonia, not because of measles, but because of something they do on the job. It's an incredibly high rate.

CURWOOD: Green tobacco sickness down on the farm, next time on Living on Earth.

[BIRD SOUNDS]

CURWOOD: We leave you this week with a prelude to a rumble in the jungle. The mating calls of gibbons are the centerpiece of this concert in the thick woodlands of Thailand. Jean Roche is the producer of this recording he calls, Thai Morning.

[GIBBON NOICES AND BIRDS]

CURWOOD: Living On Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Jennifer Chu and Gernot Wagner, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson, Milisa Muñiz, and Bunny Lester. Special thanks to Ernie Silver.

We had help this week from Jessica Penney, Richard Doherty, and Jonathan Waldman. Alison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earth Ear. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Liz Lempert is our western editor, Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; the Educational Foundation of America, for reporting on energy and climate change; the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, for reporting on marine issues and the environment; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Town Creek Foundation; the W. Elton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; and the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, for reporting on western issues; the James and Kathleen Stone Foundation, and the Oak Foundation.

 

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