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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 18, 2011

Air Date: March 18, 2011



Fighting Further Meltdowns

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The nuclear reactor situation in Japan is still precarious. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, tells host Steve Curwood that this is the first time a country has faced simultaneous reactor emergencies. He also raises an eyebrow at the Obama administration’s plans to push ahead with nuclear power in the United States. (07:00)

Dangers From Depleted Atomic Fuel

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Japan’s storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel contain more longterm radioactive material than the internal reactor. Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies tells host Bruce Gellerman that in the U.S., spent fuel pools contain four times more radioactive material than they were designed to hold. (06:00)

Japans Nuclear Regulatory Failures

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Nuclear activists in Japan claim the proliferation of nuclear reactors has gone unchecked for too long. Aileen Mioko Smith, director of the Japanese watchdog group, Green Action, tells host Steve Curwood that the crisis at Fukushima is indicative of a larger problem of nuclear oversight. (06:30)

Pro Nuke or No Nuke? Washington Reacts / Mitra Taj

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President Obama is counting on a nuclear renaissance to help wean the nation from dirty coal. But the crisis in Japan has exposed the potential dangers of nuclear power generation and some members of Congress worry industry regulations aren't as safe as they should be. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from Washington. (05:30)

Which Way Will Duke Energy Go? / Jeff Young

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Living on Earth’s Jeff Young interviews Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ “neighborhood” is about to get bigger, with a pending merger that would make Duke the nation’s largest electric utility company. Despite the disaster unfolding in Japan, Rogers says he’s betting more on nuclear power than coal, because he wants to reduce his company’s enormous carbon footprint. (06:00)

Carbon Nation: The Movie

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Across America, there are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary projects that make both environmental and economic sense. These climate solutions are the subject of the new documentary Carbon Nation. Producer Chrisna van Zyl tells host Bruce Gellerman the film is about an energy movement that both climate change activists and climate skeptics can believe in. (09:00)

Understanding the Sounds of Ecosystems

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An emerging new scientific field called soundscape ecology suggests that sound can tell us a lot about the health of ecosystems. Bryan Pijanowski is a Purdue University professor and founder of the new discipline. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about a few of the tens of thousands of the recordings he has compiled. (06:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood, Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Arjun Makhijani, Robert Alvarez, Aileen Mioko Smith, Jim Rogers, Chrisna Van Zyl, Bryan Pijanowski
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Jeff Young


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

CURWOOD: And I'm Steve Curwood. The nuclear nightmare in Japan continues. The fate of the nation lies in heroic measures and the direction of the wind.

MAKHIJANI: I hope that this will raise the question worldwide, Is it sensible to make plutonium just to boil water? Which is what our nuclear reactor does.

CURWOOD: The biggest threat in Japan may be from seven pools holding spent radioactive fuel rods.

GELLERMAN: It’s an even bigger problem here - we have no Plan B.

ALVAREZ: If you lose off-site power at a US commercial nuclear power station, there are no backup diesel generators to provide circulation to cool the pools.

GELLERMAN: The President calls for a nuclear safety review. And launching a new science: soundscape ecology. We’ll have those stories and more - this week on Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: So stick around.


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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, and Stonyfield Farm.

Fighting Further Meltdowns

Arjun Makhijani (Photo: Francisco Martinez)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth - I'm Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami, a nuclear power complex stands at the brink of catastrophe, defying heroic last ditch efforts. And amid the ruins and pain, a soft, rarely heard voice; the Emperor talks to his people.


CURWOOD: (Translation) I pray that we will all take care of each other and overcome this tragedy.

Thousands have died. Half a million are homeless. And millions have been evacuated. At the Fukushima atomic power plant, workers struggle to control the reactors that once supplied so much energy to Japan. Now the very future of the nation is at stake. Arjun Makhijani is president at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

A map showing epicenter of earthquake and positions of nuclear power plants. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

MAKHIJANI: This is completely unprecedented in terms of the scale of the emergency management problem. Four stricken reactors, each with a spent fuel pool, each with cooling problems, each with a problem of accidental critical chain reactions. The reactors are like pressure cookers, with a heat source on the inside. And so if you don’t cool it, and at the same time vent the steam, at a certain point the pressure builds up and the pressure cooker will explode. And that may be part of the mechanism that has caused damage in two of these reactors.

CURWOOD: Now you have raised the question that the earthquake itself may have damaged the cooling systems in these reactors, if I understand it.

MAKHIJANI: Yeah, especially the spent fuel pools. That’s my surmise, because in spent fuel pool number four, reactor number four, the problem of leaks and hydrogen and fires emerge - seemed to emerge - suddenly after four days. And I suspect that damage to pumps and pipes and perhaps small leaks that were actually going on for some time - and when there was enough evaporation of water or enough leak of water that spent fuel actually got uncovered and started heating up and reacting with the steam, that’s the point at which there was an explosion and a fire.

CURWOOD: You know, as we’ve watched the sometimes heroic and desperate measures to deal with this - throwing all kinds of alternatives - it kind of reminds me of what happened in the oil disaster last year where every little old thing was tried.

MAKHIJANI: Yes, in the oil disaster, there were already developed robotic instruments that in the end were very central to stopping the disaster, but remember, it also took a very long time to get it done. Here, I think the places that we’re dealing with, the environments that we’re dealing with, are not accessible to robotics and I’m not aware that any have been developed that could help to deal with these situations.

CURWOOD: How much of the fate of Japan now rests on whether there’s a fire and which way the wind is blowing?

MAKHIJANI: Well I think a good part of the fate of the country around the Fukushima plant - maybe for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty miles or more - does rest on the winds and the degree of the accident, whether there’s a fire or a large-scale release of radioactivity. So yes, they are now at the sort of mercy of the evolution of this accident.

CURWOOD: What does it mean for the Japanese economy going forward to have such a crisis in its electricity generation?

MAKHIJANI: Well they’re going to have to continue to use their remaining nuclear power plants for some time. There’s essentially no choice without collapsing a good bit of the economy in the electricity sector. They may be able to import gas and substitute gas turbines as they have done in the past in emergencies. But to replace the whole infrastructure very quickly will be very, very difficult and very, very costly at a time when they obviously have gigantic amounts of repair to do with the destroyed cities and transportation structures and homes and businesses.

CURWOOD: As the emergency in Japan stretched towards a week, the governments of France, the United States, and many others issued the call to their citizens to say, ‘Leave Japan if you can.’ How wise was that decision?

MAKHIJANI: Well I think that is a wise decision, because the calculations indicate that the radiation could exceed the norms, and the United States, I think, did a good thing to inform its public that that would be the case. Now, you know, there may be thousands of Americans there who have some place to go and there are 120 million Japanese, but they don’t have anywhere to go. It’s not sensible to think that tens of millions of people could go somewhere. So they’re going to have to find other ways to protect themselves. It’s going to be a very difficult situation for the Japanese government.

CURWOOD: If you were in Japan right now, would you leave?

MAKHIJANI: Well if I were in Japan with a house someplace else, yes, I would leave.

CURWOOD: Arjun, what was unthinkable seems now to be reality. To what extent could this, should this nuclear disaster in Japan be foreseen and guarded against?

Arjun Makhijani (Photo: Francisco Martinez)

MAKHIJANI: You know, just as 9-11 kind of engendered a new thinking about, well, what kind of terrorist attacks and where are we vulnerable and so on, this must engender a new kind of thinking about how we deal with risk, how we deal with emergency management - and how we calculate risk. How we calculate risk currently in this kind of situation is not sensible.

We say, well it’s a low probability, one in a million, and the damage could be 500 billion, so the annual risk is 500,000 dollars. That’s not a sensible way to deal with this kind of risk. If you have a risk of 500 billion dollars for something that’s possible, you better make sure it won’t happen. I also think we need to revisit the Price-Anderson act which limits liability of the nuclear industry to just 11 billion dollars when official studies have acknowledged that liability could extend to hundreds of billions.

Who is going to cover that? Is it going to be the taxpayers? I hope that this will raise the question worldwide, in Japan and here, Is it sensible to make plutonium just to boil water? Which is essentially what a nuclear reactor does. If this doesn’t cause a time-out, I don’t know what will. This must cause a time-out.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani is President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Thank you so much.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much for asking me, Steve.

Related link:
Visit Makhijani’s organization, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

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Dangers From Depleted Atomic Fuel

Highlighted in red is the Fukushima Prefecture, site of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)

GELLERMAN: The energy for the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant came from three thousand radioactive fuel rods. The containment vessels of some of the reactors seem to be breached, but apparently the larger danger is from the spent fuel rods. While they’re less intensely radioactive than those still in the reactors, there are 12 thousand used fuel rods stored in seven unprotected deep pools above the containment. Nuclear power expert Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.

ALVAREZ: Typically, a spent fuel pool will contain ten to twenty times more long-lived radioactivity than the core. The short-lived materials have decayed away and the spent fuel, of course, accumulates over time. And so it’s much more of a danger and hazard in terms of the materials that will stick around for quite a while.

Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (Institute for Policy Studies)

GELLERMAN: The spent fuel pools are basically unprotected. They’re just in a building - the secondary containment.

ALVAREZ: Right. The explosion that destroyed the unit three clearly shows that the pool is now exposed to the open sky and billowing out steam, which means that it’s getting hot enough to boil. These pools, by the way, are several stories above ground - they’re right next to the reactor tops. So if the water starts to drain, by the time the water reaches a level that’s about five or six feet above the top of the spent fuel, the radiation dose rates become life-threatening on the site.

GELLERMAN: So Bob Alvarez, what could be the potential long-term effects on the land and on the people in this area around plants in Japan?

ALVAREZ: Well the water would tend to dilute and disperse the radioactive materials when it’s deposited on the land. The long-lived radioactive materials, particularly caesium-137, which is a really bad actor in this one, can get volatilized and then released to the environment. It has a half-life of about 30 years, which means…the rule of thumb - it takes about ten half-lives for this material to decay down to levels that are presumed to be safe.

So a large release of caesium-137 could render a very large area of land uninhabitable, perhaps for hundreds of years. What is also of concern here in the United States is that we have 34 similar reactors of the design - Fukushima - that have these elevated pools. And unlike the pools in Japan, our Nuclear Regulatory Commission, over decades, have permitted the reactor operators to densely compact the spent fuel in these pools.

They were originally designed only about one fourth of what they’re holding right now. And so if something were to happen to cause the water to drain, then the consequences would be much, much more severe.

GELLERMAN: So the problem is that we’ve got all this spent fuel and no place to put it.

ALVAREZ: Well I think that this is a problem that can be mitigated. I mean, it isn’t one of these intractable problems. I mean, what we recommended in 2003 in our study is that the pools be used only to store fuel for five years so that they can cool off, and then after that, they should be moved into dry, hardened storage casts - it could be buried in hillsides or put in thick concrete buildings if you’re concerned about airplane crashes and other things.

This is something that Germany did 25 years ago - it isn’t rocket science. The technology is on the shelf to do this. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was adamantly opposed to our recommendation, and the reactor operators were opposed to this because it would cost some additional money.

GELLERMAN: So we’ve got 34 of these types of reactors with these elevated pools - now why would you want to put the pool in the attic and the diesel, the backup diesel power, in the basement? It seems like you’d want it opposite.

This diagram shows the inside of a nuclear facility in Japan. The reactor is in the center. In the upper left corner is the spent fuel pool. The diagram shows a helicopter dropping water on the pool to keep the fuel rods covered with water. (Photo: Hayakuneko)

ALVAREZ: Well, first of all, the pools in Japan and the pools in the United States do not require backup diesel generators to keep the water circulating. They are not considered sufficiently hazardous enough to warrant this additional layer of protection. The reason why this design was picked is that it was done as a matter of convenience to allow the spent fuel to be removed from the reactor and then just moved over into the pool, without having to take it any great distance.

GELLERMAN: So did I hear you correctly? There’s no backup power generators to the spent fuel pools?

ALVAREZ: At all the reactors in the United States, it’s not required. If you lose off-site power, at a US commercial nuclear power station, there are no backup diesel generators to provide circulation to cool the pools. We reported all this in 2003 in our paper. And the National Academy also weighed in and made it pretty clear that this was, you know, a significant issue, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just disregarded it because I think they’re just caught up in a dance of co-dependence with the regulator.

I think their relationship with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is worse than that of the Securities and Exchange Commission with Wall Street.

Highlighted in red is the Fukushima Prefecture, site of Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis. (Wikimedia Commons)

GELLLERMAN: So I’m downwind from Vermont Yankee, I’m upwind from Pilgrim Yankee…um, should I be worried?

ALVAREZ: I think you should be worried. And I think that it’s time that we stop this kind of nonsense of assuming it can’t happen here. I think that this accident should be a wake-up call. The big lesson that we’re learning about this, relative to nuclear power and other technologies as well, is that nature has a way of greatly exceeding the best expectations of our scientists.

GELLERMAN: Well Robert Alvarez, thank you very much - really appreciate it.

ALVAREZ: You’re welcome.

GELLERMAN: Robert Alvarez is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. For the latest on the nuclear crisis in Japan, go to our website, L-O-E dot org.

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[MUSIC: Jonathan Richman “Music For Next years Jukebox” from Revolution Summer (this is currently out of print, no label info available).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - more on nuclear power: past, present, and future, in Japan and in the U.S. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[MUSIC: What Is Thing Called Love” from the Complete Capitol Recordings Of Nat King Cole (Mosaic Records 1991).]

Japans Nuclear Regulatory Failures

Aileen Mioko Smith has sounded the alarm over the risks of nuclear energy in Japan for over 3 decades. (Photo: W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth - I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Over the years, Japan’s nuclear industry has been plagued by a record of falsified safety reports, covered-up accidents, and what critics charge is a too-cozy relationship with government regulators. So activists say they’re not surprised by the catastrophe at Fukushima.

CURWOOD: Aileen Mioko Smith is one of the leading opponents of nuclear energy in Japan. She’s director of Green Action, an NGO based in Kyoto. When the disaster struck, Aileen Mioko Smith was visiting the United States, and she spoke to us from San Francisco.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company is one of the world’s largest utilities head office. (Wikimedia)

SMITH: Japan has 54 nuclear power plants and they are all located in seismically active areas. And that’s been a problem, and citizens have addressed that. But what the electric utilities and government do, in coordinating with each other, underestimates potential seismic activity of a potential nuclear power plant site, and then the government rubber stamps it and then they get to build the plant. So this plant should never have been built in Fukushima.

CURWOOD: Explain for us the relationship between the nuclear industry and the government in Japan.
SMITH: Ok, well there’s quite a bit of collusion. Just for example, Japan plans a long-term energy policy every five years, and the last one was headed by the Tokyo Electric president - he was the chairperson of that deliberation committee, so you kind of get the picture here.

CURWOOD: Now this isn’t unusual in Japan, is it? I mean, the whole zaibatsu economic system, where there’s close cooperation between the government and industry, also is involved in the nuclear industry it sounds like.

SMITH: Yes, that’s correct. But over the last few years, it’s now an issue that that’s not democratic. And so, for example, this current long-term plan is not headed by the Tokyo Electric president, but they’re still pulling all the strings.

In fact, this accident is fallout from that. This is very much a human-created accident. And the reason I say it’s a human disaster is that, you know, natural disasters happen - but if you didn’t site a nuclear power plant there, you wouldn’t be having this accident at all.

CURWOOD: How truthful and forthcoming do you feel the government of Japan and industry is being about the accident that’s going on?

SMITH: Well, I don’t think they are being truthful. I think the big problem is that the government needs to calmly explain all the facts to the people, rather than - quote, unquote - “protecting them” or “hoping for the best.” The reason for that is that if you’re patronizing of citizens, they are kept in the dark, yet you can’t protect them from reality – the reality that happened.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about how industry and government have been forthcoming about the risks that have been posed by these reactors over the years. What have they said and done?

SMITH: Okay. What they’ve said is that it’s not necessary to have an evacuation plan beyond ten kilometers, which is six miles, and local residents and all of us have fought that continually at every site. But they insisted that the worst accident that could happen - the radiation would stop at the six-mile limit. So the crisis right now is we’re way behind on evacuation, and it’s because the original paperwork says six miles.

Aileen Mioko Smith has sounded the alarm over the risks of nuclear energy in Japan for over 3 decades. (Photo: W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith)

With evacuation, I think that the role of public authorities is to take the responsibility - that you tell people to evacuate, and then maybe later you’re criticized - ‘look, you know, we didn’t have to do that,’ and there was so much turmoil and, you know, there may have even been accidents, but the potential danger was so great. It’s a difficult decision. I think they have to weigh it and they haven’t weighed it properly now.

CURWOOD: To what extent has industry or government tried to conceal problems in the nuclear plants?
SMITH: Well Tokyo Electric’s been notorious - there was a big scandal nine years ago when they falsified their own self-inspection data. Just for example, this containment in Fukushima - this is the containment that shields the reactor - the pressure has to be lower so that it prevents leaks from the containment.

And it wasn’t functioning properly, so okay, government officials are on one side of the plant measuring the situation, and then on the other side of the containment, Tokyo Electric people are using a pump to extract the air from the containment - to make it look like it has lower pressure. So that was a big scandal and they did other falsification - and they were reprimanded by the government. So publicly, there’s this reprimand - you know, the regulators are regulating and slapping the wrists of Tokyo Electric, but underneath, they’re just completely coordinated. That’s the problem.

CURWOOD: So every five years in Japan, I understand, there is this nuclear policy review - what are the odds that the next review will make some changes?

SMITH: Well I think that they’ll be forced to make some changes. The public opinion was really deep, scrutinizing nuclear power safety a lot more now - I mean, phenomenally more than before. But, we don’t know, I mean, you know, they’ve got huge PR agencies, but we’ll see what happens.

CURWOOD: What’s the role of activists like you in a situation like this - what’s the role that you’re playing there?

SMITH: So the role of activists is to warn the public, and we have been doing that. But, you know, it’s like…we did our best, and what else can you say - we weren’t successful. But, you know, right now, we feel like this has been a total failure, and yet we still have urgent things we need to do, and that is that there’s power plants southwest of Tokyo called Hamaoka, and the seismic situation there is much, much more serious than Fukushima. So right now, what we have to tell the public, now that they’re listening, is that Hamaoka has to be shut down, and really quickly.

CURWOOD: Your family is in Tokyo right now - what concerns do you have about their safety?

SMITH: Well I have concerns, but I haven’t told
them…I haven’t told them, ‘You should leave,’ because then I don’t know where they’re going to go. And my aunt’s very old, and my uncle is very old, and it’s difficult. But I do have cousins with children. I don’t know - I mean, I’m struggling with what to do about that.

CURWOOD: Aileen Mioko Smith is the director of the Kyoto-based group Green Action. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

Related links:
- Green Action
- Click here to listen to an extended interview with Aileen Mioko Smith

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[MUSIC: Toshiko Akiyoshi “Kogun” from Let Freedom Swing (Haennsler Classic 2007).]

Pro Nuke or No Nuke? Washington Reacts

In a speech on the crisis in Japan, President Obama affirmed his commitment to nuclear energy, "an important part of our own energy future."

GELLERMAN: As the Japanese nuclear disaster unfolds, nations around the world are rethinking their atomic power programs and plans for the future. China, with 28 nuclear power plants in the works, has suspended construction and ordered safety reviews of existing installations. Meanwhile, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Turkey are taking action, and president Obama says the U.S. also has lessons to learn from doomed reactors at the Fukushima power plant.

OBAMA: That’s why I’ve asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan.

GELLERMAN: Nevertheless, the Obama White House still backs a nuclear renaissance. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports from Capitol Hill.

In a speech on the crisis in Japan, President Obama affirmed his commitment to nuclear energy, "an important part of our own energy future."

TAJ: Before Japan’s nuclear crisis, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asking Congress for 36 billion dollars to loan to the nuclear industry. And now - his 2012 budget still asks for 36 billion.

CHU: It'd be premature to say anything other than we will use this opportunity to learn as best we can and consider carefully how to go forward.

TAJ: That put him in the odd position of pleasing Republicans, like Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, who pushed him to be clear.

BARTON: I'm not sure what you just said. (Laughs)

CHU: Okay…

BARTON: Does the president support new nuclear power plant construction in the United States?

CHU: The present budget is what it is. And we're asking for loan guarantees. That position has not been changed.

BARTON: So that's a yes.

CHU: That's a yes.

BARTON: Good, that's what I wanted you to say.

Secretary of Energy Steve Chu.

TAJ: But that's not what some Democrats wanted him to say. Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts says the disaster in Japan will make an already-reluctant private sector even less interested in financing a nuclear renaissance. And that will give Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu a new title.

MARKEY: Banker-in-chief to the nuclear industry - a socialist system that allows for the U.S. government to provide taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction in our country.

TAJ: Markey says the loans would become "toxic" assets, leaving taxpayers on the hook in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Markey’s calling for a moratorium on new nuclear reactors, and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid says that’s not a bad idea.

REID: I don't think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad. But I think we need a timeout to take a look at it.

TAJ: But Reid's Republican colleagues point out there haven't been any new construction licenses issued since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

INHOFE: We've been delaying for 30 years now, so I think that we certainly don't want to slow down - let's keep going.

TAJ: Republican Senator Jim Inhofe appealed to Gregory Jaczko, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees the industry. As Jaczko made his rounds on Capitol Hill, lawmaker after lawmaker grilled him on the nuclear power plants in their states and districts, and time and time again he told them, ‘Don’t worry.’

JACZKO: We work everyday to make sure that nuclear power plants are safe and that they continue to be secure. We do intend, as we go forward, to look at the events from Japan and see if there are things that we can learn that would inform and possibly improve the way we go about doing our safety work.

TAJ: But that didn’t convince independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who asked Jaczko to reevaluate the commission's recent 20-year extension of Vermont Yankee power plant, which in the past has leaked tritium and experienced a collapse. It’s also one of 23 reactors in the U.S. of the same GE Mark 1 design as the stricken plant in Fukushima.

SANDERS: The idea that we would have a plant of the same design - which in 20 years will be 60 years old - I think is a frightening thought to many people in Vermont.

TAJ: It’s frightening, Sanders says, because history has shown the unthinkable can happen.

SANDERS: We have seen it with 9-11: unthinkable that one of the large buildings in America would be attacked by terrorists! Unthinkable that thousands of people would die in hurricane Katrina! Unthinkable that BP would have an environmentally damaging leak in the Gulf Coast! Unthinkable, unthinkable, unthinkable, until the day after it happens! And the problem with nuclear power is it cannot be just 99.99 percent safe.

TAJ: But Jaczko says he has no plans to shut down facilities or change the NRC's procedures until more is known about what went wrong in Japan.

NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko tried to reassure lawmakers that U.S. nuclear reactors are safe. (Photo: U.S. Congress)

JACZKCO: I think it’ll take us, you know, a little bit of time, I want to make sure - the most important thing is that we do this right. I don't want to rush into a process that winds up focusing on something that just isn't really the right thing. And then we wind up missing that piece that's really most important.

TAJ: That worries Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She told Jaczko that in California, two nuclear power plants lie on fault lines - one with more than seven million people living less than 50 miles away.

BOXER: Right now, you're doing nothing new. Nothing. Not one thing. I haven’t heard anything. I look at what Germany is doing; I look at what EU is doing. None of them are panicking at all - they're just being, I think, wise. They're just, ‘Okay, let's take another look at these places that have seismic activity, let’s shut down temporarily.’ I don't hear anything proactive.

TAJ: Jaczko may get another chance to reassure Congress that nuclear power generation in the U.S. is safe. Despite divisions on Capitol Hill, policymakers seem to agree that they should study Japan’s tragedy and learn the lessons to make sure it doesn’t happen here. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitra Taj in Washington.

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Which Way Will Duke Energy Go?

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. The pending merger with Progress Energy will make his company the country’s largest electric utility. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger)

CURWOOD: Nuclear power and natural gas each generate about 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S., but both are dwarfed by coal, which supplies half. Most of the rest comes from hydro and renewables. The nation’s energy mix is largely dictated by price, regulation and the decisions of power companies. One of the largest is Duke Energy based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and its CEO Jim Rogers is one of the most influential in the industry. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

YOUNG: Jim Rogers has some tough decisions to make. If Duke Energy’s merger with Progress Energy is approved, his company will power some seven million households with a fleet of nuclear reactors, massive coal burners, and natural gas turbines. And many of those power plants are nearing the end of their lifespan.

The Japanese disaster has not deterred Duke’s plans to build two new nuclear reactors on this site in Cherokee County, South Carolina. (Illustration courtesy Duke Energy)

ROGERS: Think about this statistic: out of 300 thousand megawatts today of coal generation, one third of that - 100 thousand megawatts - is over 40 years old. So those units need to be replaced. We’re going to retire or replace every plant, including nuclear plants, by 2050. And the only question is, when do we get started.

YOUNG: Duke has started building some new power facilities and each one generates controversy. Even as the nuclear crisis unfolded in Japan, Rogers went before North Carolina’s public utility commission to argue for two new nuclear reactors. A permit is pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And Duke’s coal-fired power plant under construction, called Cliffside, drew ferocious opposition. Dozens were arrested at this protest against Cliffside two years ago.

[PROTEST: “Clean coal’s a dirty lie, we won’t let our planet die!” VOICE ON BULLHORN: “Are you listening Jim Rogers? We’re coming for you!”]

YOUNG: Duke is about to become the nation’s second largest consumer of coal. But Rogers says Cliffside and a coal-fired facility under construction in Indiana will be Duke’s last coal power plants until the industry finds a way to capture coal’s carbon dioxide. Rogers is skeptical of that technology, called carbon capture and storage, or CCS. And he has broader concerns about coal.

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. The pending merger with Progress Energy will make his company the country’s largest electric utility. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger)

ROGERS: So when I look at coal, I understand…I mean, the damage that is done from mountaintop mining for instance. I understand the safety issues associated with mining. I grew up in Kentucky. As they say in Kentucky, there’s only three things you can do: coal mine, moonshine, or get on down the line! So I know a little about coal. But my only point here is…is that maybe we ought to look at coal in terms of the full life cycle from mining all the way to use.

YOUNG: You’re betting more on nuclear power than on coal at this point?

ROGERS: Because I’m betting on what I know. I know there are zero greenhouse gases from nuclear, and I know that nuclear provides 70% of the carbon-free electricity in the country today. And I’ve yet to see CCS that can achieve that objective.

YOUNG: I spoke with Rogers before the Japanese disaster struck. A Duke spokesperson says the company will adopt any new safety measures that are required, but that Rogers’ position on nuclear power has not changed. Rogers has also not changed his mind about climate change.

He was at odds with many electric company leaders when he supported cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gases. And he is again making waves on the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate greenhouse gases. Many of his colleagues back a Republican measure in Congress to strip EPA of its regulatory power. But not Rogers.

Duke’s decision to build a new coal-fired power plant drew protests in North Carolina. (Photo: Bill Rhodes.)

ROGERS: I would not strip the regulatory authority. Congress ought to say, ‘Okay, the EPA is the wrong place to be doing this, we need new regulations that the EPA can implement on this, we need to roll our sleeves up and do our job rather than attacking the EPA.’ I just think that’s a mistake - it’s a classic case of not having the courage, by Congress, to act on it.

YOUNG: So are you kind of biding your time until there’s another political window of opportunity to try again with something like cap-and-trade?

ROGERS: We can’t afford to just bide our time and wait to the right moment. We need to continue to educate people as to the science. We need to continue to think of new policy approaches. We got to continue to talk with those in Congress and opinion leaders around the country to build a consensus on this. And so we have much work to do and at the end of the day that will ultimately lead to success.

YOUNG: That sort of climate change rhetoric could come from an environmental group. But Rogers gets a mixed reaction from environmentalists. Frank O’Donnell of the group Clean Air Watch credits Rogers for supporting action on climate change but questions how deep his commitment really is.

ODONNELL: Jim Rogers has been prone to talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he will go to congress and say, ‘We should do something about climate change, as long as it helps Duke!’ On the other hand, he is one of the big players within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has tried to undermine any action to deal with climate emissions.

YOUNG: Rogers takes the criticism in stride and says he will continue to push for a cleaner energy industry.

ROGERS: My view is…is the Chamber position is evolving, and I think it’s very important for people like me to be part of that conversation. I’m just one person, but I do believe in the power of one. And I do think one person can change the debate. I’ll always believe that you need to punch above your weight. So you can only expect that I’ll continue to punch above my weight.

YOUNG: He may be just one person, but he’s head of what could soon be the country’s number one electric utility, which means how Jim Rogers decides to use his power could decide what power many of us use. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Related links:
- Hear Jeff Young’s full interview with Duke CEO Jim Rogers.
- Information on the proposed merger between Duke Energy and Progress Energy
- This Union of Concerned Scientists report identifies safety problems that arose last year at nuclear power plants owned by Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

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[MUSIC: Radiohead “Codex” from King Of Limbs (Ticker Tape Ltd 2011).]

CURWOOD: Coming up - the movie “Carbon Nation.” Critics say it’s a gas. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

Carbon Nation: The Movie

Cliff Etheredge runs the world’s largest wind farm in Roscoe, Texas.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Making the rounds at film festivals and theaters around the country is the new documentary “Carbon Nation.”

[FILM CLIP, MUSIC: The U.S. has about five percent of the world’s people, but we create almost a quarter of the world’s CO2. CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas. It’s just the one making the most trouble right now…]

GELLERMAN: Typically, films about climate change are a downer, but the documentary “Carbon Nation” takes us on an upbeat road trip around the country, offering creative solutions and compelling reasons to act. Among those featured in the film is New York Times editorial writer Tom Friedman:

FRIEDMAN: This is geo-strategic, geo-economic. It’s the most patriotic thing you can be, do, think, or feel today. Green, baby, is the new red, white and blue.

GELLERMAN: Film critic Adam Siegel of The Huffington Post calls “Climate Nation” “entertaining…endearing…and exceptional.” I’ve seen it and we’ve called Chrisna Van Zyl, the producer of “Carbon Nation,” to talk about the film.

VAN ZYL: The whole idea of bringing a message of hope and inspiration was really what was behind the making of “Carbon Nation” - that was always the driving force. The project really started after Peter, the director of the film, Peter Byck, had seen “An Inconvenient Truth.” And it was like a call-to-action for him and he was hoping there were solutions. Didn’t know about it, but he set out to find them. And four years later, the product is Carbon Nation.

GELLERMAN: But some critics have said that you’re preaching to the choir. Who’s your target audience?

VAN ZYL: Well you need your base in order to have the message spread. So we definitely - you know, we are bringing this message to the choir. But I can tell you that if we can get the film seen by conservative folks, or folks who don’t necessarily care about this issue - once we get that done, the response is great.

We get told that we think so differently and that we are so divided in this country, but I think there’s a lot more common ground than what anybody would lead you to believe. And we see that when we show “Carbon Nation” to a variety of people with different viewpoints.

GELLERMAN: Well you have a variety of people starring in “Carbon Nation.” You have some of the country’s leading environmental superstars - you’ve got Amory Lovins, you’ve got Van Jones, you’ve got Lester Brown, but you also have a kind of everyday Joes and Janes that I think are the real stars of the film.

Cliff Etheredge runs the world’s largest wind farm in Roscoe, Texas.
(Photo: Peter Byck)

VAN ZYL: We wanted to set out to show examples of scale of things that can be done right now. But at the same time, we wanted to show that everyday people are doing it. So not just speak to the executives and, you know, the leaders that’s in the news, but we wanted to set out to find people who would be considered everyday people who are already doing wonderful things and they’re doing it - not just because they’re environmentalists - but because it makes financial sense to do that and they’re reaping the benefits. And one such a person is Cliff Etheridge, who is a cotton-farmer-turned-wind-farmer in Roscoe, West Texas.

GELLERMAN: This place, Roscoe, is really down on its luck. I mean, drought has left the farmers down and out and even the Dairy Queen pulled out of town. And then, you know, they get together - these farmers - and they produce what’s the world’s largest wind farm!

[FILM CLIP: Farmers really do appreciate these things. This is strictly dry land. We sat here and prayed for rain and cussed the wind. Now what we’ve been cussing all these years - it turned out to be a blessing.]

VAN ZYL: It’s an amazing story of what can happen if a community pulls together and if they have the proper leadership to steer them.

Bernie Karl of Alaska uses 165 degree water to create geothermal energy.

GELLERMAN: The guy I really like is Bernie Karl - he’s a real character! He’s developing geothermal energy from a hot spring in Alaska, and he’s not someone you’d expect to see in a documentary about climate change.

VAN ZYL: He was basically the person that opened our eyes to the fact that you don’t really have to care about climate change, but that you can still do these things and work towards cleaner energy sources.

[FILM CLIP: Do I think man is causing global warming? I think that we add to it. Do I think we’re causing it? No. But that doesn’t make any difference. I want clean water and I want clean air. And that’s so simple. Now this power plant is making power off of water that’s not as hot as McDonald’s coffee.”]

GELLERMAN: (Laughs). And he’s making money! And he’s saving energy.

VAN ZYL: Yes, he’s saving a lot of money. He’s doing it. He’s a living example of everything that we’re saying in the film.

GELLERMAN: You avoided the question of nuclear power as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. And you say that nuclear power splits atoms and opinions - and you made the film before the Japan nuclear disaster, of course - but you knew about, you know, Chernobyl, obviously, but not addressing nuclear power…isn’t that something of a cop-out?

VAN ZYL: We chose to focus on the positive and on the things that we know make sense right now. Nuclear power, because of it being so divisive and because of the fact that there’s…you know, even if they say yes to nuclear - a new nuclear plant today - it’s going to take ten years to even get that up and running. And we just thought that the solutions that we do present can be done on a shorter lead time and as maybe less controversial.

GELLERMAN: You did take a look at climate change gas other than carbon dioxide, and you talked to Michael Dunham. He’s quite a character too - he’s a former rock and roll producer from Haywood, California, who’s had quite a bit of change of careers.

Former rock producer Michael Dunham recycles old refrigerators.

[FILM CLIP: Refrigerators are really bad, bad environmental time-bombs. CFC12, which is in the cooling circuit - that’s what people typically call Freon, is 10,720 times greater a global warmer than CO2. When I was 20 years old, I started producing rock and roll concerts - I did everybody from Elvis to Sinatra and two tours with the Rolling Stones. And everybody goes, ‘Well, how did you go from rock and roll to refrigerators?’ And I say, ‘Well, it was quite easy - it involved a jetty.’]

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I guess he’s surfing, he hits a jetty, and he’s reborn as an environmentalist - a climate change activist.

VAN ZYL: Exactly. Well he decided he’s going to do something good with his life if he gets spared a little bit longer to get back on Earth. (Laughs).

And yeah, so he started doing this work, and he’s actually considered one of the experts in the field of refrigerators. You google Michael Dunham - he’s got some great credentials.

GELLERMAN: There’s a definite retro feel to your documentary. I guess that was deliberate - kind of the video, and the music composition, and the way you inserted the graphics.

VAN ZYL: I don’t know about retro feel. I think…we definitely filmed it on a standard definition camera. And the main reason for that is actually it wasn’t a planned look as much as when we started making the film, we had absolutely no, no budget - it came out of pocket and we just self-financed it.

GELLERMAN: What was the total budget, can you tell me?

VAN ZYL: Um, we got a lot of in-kind and reduced rates, so if you have to use real market prices, it’s over a million dollars. But we didn’t have to raise all that money - about half of that.

GELLERMAN: And what kind of reception have you had?

Carbon Nation logo

VAN ZYL: We have had wonderful reception. We find that the people who do get to see the film love it. The last time I checked on the website Rotten Tomatoes, our audience rating was over 90 percent, so that’s a good feel. With regards to reviewers, it’s been mixed. More so positive than not. We either…from the more conservative side, we sort of get lambasted that we are living in a Pollyanna world, we’ve heard that. And then, the more liberal press feels that we haven’t really gone after the bad guys, and they wanted to have a blame-and-shame film, and that’s just simply not the film we set out to make. We tried to make a film that’s non-partisan - that would bring people together rather than just helping to create the divide.

GELLERMAN: Well, Chrisna Van Zyl, thank you so very much.

VAN ZYL: Thank you very much, Bruce - it’s been a pleasure.

GELELRMAN: Chrisna Van Zyl is the producer of “Carbon Nation.” The film will be screened on college campuses across the nation on April 12th and is also showing in selected theatres and environmental film festivals, including in Miami, Florida, and the world’s largest - Boston’s “Wild and Scenic Film Festival.” “Carbon Nation” will also be out on DVD in May.

Related links:
- Carbon Nation website
- Wild and Scenic Film Festival, March 25-26 in Boston, MA

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[MUSIC: The Wooden Stars “Wyatt And Pam In The Botanical garden” from Mardi Gras (Zunior Records 2006).]

Understanding the Sounds of Ecosystems

Bryan Pijanowski (center) collects data from a forest. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

CURWOOD: Okay class, listen carefully. There's a gold star in it for anyone who can identify this sound.


CURWOOD: The answer: that’s the sounds of an ant colony. The squeaking is called stridulation. It's the sound ants make when they greet each other. And it's just one of the tens of thousands of recordings in a unique archive at Purdue University.

GELLERMAN: Bryan Pijanowski oversees the collection. It's part of a new discipline he calls "soundscape ecology." Professor Pijanowski wrote about it in the current issue of the journal Bioscience.

PIJANOWSKI: Well it’s the study of all the sounds in a landscape - everything that is biological, geophysical, and from those from the humans. We’re trying to understand how sounds in the environment can be used to assess ecosystem health. What we’re doing is we’re actually sticking a microphone out in the middle of the woods and recording it continuously. Every day, every week, for a long period of time - matter of fact, we’ve been doing it now for about four years.

GELLERMAN: And you listen to all the sound?

PIJANOWSKI: Well, no. Our computers do. And some of my students. Yeah, I mean we run them through supercomputers and analyze the patterns in data and try to look at different kinds of what we call orchestrations.

We’re very interested in the dawn chorus and the dusk chorus and how these change over time and how they’re modified when we kind of look at different ecosystems that are potentially impacted by humans. I mean we’re all kind of familiar with it: when we wake up in the morning, we hear birds singing, or frogs, or crickets - and so it’s very characteristic of every natural ecosystem in the world.


PIJANOWSKI: This was in the middle of the Sequoia national forest.

GELLERMAN: And what’s that sound, do you know?

PIJANOWSKI: Well we’ve got some birds; I think we have a few insects in the background.

GELLERMAN: Now let’s hear the same time of day, on the other side of the planet.


GELLERMAN: So this is a dawn chorus in Africa.

PIJANOWSKI: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: Where are we?

PIJANOWSKI: Zimbabwe! And here we’re listening to birds, insects, and an occasional monkey in the background.

GELLERMAN: Now, as a soundscape ecologist, what do these two pieces of sound say to you? What can we learn from them?

PIJANOWSKI: I think these are both very healthy ecosystems. They are very complex - there are a lot of different sounds occurring in this landscape.

GELLERMAN: So sound becomes an indicator of the health of an environment.

PIJANOWSKI: You can even go further than that. You can say that if a particular sound is missing from a landscape, it might be a signal that something is happening to it - that it might be threatened, that something is missing. In some cases, you can consider these as kind of like a fossil of some sort - it’s like an acoustic fossil.

My colleague Bernie Krause, who’s a co-author on the paper, has been recording all around the world. And in many cases, those ecosystems no longer exist - they have been developed, they’ve been converted to farmlands, and so that’s the only record that we have of those landscapes.

GELLERMAN: I’m reminded of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”…

PIJANOWSKI: Absolutely!

GELLERMAN: …and the way she knew that it wasn’t healthy - that something was happening - was that the birds were silent.

Elephants in a clearing. (Photo: Jefe Le Gran)

PIJANOWSKI: Yeah, I mean that’s another point we’re making in the article in Bioscience: that we could be threatening our natural soundscapes to a point where we could be silencing them. I mean I think Rachel Carson’s call to action is really what we’re trying to reflect upon again.

GELLERMAN: Well let’s hear a sample from one of the sounds that you recorded, we have it here…


PIJANOWSKI: That’s from the Congo. Those are forest elephants - this is about three o’clock in the morning. These particular recordings reflect a very unique kind of soundscape. There are very few places in the world where an elephant would go to this kind of wetland - it’s called a bai: it has a high salt concentration; these elephants need it for their diet.

The landscape around it is very unique. It’s a one-of-a-kind, and it’s one that we need to identify, protect, and preserve, because once it’s gone, there’s nothing to replace it. It’s irreplaceable.

GELLERMAN: So I want to play you something that’s kind of a haunting sound - listen to this, this sounds like something out of a Dracula movie.


Gray wolves. (Photo: Fish and Wildlife Service)

PIJANOWSKI: So what we have here are wolves. We’re in the middle of the Algonquin National Park in Canada. And this is a marvelous recording that I think illustrates that acoustics give us a sense of place. We…as we listen to this, we probably have a visual image of this landscape, of this forest, and we can almost put ourselves there.

GELLERMAN: What’s interesting is that you can hear the birds chirping away in the midst of all this haunting wolf howls.

PIJANOWSKI: And they continue. They don’t stop. So as you kind of listen to many of these recordings - and they’re all online - the same kinds of patterns exist. I mean we have lots of amphibians and frogs chorusing the background, and birds that are vocalizing and singing - again, those are very characteristic of natural landscapes.

GELLERMAN: So are you going to be accepting submissions of sounds from lay-people?

PIJANOWSKI: Yes we are! Anyone who wants to submit their recordings can do so. We plan to have a website this summer where people can actually do that and would automatically be placed into an archive.

GELLERMAN: Well I have a submission for you, Professor, I want you to hear this one.

PIJANOWSKI: Oh excellent!


Bryan Pijanowski (center) collects data from a forest. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)

GELLEMAN: And this is one of my favorite places on the planet. We’re on the River of the Dead, right at the edge of the Amazon forest.

PIJANOWSKI: Wow. I love it! I could listen to it for a long time.


GELLERMAN: Well, Professor, thank you so very much, I really enjoyed it.

PIJANOWSKI: This has been great, thanks.

GELLERMAN: Bryan Pijanowski is a professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue University. For a link to his article in the journal Bioscience and to hear more recordings from the soundscape ecology archive, visit our website loe.org.

Related link:
Visit Soundscape Ecology's website.

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[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “Hard Sole Shoe” from Crossing The Field (Koch Records 2008).]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mitra Taj, and Jeff Young, with help from Sarah Calkins, and Sammy Sousa.

GELLERMAN: Our interns are Sean Faulk and Wynn Tucker. Jeff Turton is our Technical Director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org - and while you’re online, check out sister program, Planet Harmony.

CURWOOD: Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at myplanetharmony.com. And don’t forget to check out the LOE Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I’m Bruce Gellerman - thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living On Earth comes from the National Science
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