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

March 25, 2011

Air Date: March 25, 2011



Dueling Senate Bills to Block EPA CO2 Regs / Mitra Taj

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Senate Republicans want to kill the EPA's authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, but a Democrat's proposal to put it on hold might have a better chance of passing. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller's plan to delay climate change regulations for two years, and how the White House might respond. (05:45)

True Cost Accounting for Nuclear Power

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Though many say that nuclear power is necessary to help limit global warming, Amory Lovins, Co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, says that nuclear power is more expensive than alternative energy resources. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Lovins about the true costs of nuclear power. (06:10)

An End to Nuclear Power in Vermont? / Jeff Young

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Japan’s nuclear crisis has renewed concerns about the aging fleet of reactors here in the U.S. A showdown is brewing in Vermont, where a 39-year old nuclear plant received federal approval to run for 20 more years, but state lawmakers voted to shut it down. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports Vermont could become a model for other states that want a voice on the fate of aging nuclear reactors. (08:00)

Experts Warned of Reactor Flaws Decades Ago

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Dale Bridenbaugh was known as one of the “GE Three,” a group of top engineers at General Electric that pointed out safety flaws in the Mark I reactor- the same model being used at the Fukushima site. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that more could have been done to prevent the crisis in Japan. (02:25)

Rare Penguins Endangered By Oil Spill On Remote Island

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A freighter ran aground in the middle of the South Atlantic and is leaking oil on a remote place where many rare birds live. Marine biologist David Guggenheim was aboard a luxury eco-tourist ship when they got the mayday call from the sinking ship. Guggenheim tells host Bruce Gellerman about the harrowing rescue at sea and how even a small amount of oil spilled in a remote part of the world can have a devastating impact on wildlife. (08:05)

Adventures Above the Arctic Circle

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In her new book, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle, Sara Wheeler visits every country with land north of 66 degrees latitude. Wheeler tells Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood of her adventures and how bureaucracy and new technology are changing indigenous people's lives. (08:00)

Monsters, Manipulation, and the Message from Nuclear Films

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Since the 1950s, films and videos have been produced to inform the public about nuclear energy. John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communication at Boston University. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the latest video from Japan, Nuclear Boy, is another example of promoting the benefits of nuclear energy and downplaying the negatives. (08:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman,
GUESTS: Amory Lovins, Bob Bady, Arnie Gundersen, Larry Smith, Mark Speno, Peter Shumlin, Dale Bridenbaugh, David Guggenheim, Robin West, Sara Wheeler, John Carroll
REPORTERS: Mitra Taj, Jeff Young, Steve Curwood


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. How to control climate-changing emissions:

BLEDSOE: Everyone agrees-- Democrats, Republicans, the EPA, that a legislative solution would be superior to a regulatory one. But Congress has been unable to act.

GELLERMAN: Coming up: Congress considers blocking the EPA’s ability to limit green house gases. Also: the bottom line on nuclear power.

LOVINS: If you take economics seriously, then nuclear falls at the first hurdle - and you don't need to argue about safety or vulnerability to terrorism or proliferation.

GELLERMAN: And how safe are our aging reactors:

BADY: Now that this has happened in Japan—it’s the exact same Mark 1 reactor, it’s the exact same spent fuel pool sitting 7 stories above ground.

GELLERMAN: Those stories and more this week on Living on Earth – Stick around!


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

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Dueling Senate Bills to Block EPA CO2 Regs

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia says putting EPA's climate plans on hold will give Congress more opportunity to legislate a solution to climate change. ( NASA/Paul E. Alers)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. President Obama has pledged to cut climate changing gas emissions. The Supreme Court says the EPA has the authority to do just that, but Congress has other ideas. And there are competing proposals on Capitol Hill that could stop the EPA in its tracks. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from Washington.

TAJ: When it comes to fighting global warming, EPA’s worst enemy might not be the Republicans who are trying to kill its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but a West Virginia Democrat who has been telling coal country to ‘get real’ on climate change.

ROCKEFELLER: I have been saying to the West Virginia Coal Association, which for the most part doesn't believe in the climate science, that that's wrong, the science is unequivocally true, and that there is a price to carbon in their future.

TAJ: In their future - but not right now. Senator Jay Rockefeller wants to stop the EPA from regulating global warming emissions for two years. He opposes a similar, Republican proposal to permanently cancel the EPA’s climate change authority under the Clean Air Act - and stands a better chance of finding support for his bill in the Democratic-majority Senate. Rockefeller has been telling his colleagues that a two-year delay will give Congress time to legislate a solution to climate change.

ROCKEFELLER: That's what my amendment, the two-year amendment, and then only two years - that’s what it’s meant to give us the time to do, and sensibly that's what we ought to be doing, if people cared about an energy policy.

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia says putting EPA's climate plans on hold will give Congress more opportunity to legislate a solution to climate change. (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

PICAH: Those are strong words but they're not backed up by his actions.

TAJ: Eric Picah is president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. He says Rockefeller's amendment isn't any more constructive than the Republican plan to halt EPA’s power.

PICAH: Our government has a right to protect our citizens from abusive corporations, and essentially what all these bills do is they grant corporate polluters the right to abuse our kids’ lungs, to pollute our air, and to degrade our environment.

TAJ: But Republicans do see a big difference between delaying the EPA's climate authority and taking it away forever. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma is selling the permanent ban he’s co-sponsoring in the Senate, and downplaying the impact of Rockefeller’s bill.

INHOFE: The reason that would not work, this just kicks the can down the road for two more years. We've got to address this thing. Right now we have an administration that's doing all they can to do away with fossil fuels.

TAJ: Inhofe, a global warming denier, has partnered up with Republican Fred Upton on the House side, where a Republican majority makes passage of their legislation likely. But in the Senate, their effort competes with Rockefeller’s proposal, and could take Republican support away from the two-year delay.

Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, says even if Rockefeller’s two-year delay passes, Congress probably won’t tackle climate change in the next two years. Even Rockefeller’s more limited approach to climate change—funding research to clean up coal—would be a stretch.

BLEDSOE: Any bill that sought to invest in technologies to reduce coal emissions is going to be expensive, and in the current budgetary environment that money just isn't available. The irony here is that climate legislation from the last Congress raised the revenue to pay for new technologies.

TAJ: Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has agreed to allow both proposals to be voted on as amendments to a small business jobs bill. White House officials in the past have said the President Obama would veto efforts to check the EPA’s power, but they’ve stayed quiet on what he would do if it comes with jobs legislation. Bledsoe used to work on climate change in the Clinton White House.

BLEDSOE: Vetoes, on some issues you are certain on what you're going to do, no matter what, on other issues context matters a lot—what’s the underlying statute, is it a must-pass defense appropriations bill, then it that becomes more difficult to veto. So it strikes me this I think is one where context matters.

TAJ: Job creation is a top priority for voters, and much of the debate over the EPA's global warming regulations has been framed as economic, with Republicans blaming EPA climate oversight for high gas prices and continued unemployment. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has been pushing back against those attacks, citing agency data that says for every $1 spent on environmental regulation, there's a $40 benefit for the country.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson says climate regulations will encourage clean tech innovations. (EPA)

At an event last year celebrating the anniversary of the Clean Air Act, she said the 40-year-old law has always drawn doomsayers, and with climate change it’s no different.

JACKSON: Of course there have been claims about job-killing regulations. Despite the fact that it creates a virtuous cycle, in which clean air standards spark new technology, serving our fundamental belief that we can create jobs and opportunity without burdening our citizens with the effects of pollution.

TAJ: But while the whole country, and whole planet, might benefit from lower emissions, regions with industries heavily dependent on fossil fuels will face a more difficult transition, as the EPA gets tough on global warming polluters. And votes on whether and how much to weaken the EPA's climate authority will likely fall not just on ideological lines, but regional ones. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

Related links:
- Click here for more on the continuing "debate" over climate science in the House.
- Congressman Henry Waxman has attacked Republican plans to curb EPA's authority.

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[MUSIC: Pinetop Perkins “baby, What You Want Me To Do” from Born In The Delta (Telarc Records 1997).]

True Cost Accounting for Nuclear Power

Amory Lovins in his Snowmass, Colorado office. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

GELLERMAN: There are "dangerously high" radiation levels in water leaking from Reactor number 3 at Japan's Fukushima plant. At our deadline, operators still struggling to gain control of the facility, fear the core might be breached. Prime minister Kan calls the situation "grave and unpredictable" and officials are urging those within 19 miles of the nuclear plant to leave voluntarily, and avoid eating many kinds of green vegetables.

To say the least, the nuclear disaster in Japan has refocused attention on the future of the atom as a source of energy. But the threat of global climate change has led even some die hard environmentalists to reconsider and embrace nuclear power. But not Amory Lovins.
He’s chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado.
Amory Lovins, welcome to Living on Earth!

LOVINS: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: So is it possible that we can meet our carbon reduction targets without nuclear power?

LOVINS: Of course! Not only that, but we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. It is quite true that if a nuclear plant displaces a coal plant that would replace carbon emissions.

But if you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power, you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to ten times more and about 20 to 40 times faster. So nuclear is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a best buys first approach.

GELLERMAN: When you say it’s slow, isn’t it people like you that are holding up the process with lawsuits, holding up the process of licensing nuclear power plants?

LOVINS: Not in the least! I know the industry likes to blame environmental groups - of which, by the way, we are not one - for holding up licensing for several decades. New nuclear power plants in this country are offered subsidies that now rival or exceed their total construction costs.

And yet, even though that’s been true since 2005, three years before the financial crash, they’ve been unable to raise a penny of private capital, simply because the cost and risks are unfinanceable. Wall Street will not invest in them - it’s an utterly unfinanceable technology, and it’s obvious why - it’s grossly uncompetitive.

GELLERMAN: But can renewables, like wind for example, produce enough energy, enough density to replace nuclear power plants, which are huge and hugely powerful. And, plus, the wind doesn’t blow on calm days.

LOVINS: Yeah, well, that’s two separate points. The first one - I’m afraid the industry got it backwards. Actually, if you properly do the math - and count if you count the whole nuclear fuel cycle, not just the power plant, not just the core of the reactor, but the occlusion zone, the uranium mining and so on, it turns out that wind power uses hundreds or thousands of times less land per kilowatt hour, then nuclear does.

Even solar photovoltaics are equal to or might be better than nuclear in that respect. As for the wind not blowing and the sun not shining all the time, that’s true. Every kind of power plant can fail. They differ, however, how much fails at once, how often, how long and for what reasons and how predictably. You can predict pretty well when wind or solar will not work, but you cannot predict when a nuclear plant will fail.

Amory Lovins in his Snowmass, Colorado office. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

They break without warning about three to five percent of the time - big coal nuclear plants are down about ten or twelve percent of the time - and for that reason, we’ve designed grids for over a century to cope with that intermittence that every power plant suffers from. So you don’t depend on any single plant, you depend on the whole grid.

So it turns out, if you diversify renewables by type so they’re not all affected by weather the same way, you diversify them by location, so they don’t all see the same weather at the same time, and you integrate them with the resources on the grid, both power plants and ways to save or shift electric use, then you can have a largely, or wholly renewable electric supply system at very reasonable cost, with greater reliability and resilience than we have right now.

GELLERMAN: I find it a little bit ironic, you know - I see in these pictures from Japan - and if they had put a little bit - if they had put a wind turbine on top of the nuclear complex there, the plant might have had power and would still be running.

LOVINS: Actually, the wind machines in the vicinity were not affected by the earthquake and tsunami, and the utilities have been calling for them to crank out every bit of juice they can to help keep the grid up. Look, here’s a quick summary of what’s going on with nuclear in the world. At the end of 2010, there were 66 nuclear units, officially listed as “under construction” worldwide.

You look a little closer, you’ll find a dozen of them have been listed as “under construction” for over 20 years, 45 of them have no official start up date, half of them are late. All 66 of them are in centrally planned power systems, not a single one of them is a free-market purchase. And since 2007, nuclear growth has added less electricity to our supply each year, then even the costliest renewable - solar power - and it will probably never catch up.

GELLERMAN: But they’re having rolling blackouts in Japan right now because they don’t have the nuclear power plants online.

LOVINS: Of course if you lose a lot of capacity, you can be short. And they were already a bit short. But I would actually view that as a drawback of nuclear power in two respects. First, to make it cheap, they tried to put a bunch of plants in one place, which was always a bad idea, because if something goes wrong with one plant, you can’t even get in to fix the others and keep them from developing serious problems.

Second, nuclear plants are shut down abruptly, when there’s a loss of grid connection, like in the tsunami. And the trouble with that is, it is then very hard to restart the plant. So in 2003, we had a big black out in the northeastern US, nine plants were running perfectly until the blackout and then they went to zero, and it took two weeks to get them all back up. And so they’re like an anti-peaker, they’re guaranteed unavailable when you most need them. Renewables don’t have that problem.

GELLERMAN: Amory Lovins is the chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. Well, Mr. Lovins, thank you so very much.

LOVINS: You’re welcome.

Related link:
Rocky Mountain Institute’s website

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[MUSIC: Nicole Mitchell “Thanking The Universe” from Black Unstoppable (Delmark records 2007).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead - an old nuclear power plant gets a new lease on life….maybe. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUT-AWAY MUSIC: Al DiMeola: “The Way Before” from Pursuit Of radical Rhapsody (Telarc Records 2011).]

An End to Nuclear Power in Vermont?

A recent demonstration against Vermont Yankee drew about 400 people. Organizers say the nuclear crisis in Japan has energized the movement to shut down aging reactors in the U.S. (Photo: Jeff Young)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Imagine driving around in a car made in 1980. Well, the average nuclear power plant in the United States is 31 years old. At age 40, a nuclear plant must be re-licensed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

And so far, the NRC has never refused a re-licensing application. And just recently it approved a 20-year extension for Vermont Yankee. In most states that would be a done deal, but in Vermont the legislature and governor think they have the power to shut the aging reactor down. And other states with old nuclear plants are watching. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from the Green Mountain State.


YOUNG: There was a lot of gray hair on the heads bobbing to the music at the latest meeting of anti-nuclear activists in Brattleboro, Vermont. The activists have aged along with their target - Entergy Corporation’s Vermont Yankee nuclear station, just seven miles away, turns 39 this year. Many in this crowd have been working decades to shut it down. On this snowy March night they started a countdown: one year until the power company’s license to operate expires.

WILLIAMS: Close this aging reactor!


A recent demonstration against Vermont Yankee drew about 400 people. Organizers say the nuclear crisis in Japan has energized the movement to shut down aging reactors in the U.S. (Photo: Jeff Young)

YOUNG: The anti nuclear movement here is newly energized by two events—one in the State Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to deny Vermont Yankee the permission it needs under state law to continue operation.

The unfolding crisis at the Fukushima power plant is also on people’s minds. Bob Bady, of the group Safe and Green, says no one expects a tsunami here on the banks of the Connecticut River. But they do worry that a flood, terror attack or simple human error might expose weaknesses that the Japanese and Vermont reactors share.

BADY: Now that this has happened to Japan, and it’s the exact same Mark 1 reactor, it’s the exact same spent fuel pool sitting 7 stories above ground. The parallels are just so striking and they’re unavoidable.

YOUNG: The person who’s done the most to make Vermont Yankee’s problems public was once an executive in a nuclear energy company. Arnie Gundersen was fired in the 1990s for raising safety concerns. He’s been a nuclear watchdog since, and Vermont’s government hired him to take a close look at Vermont Yankee.

Gundersen says the spent fuel pool is of particular concern. As in the Japanese reactors, Vermont Yankee’s 40 ft long, 40 ft deep pool holds the fuel assemblies that come out of the reactor. The difference is, Vermont’s waste has been piling up longer.

GUNDERSEN: There’s probably about 30 years worth of nuclear fuel still up there on the roof of the building. So Vermont has about three times more nuclear fuel on its top floor than Fukushima did.

Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sits along the Connecticut River where Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts come together. (Vermont Yankee)

YOUNG: Gundersen says incidents at the plant lead him to think it’s beginning to show its age.
GUNDERSEN: Over last six years or so, Vermont Yankee had a major fire, and then, two years later, they had the cooling tower collapse. And then, two years after that, they had the tritium leak. So we had three really significant mechanical problems.

YOUNG: Gundersen says the tritium leak also undermined public confidence in the plant’s management. He was on a state appointed review panel that had asked if there were pipes under the plant that carry any radioactive products.

GUNDERSEN: We were told there were no underground pipes. I discovered after the fact, that - oh my god, there really are underground pipes - and of course, Entergy continued to deny that. Well 3 months after that, an underground pipe broke and leaked strontium, caesium, tritium and manganese and cobalt 60 into the ground in the plant.

YOUNG:Vermont Yankee is on a tree-lined plot between highway 142 and the river in the town of Vernon. New Hampshire is just across the River, the Massachusetts' line is a few miles to the south.

Company spokesperson Larry Smith says an event akin to the Japanese crisis could not happen here. He points out the plant’s backup power and cooling systems and safety design. It’s built to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and stands higher than the crest of highest recorded flood.

SMITH: So there’s defense and depth and redundant systems. You can never say never - but we have the capabilities, we feel, to certainly shut the plant down safely and to always protect public health and safety.

YOUNG: Tell me about safety incidents you’ve had at Vermont Yankee - what’s gone wrong here?

SMITH: We’ve had no safety incidents at Vermont Yankee.

YOUNG: Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but there was a collapse of a cooling tower, correct?

SMITH: That’s right and that’s industrial safety, and that happened in 2007. Put it into perspective. You’re talking about a 20- ft section of a 460-foot tower, that’s what collapsed.

YOUNG: There was a transformer fire?

SMITH: In 2004. The transformer was not on fire, it was the bus duct on top of it, but that can happen at any power plant.

YOUNG: Also the manner in which information has come to light has led some people to express to me a lack of confidence that they’re getting open communication. For example, how did the tritium leak, how did that come to light?

A portion of Vermont Yankee’s wooden cooling tower collapsed in 2007, raising concerns that the 39-year old plant was beginning to show its age. (New England Coalition)

SMITH: It came to light because industry, in 2007, undertook a voluntary groundwater protection program and put in monitoring wells. We identified tritium and the same day we told NRC and we told the state of Vermont. So I don’t know what you mean about not being transparent or not being straightforward.

YOUNG: There was a denial that the pipe system existed and only after persistence by a watchdog did your company admit, oh yes there’ a pipe system and oh, by the way, it’s leaking.

SMITH: Well, I can tell you we did a lousy job providing testimony to the Vermont Public Service Board on the extent of our pipes, but we have a lot of support in the state of Vermont. We certainly have a lot of support from this community, the host community, for the continued operation of Vermont Yankee and this station.

YOUNG: A walk around the neighborhood shows Smith is right about that. Some residents in Vernon have yard signs showing support. There’s no sense of alarm, even just across the street from the plant at Vernon Elementary. Mark Speno is the school’s principal.

SPENO: We’re a small town, we have a school, we have a nuclear power plant. No, it’s not that odd. It’s part of the community. I’m certainly comfortable or I wouldn’t be here.

YOUNG: Supporters say the plant’s 650 megawatts supply one third of the state’s power, and, they add, it’s carbon-free power. Vermont seems split on its lone nuclear power plant. For example, voters last year elected a lieutenant governor who voted to keep Vermont Yankee going and a governor who wants to shut it down. Democrat Peter Shumlin is governor.

SHUMLIN: I just feel strongly when you have an aging, tired nuclear power plant run by a company you can’t trust, you got to stop and breathe for a moment and say, hey, how much sense does this make?

YOUNG: Governor Shumlin is confident that the state’s position will withstand a legal challenge from Entergy. And he offered a challenge of his own to other states that have aging nuclear reactors.

SHUMLIN: It’s clear that the federal policy is: Run ‘em as long as you possibly can, and hope, keep your fingers crossed, that Japan doesn’t happen in America. I personally think that that is a gamble that’s likely to fail. And I would encourage other states to take matters into their own hands and control of their own destiny.

YOUNG: There are indications other states might do just that. Entergy-owned reactors in Massachusetts and New York will need license renewals within the next two years. Lawmakers and the two states’ attorneys general have asked the NRC to take a closer look at how those plants operate and store spent fuel. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Vernon, Vermont.

Related links:
- Arnie Gundersen’s reports on Vermont Yankee
- Vermont Yankee’s website
- NRC on reactor license renewal

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Experts Warned of Reactor Flaws Decades Ago

Second Explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: The reactor at Vermont Yankee is just one of 23 GE Mark 1’s still operating in the US. They’re the same model as five of the six reactors at Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima Dai Ichi plant. Dale Bridenbaugh knows the GE Mark 1 reactor very well. Back in the 1970’s, he and two other senior GE nuclear engineers quit their jobs and became whistleblowers. Bridenbaugh says the GE 3, as they were called, tried to warn company officials that the Mark 1 containment shell had serious design flaws.

BRIDENBAUGH: There was a lot of uncertainty about whether the Mark 1 containment would be able to withstand a major accident that they should have been designed to withstand.

GELLERMAN: Well, when you told your bosses at GE that there was a problem, what did they say?

BRIDENBAUGH: Well, my bosses at GE, said: Yeah, we know there’s a problem, we have to do something about it, and that’s what they’re doing. And, in fact, I was the guy that they assigned to be the project manager directing this reanalysis program. But I was concerned that there should have, perhaps, have been a respite while we completed the analysis. And my bosses basically said, well we can’t afford to do that - that would be like a massive recall, and it would be very detrimental to the marketing program of GE.

GELLERMAN: When you say respite, you wanted them to close these plants down while you did the analysis?

BRIDENBAUGH: Well, yes. I would have been much more satisfied if they had been closed down to do the analysis, yes.

GELLERMAN: And you and two other GE engineers quit?

BRIDENBAUGH: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: Is there a fundamental flaw that existed back then that’s still something we have to deal with? Is this generic to the design or can they be fixed?

BRIDENBAUGH: Well, it’s really hard to say, and it’s kind of a judgment call. There’s probably not a specific design flaw that exists there, but the configuration of the Mark 1 plant certainly, in my opinion, leaves it a little more vulnerable to significant events such as the earthquake or tsunami that happened at Fukushima. And, uh, I think that they have a basic design weakness, if you will, to withstand those kinds of events.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Bridenbaugh, thanks a lot.

BRIDENBAUGH: Oh, okay. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Former GE nuclear engineer Dale Bridenbaugh. You can hear more of the interview at our web site loe dot org.

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[MUSIC: Andrew Bird “You Woke Me Up “ from Useless Creatures (Fat Possum Records 2010).]

Rare Penguins Endangered By Oil Spill On Remote Island

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins at Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

GELLERMAN: Earlier this month the Greek freighter, Oliva, carrying a hull full of soy-beans, was heading from Brazil to the Philippines. Suddenly, just before dawn, disaster struck. The cargo ship hit a rock, and began taking on water. The captain issued a mayday.

TAPE: …Water in your engine room. Yes, Yes…

GELLERMAN: Close to the sinking ship was the Prince Albert 2 - a luxury liner carrying eco-tourists. Ship and crew helped save those still aboard the doomed Oliva. On the Prince Albert, as guest ecologist, was David Guggenheim, also known as the Ocean Doctor.

Dr Guggenheim recorded the drama and the ecological disaster that followed. We reached him by sat. phone as the Prince Albert was leaving the island where the freighter ran aground in this inaccessible part of the South Atlantic.

Tristan da Cunha is 2,088 miles from the nearest land in South America and 1,750 miles from South Africa. It is considered the most remote inhabited location on Earth. (Googlemaps)

GUGGENHEIM: In fact Tristan da Cunha is considered the most remote inhabited island in the world, so we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. These islands are unique. They harbor some of the most magnificent birdlife. It’s the second highest concentration of seabirds in the world - and talk about the most remote possible place to run your ship aground… it’s still a great mystery of how this could have possibly happened.

TAPE: We can see this huge hole in the side of the ship just now.

GELLERMAN: As it happened, the crew aboard Prince Albert 2 was trained exactly for this type of rescue. Teams set off with inflatable Zodiacs to inspect the ill-fated freighter.

TAPE: Right above there - it’s a massive hole.

GUGGENHEIM: And our rescue team came back and people were feeling the effects of just being out there for an hour or two with oil around.

GELLERMAN: The Oliva was hemorrhaging oil, onboard - 300,000 gallons of heavy marine fuel - enough for a voyage half way around the world.

TAPE: Massive amounts, that’s a lot of oil - absolutely covered in oil.

GELLERMAN: It was all hands on deck - not a moment to lose.

GUGGENHEIM: Robin West, the head of the expedition team, is right here and he really played the lead role in the rescue and the rest of us watched in awe from the ship, and I’ll put Robin on to talk to you about it.

WEST: Hello?

GELLERMAN: Hi Robin, it’s Bruce in Boston with Living on Earth.

WEST: Yes, hi Bruce, how are you?

GELLERMAN: I’m well, but tell me about this rescue! You wound up saving how many members of the crew of this cargo ship?

WEST: Uh, ten. The ship itself was pretty much very close to the shoreline, a rock had punched a hole through the side of the ship and it was rolling and moving on that rock, and the big fear was that the ship was going to tear into two and break up quite quickly. And so we had a small window of opportunity to get them off the ship. We went ahead and launched three of our Zodiacs to grab guys and bring them into the boat. And we in fact managed to do it.

TAPE: Thank you very much. I understand everybody is in Zodiacs now, right?/ Yes, that’s correct./ Thank you very, very much Captain - you must also thank your team there very, very well done, over./ Thank you, we will do so, of course, thank you.

GELLERMAN: The ship sank, didn’t it?

WEST: Uh, yeah, that’s correct. Eight hours later, at two o’clock in the morning, it tore into two pieces. On the side closest to where the shore side was, a lot of the oil had poured out and was trapped in that area.

Freighter "Oliva" breaking apart on Nightingale Island (Photo: David E. Guggenheim)

TAPE: It’s like heavy fuel oil, black and it smells heavily. Try to avoid it so nobody gets it in their eyes.….

GELLERMAN: What a mess!

WEST: It is a very big mess. There’s obviously a very, very large concern that heavy diesel and that heavy oil will be there for a very, very long time.

GELLERMAN: Well, Robin West, great job! Nice going! Can I speak to Dr. Guggenheim again?

WEST: Yes, I’ll pass him on to you - thank you very much, Bruce.


GELLERMAN: Boy, Dr. Guggenheim, what a high adventure on the high seas!

GUGGENHEIM: Well, it is. It’s just been the expedition of my life. And unfortunately, as great of an event as that was - there wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate because we realized that there was much more oil in the water than we had thought there was the last time we had seen the ship. And when I went ashore, finally at Tristan da Cunha, finally, two days later - we had to wait for the weather to clear - I met with the local head of the Department of Conservation, Trevor Glass, who told me that the oil had since enveloped the island.

GUGGENHEIM (TO GLASS): You said that oil is now all the way around Nightingale island?

GLASS: Yes. All the way around us. The whole way around Nightingale Island - and you can smell it - the seals - the boys say the seals are acting very strange. Some are full of oil when they come up also.

GUGGENHEIM: And you said half of - or your team said half of the penguins - are…

GLASS: Half of the penguins are coming up full of oil - their feathers are totally black.

Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguins at Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

GUGGENHEIM: You know, if you had to pick the worst place to spill the oil - it really demonstrates that you don’t need a supertanker, or even a small oil tanker to create an environmental catastrophe.

GELLERMAN: Some of these birds are very, very rare.

GUGGENHEIM: That’s exactly right. In fact, the Spectacled Petrel is found only on the neighboring Inaccessible Island, and we found out that oil had reach Inaccessible Island, and the Northern Rock Hopper Penguin, half of the population is found right here in the Tristan Island Group.

There’s also another bird that’s only found in this area, there’s only 50 nesting pairs, which is called the Tristan Bunting. Highly endangered. And again, you know, very, very vulnerable to this sort of spill.

GELLERMAN: So what happens now to this remote, ecologically unique area? What can be done? Can anything be done?

GUGGENHEIM: Well, we’re doing what we can. And we just - we can only hope that it’s within enough time - there’s no airstrip so logistics are terrible. They’re very inadequately provisioned for an operation of this magnitude. With time being of the essence, we’re very concerned that help is too far away to reach them in time.

GELLERMAN: I’ve seen some of the photos of the penguins covered in petroleum, it’s really heartbreaking, I’ve gotta tell you.

GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, it’s horrible. And, you know, the problem is also that it’s not enough to clean them internally, because they are ingesting this stuff internally. And once they get coated, they start to preen - and they can get very sick- it’s highly toxic.

View of the oil from the top of Nightingale Island (Photo: Trevor Glass, Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department)

GELLERMAN: The passengers aboard the Silver Seas Prince Albert the Second, what are they thinking?

GUGGENHEIM: I think it opened peoples’ eyes to what can happen, and just how vulnerable some of these natural areas really are. It’s also brought out the best in everybody. People are asking: How can we help? We’ve even had a suggestion, let’s just take the penguins aboard the Prince Albert II and bring them back to rehabilitate them. I mean, I for one would be honored to have penguins living in my bathtub, but that’s just not practical. The ship isn’t set up for that sort of specialized care, we don’t have the right equipment, we don’t have the right materials, but the spirit was there. And it’s very, very admirable. It’s something they’ll never forget.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. David Guggenheim, thank you so very much. I really appreciate it. And, good luck.

GUGGENHEIM: Thank you so much, and thanks for paying attention to this tiny little speck of the planet - because it’s an important one.

GELLERMAN: David Guggenheim, a.k.a, the Ocean Doctor, speaking to us by sat. phone from the Prince Albert II. The luxury eco-ship helped save sailors and witnessed an environmental disaster in the South Atlantic. For incredible photos go to our website, L-O-E dot org.

Related link:
Read updates on the spill at Tristan da Cunha

Back to top

[MUSIC: Booker T And The MG’s “Comin Home Baby” from Green Onions (Stax Records 1962).]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – paying a visit to people who live on the top of the world - 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.

[CUT-AWAY MUSIC: Dean Fraser: “Astro Mental Sax” from Retrospect (VP Records 1999).]

Adventures Above the Arctic Circle


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. There’s one place on earth where all roads lead south - not that there are many roads within the Arctic Circle. Yet author Sara Wheeler took a trip there and chronicles her journey in her new book, "The Magnetic North, Notes from the Arctic Circle".

Wheeler traveled in every country with territory at the top of the world, and talked with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood about her adventures.

CURWOOD: I think one of the most moving parts of your book is about the indigenous people who live there. You wrote, Every nation devastates native cultures, even if it doesn’t actually kill everyone off. The Russians did it with bureaucracy, Americans with money, Canadians with kindness, Swedes and Fins did it with chainsaws that chop down forests, and everybody did it with booze and syphilis.

WHEELER: Yeah, it’s a grim picture.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you’d start this discussion at the beginning of your trip and talk about what you found in Russia.

Sara Wheeler’s new book, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Amit Lennon)

WHEELER: There’s 27 different indigenous groups in polar Russia alone - most of them are traditionally reindeer hunters, some are marine mammal hunters. Once the Soviet-ization began, there’s no place for nomads. So the Soviets just sent people up there to bring those people, those natives into submission. Which meant bringing them into the cash economy and making them sedentary.
Well, it’s all very well bringing people into a cash economy, but how are they going to earn their cash? So there’s this thing that’s played itself out with no jobs, no employment, nothing to do, no meaning, and you can see a big vacuum is created, and into that has moved alcohol and drugs.

CURWOOD: But you see a lot of that today, I bet in every one of the polar countries you went to you, you saw it - and even in a place as enlightened and socially conscious as, say, Denmark and Greenland.

WHEELER: Yes, and let’s take the case of Canada - the whole dietary issue. Canadians have tied themselves into knots, first of all, in the bad old days, telling people, Stop eating all of that rubbish, you’ve got to eat nice things like us - burgers and chips and pizzas and all the rest of it, and get all of our health problems.
And then, in more enlightened times, health officials went back up and said, No, we’ve got it all wrong, it’s good to eat whale and walrus if you’re an indigenous person. Then the zeitgeist changed again, everyone said, We need to save the whales, so the health officials went back up and said, You know we said it wasn’t okay and then it was, well now it’s not again. And so it goes.

CURWOOD: And, don’t forget the bit about the PCB’s.

WHEELER: The PCB’s is possibly the most horrific of all the horrific arctic toxin stories. PCB’s were banned a long time ago in all the developed countries - they’re really, really ghastly things that used to be in flame-retardants and so on - we’re talking about in the 70s they were banned. And they got into the marine food chain, and throughout the processes of bioaccumulation, and biomagnification, as they move up through the food chain, they get bigger and more powerful, and more ghastly.

Sara Wheeler looks out on the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Amit Lennon)

And so scientists are finding, and there’s proper data on this, they’re finding in polar bear cubs, an incredibly high level of PCB contamination at birth. And, of course, the polar people who still eat the country food, as they call it, become the most contaminated of all. And the Canadians have had to really try and help their indigenous people learn not to breast-feed. It’s an example of the arctic paradox - by which the people who live furthest away from contaminants are the ones most affected by them.

CURWOOD: It’s a little bit heavy now, this discussion, Sara Wheeler. Let’s talk about how indigenous people have changed their habits in northern parts of Scandinavia - you write about ancient reindeer herding, and this present day reindeer herding.

WHEELER: Yeah, I had a fantastic time reindeer herding with the Sami, the Laps in Northern Sweden, a long way north of the arctic circle - wonderful people. And what they do is, they bring the reindeer down from the mountain pastures at the end of summer and take them back up at the end of winter, and so twice a year, and it all happens in one day, you have these enormous rivers of reindeer pounding their hooves, pounding on the ice and being driven by these Laps, and of course they’re tremendously skilled at it.

Reindeer supply food, milk and clothing for the Sami people.(Photo: Amit Lennon)

They do use snowmobiles - it’s a marvelous combination of traditional and technological - and they castrate some of the reindeer, and they no longer do it with their teeth, they now do it with…that was the traditional way…

CURWOOD: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second. How did they used to castrate…

WHEELER: The traditional way, of course, was the teeth because one didn’t have metal tools and so on, and the male Sami herder, would castrate his reindeer, those would be the ones they were keeping as beasts of burden, so all those are castrated then as now. Anyway so, I was there, and I had just had a baby. I had my baby with me doing all the things that I’d watched the Lap women do with their babies - I became a world-expert at nursing at minus 30…

CURWOOD: How do you do that? Do you have any advice for anyone who might try it?

WHELLER: I do, yeah, if you’re thinking of doing that - you stuff tinfoil down your shirt because it reflects the heat back- handy tip of the day.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering if you could read from that part of the book:

Land north of 66 degrees latitude (inside the black ring) is considered the Arctic Circle. (Anthropolis Arctic Maps)

WHEELER: Certainly, yeah. This is the part where my baby, Reggie, and I, went to have supper in a traditional Sami lávvu which is a sort of wigwam made of skins.

"When Reggie and I arrived for the evening, a pair of draft reindeer were scooping snow outside with their front hooves, burying their noses into the mushy ground beneath, and whistling softly as they exhaled.

Inside, we lounged on pelts, as Pittja" - that was my host - "Pittja's herding assistant Anders rolled out flatbread and the fire hissed to life, catching first on resin in the birch bark, then crackling over pine and juniper. Pittja had cooked up a máles the Sami meal prepared at slaughter time, and it bubbled with ominously pungent eructations in a cauldron lashed to a lateral rod between tent poles.

A máles consists of almost every part of a reindeer, boiled in the same pot. Liver, tongue, bone, and steak with its hump of canary yellow fat. Even the hooves are boiled, Pittja announced, handing their green birch skewer with which to poach marrow from bone. We ate the dish with lingonberry relish, black pudding and a paté made with blood and oatmeal. Breastfeeding makes one hungry enough for anything, except, perhaps boiled hoof.

Though, fortunately, one was one called upon to put that to the test. I could see the flickering ion stream of the northern lights through the roof opening. Anders offered a chunk of cooked reindeer fat on a plate, For the baby, he said. He’s not weaned yet, I said, I know, he said, that’s what we wean them with".

The Sami people both herd and ride reindeer. (Photo: Amit Lennon)

CURWOOD: (Laughs.)

WHEELER: I had a great time with those guys - they were so friendly and so, sort of, dignified in the way that they were integrating. I saw a lot of transitioning, you can’t look at polar peoples and go back to some sort of idyllic age of a bloke sitting over a hole in the ice with his fishing rod - you know, we’re never going to go back there. It’s all a process of transition. I mean, in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, I saw pinned on a washing line, some seal ribs curing to dry next to a little toddler’s batman suit. And that image to me exemplified the transition of the polar regions.

CURWOOD: Sara Wheeler’s book is called: “The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle.” Thanks for taking us on your travels, Sara

WHEELER: Thanks for having me

GELLERMAN: Author Sara Wheeler spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

Back to top

[MUSIC: Darcy James Argue “Redeye” from Infernal Machines (new Amsterdam Records 2009).]

Monsters, Manipulation, and the Message from Nuclear Films

A sick boy is a metaphor for the disabled nuclear plant in Japan. The video is supposed to explain the incident to Japanese children. (Photo: Kazuhiko Hachiya)

GELLERMAN: The cult classic, Godzilla, was made at the dawn of the atomic age.

TAPE: "Tokyo. Once a city of 6 million people …. What has happened here was caused by a force, which up until two days ago was entirely beyond the scope of man’s imagination"….

GELLERMAN: Godzilla was born of an atomic blast. It’s a cautionary story from the nation where nuclear weapons were first used.

SFX: "Steve how about that monster story of yours….Well, it’s big and terrible. [MONSTER ROARING]

GELLERMAN: Now fast forward to Japan in March 2011. Another nuclear character makes the scene. He’s Nuclear Boy, born of the crisis at the Fukushima power plant.

Nuclear Boy- 2011


GELLERMAN: Nuclear Boy stars in an animated video that’s gone viral. He’s a little boy with a stomachache, he represents a sick nuclear power plant.


GELLERMAN: When nuclear boy passes gas, he’s emitting radiation. And doctors worry that he might poop, which would be a melt down. The video has English subtitles - which is good because I don’t speak Japanese. Nor does my guest John Carroll. John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communication at Boston University. We asked him to help analyze some films from the golden era of atomic energy - and "Nuclear Boy".

CARROLL: When I first saw this I thought this is really a concept with a capital K. But when you put it in context of Japanese society, it actually makes a little bit more sense. And when you put it in the context of playing it for kids, um, then it does a pretty good job of describing what’s actually going on there.

I mean, the language that they use actually, well, on the surface, it actually downplays the danger and talks about ruining your day, smelling up your neighborhood. And the whole bowel movement thing is something I think is pretty foreign to the American public. But I think it’s something that kids can identify with, that kids can understand, and I think that it at least explains what’s happening in general terms, so they have some kind of orientation.

GELLERMAN: Let’s play a little bit more of Nuclear Boy. Basically what they’re saying is that Three-Mile Island was an incident where a lot of gas was being passed - Chernobyl Boy had diarrhea.


GELLERMAN: Kind of an upbeat message there, John.

CARROLL: Uh, yeah, it’s basically saying whatever happens it’s not going to be as bad as Chernobyl, so that’s encouraging to everybody. I think that this is, it’s weird until you start to think back in terms of what we had in the 50s, for instance. We had Bert the Turtle in a duck and cover video, which basically said what to do when the atom bomb falls is to duck and cover and try and get under a table.

Duck and Cover- 1951

[BERT THE TURTLE VIDEO: There was a turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the Turtle was very alert. When danger threatened him, he never got hurt, he knew just what to do. He'd duck and cover. Duck and cover.]

CARROLL: So that was even more ridiculous than what we have here with nuclear boy.

GELLERMAN: But you know, kids back there in the 50s were getting a heavy dose of information at the dawn of the nuclear era - I want you to listen to this one, a familiar tune:


CARROLL: So there you have the wonderful world of Disney signature tune, and what you’ve got here is a way to try to give kids some orientation, a way to give them a comfort level - they can relate it to Walt Disney.

[FILM - WALT DISNEY:The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, so we felt it was a most important topic, for our Tomorrowland program.]

GELLERMAN: Walt Disney was a big proponent of nuclear power.

CARROLL: I think he was a big proponent of the future in general. The future was good for business for him.

[FILM -WALT DISNEY: We made plans to build an exhibit at Disneyland to show you atomic energy in action…]

GELLERMAN: Well, let’s call it manipulation, or propaganda, I guess, right?

CARROLL: You could call it propaganda to some degree - I mean, it’s not that it was entirely untrue, it’s just that there was this sort of techno-optimism that they evoked all the time. It puts things in a context that downplays the potential dangers, and plays up the potential benefits of atomic energy.

GELLERMAN: Hey, John, did you every see Ready Kilowatt, that was the industry’s commercial for promoting nuclear power back then.

[SONG: I was and dry your clothes, play your radios, I can heat your coffee pot..]

CARROLL: I love Ready Kilowatt!

[SONG: I am always there, with lots of power to spare, cos I’m Ready Kilowatt!]

CARROLL: He was just the kind of guy that was an excellent mascot, and, I can say, he was always welcome in our home.


GELLERMAN: Well, this was a film from the 50s by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. And basically it was kind of downplaying the medical concerns people had about radiation exposure.

[FILM: The estimated dose to bring about permanent sterility exceeds the lethal dose, so obviously sterility by radiation will be just obviously incidental, a matter a dead man wouldn’t worry about…]

Nuclear Aspects of Nuclear Radiation- 1950

CARROLL: That’s very comforting, isn’t it? Don’t worry, you’ll be dead way before you’ll be sterile…

GELLERMAN: (Laughs).

CARROLL: Ah… the tone of this video is very odd - it’s very insider-y, it’s very joke-y. I mean, they say at one point is the best protection against atomic explosions is to be somewhere else when they happen. You know, that’s setting the bar pretty low there.

GELLERMAN: The United States isn’t alone in producing these films, by a long stretch. I want you to listen to this… I know you don’t speak Russian, but you don’t need to know what it’s saying, I think to get the message. This is from 1977 and it takes place in Ukraine, Chernobyl.


CARROLL: Yeah, yeah, there I’m picking up the phone and calling Charlie Schwab and saying, you know, buy me some futures in Chernobyl. I mean, that kind of thing is how these enterprises always start out - they always start out with this optimism, with this sort of sunny-side up view of what’s going to happen, and sometimes they play out and sometimes they don’t. I’m sure Three-Mile Island had a nice little groundbreaking too.

GELLERMAN: John, what were we thinking back then? Were we more gullible, were we more naive?

CARROLL: I think we were more trusting, for one thing. I think there was a trust in the government in particular - in major institutions that we don’t have now. There wasn’t that much competition back then. So they could have essentially established a narrative that would take hold because there was no counter-narrative that was being put forward.

If you put some of this stuff out now, what you would have is Greenpeace all over them, you would have the blogs critiquing them, you would have parody videos on youtube. I mean, what you had back then was much easier to go out and establish a context and to convince people to see things from a particular perspective, because of the way the media landscape was constructed.

GELLERMAN: What do you think would be an effective way of talking about nuclear energy today?

John Carroll is a professor of mass communication at Boston University. (Boston University)

CARROLL: There are a couple of ways. I mean I think one of the interesting things about Nuclear Boy, over in Japan, was that it was crowd-sourced. That it was something that didn’t come from some authority figure; it was something that came from the people, and to solve a particular problem. And I think that if you had more of that sense - more of that sense of things coming up from the bottom, rather then coming down from the top, you could establish some kind of credibility. But I think that that's the way to go, is to create a conversation, and try to go from there, rather than this sort of authoritarian voice that no longer has the credibility, no longer has the authority and no longer has the trust of a large part of the American public.

GELLERMAN: Well, John, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks a lot.

CARROLL: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: John Carroll is a professor of Mass Communications at Boston University. His blog is Campaign Outsider dot com.

[SFX – FILM FROM THE 50s: Remember, just plug in. I'm ready!!]

Related links:
- Boston University College of Communication
- John Carroll’s Blog- Campaign Outsider

Back to top

[MUSIC: Jimi Hendrix “New Rising Sun” from West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (Sony Music 2010)]

GELLERMAN: 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. 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 our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And don’t forget to check out the LOE facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

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