Nuclear Power Comeback?
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved the first nuclear reactor in more than 30 years. Leslie Kass of the Nuclear Energy Institute tells host Bruce Gellerman about the AP 1000, a modular nuclear reactor designed for standardized installation and maintenance. (7:35)
Grand Canyon Safe from Uranium Mining
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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently signed a 20 year moratorium on mining for uranium near the Grand Canyon National Park. Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group tells host Bruce Gellerman that it would protect close to the park but surrounding lands are still under threat. (5:25)
Rampant City Gas Leaks/ Bruce Gellerman
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The natural gas business is booming- sometimes with deadly results. Host Bruce Gellerman sniffs out the cracks in the nearly two million miles of pipeline that run under our cities. (18:30)
Emerging Science Note/ Raphaella Bennin
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Scientists in Wisconsin want to turn your nose into a generator. As Raphaella Bennin reports, harnessing the air current created by breath might create enough electrical current to power a small medical device such as a pacemaker. (1:40)
Ode to Caterpillars/ Laurie Sanders
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Some people look at caterpillars and see creepy crawlers. Others, like biologist Dave Wagner, look at caterpillars and see gorgeous creatures that play an essential role in nature’s biodiversity. Producer Laurie Sanders has this profile. (5:35)
BirdNote ® Why Arctic Terns Have Short Beaks/ Michael Stein
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Arctic Terns have evolved to have shorter bills and legs than their relative the Common tern. Michael Stein explains why. (1:50)
An Environmental Map Made by You
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Eye on Earth combines environmental maps from scientists, governments and anyone with a smartphone. The new site features a water watch, an air watch and even a noise watch. Jaqueline McGlade is the director of the European Environmental Agency, a lead partner for the Eye on Earth. She tells host Bruce Gellerman how this project could change the way we view our environment. (6:00)
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Leslie Kass, Jane Danowitz, Jaqueline McGlade
REPORTERS: Laurie Sanders, Michael Stein
NOTES: Raphaella Bennin
GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. A radical, new design for nuclear power plants gets federal approval. But an old problem persists: the radioactive waste.
KASS: Politically it's a big problem. Technically, it's not a big problem, we have the fuel securely stored at our sites. But also, physically, it's not that large a problem. If you took all the used fuel from the 50 years of commercial operation of reactors here in the U.S. you'd have one football field about ten yards high.
GELLERMAN: The goal: a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. Also - there are two millions of miles of natural gas pipelines in the nation - and many leaks.
EHRLICH: What the message here that I hear coming from this leak that we’re standing on top of right now is that you'd better get out there and fix these leaks right away before more people are killed, before property is damaged, and before we have a much bigger problem.
GELLERMAN: Leaking gas pipelines - and a lot more this week, on Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Three days before Christmas the U.S. nuclear energy industry got a long awaited gift. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to approve a radical, new design for atomic power plants.
There hasn’t been a commercial reactor built in the United States in over 30 years.
The AP 1000 reactor, as it’s called, uses a modular design. It's being built by Westinghouse, a subsidiary of Toshiba. The company says modular should make it cheaper to build. The “AP” stands for “advanced passive” - which is supposed to make it safer than previous nuclear power plants.
China has already a dozen under construction, and soon there could be even more in the works in the U.S. Leslie Kass is with the Nuclear Energy Institute. Ms. Kass, welcome to Living on Earth.
KASS: Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: Well, you know, people are nervous about Fukushima, and everybody knows about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island - what makes the AP 1000 so safe and special?
KASS: With the new designs, we’ve added new features. For instance, the AP 1000 reactor doesn’t require power or operator action to maintain safe shutdown for up to 72 hours. And in the case of a Fukushima-like accident, you wouldn’t have a fuel melt because you didn’t require any of the off-site power that they so desperately needed.
GELLERMAN: Now, the AP 1000 design is not without controversy. There was the NRC Safety Engineer John Ma, and he said that the shield building around the reactor - the container - could 'crack like a glass cup'. Those were his exact words.
KASS: One of the strengths of the NRC and our regulatory process here is that anyone can raise a concern. And we have that same safety culture out at our plants. It’s good that Dr. Ma’s concerns could be brought to light and vetted and then receive attention all the way up to the top of the commission.
GELLERMAN: Now, I understand what’s also different about the AP 1000 is that it’s modular design. What does that mean?
KASS: So in the construction process, you break down the large structures into modules or pieces so that you can fabricate them in more of a factory-like environment, which gives you better control and a faster build-cycle.
GELLERMAN: So each reactor that goes up is not unique?
KASS: Correct. That is the plan going forward, is to have a standardized fleet of reactors worldwide, which is good for regulators, it’s less systems to learn and comprehend, it’s good economics because it’s repeat build, and it’s easier maintenance because you have similar components and designs.
GELLERMAN: So now the NRC has approved the AP 1000 design, and they’re going through the new streamlined licensing process - that’s kind of a brand new kind of process designed to make it quicker in terms of construction and licensing.
KASS: Well, the licensing so far hasn’t been that fast. We’ve spent over four years on the combined licenses because it’s the first time through. But what’s different is you receive a construction and operating license at the same time up front with full public participation and all the questions about safety and operation are answered before you start to build.
GELLERMAN: So opponents - if they wanted to sue before, they had a lot of opportunities to try to halt construction and the eventual operating license. Will they have those opportunities now?
KASS: Once you get your license, there’s a very high bar to show prima facie evidence that the licensee has not conducted the construction in accordance with their license, that there were true defects. So frivolous lawsuits are kept out.
GELLERMAN: There are utilities in what, five southern states. They want to build 14 of these AP 1000 reactors - what will they cost? What’s the price of an AP 1000?
KASS: (Laughs.) Um, right now for instance, for the two units all-in cost at Georgia Power site, is about 14 billion dollars. Now that includes all the owner’s costs and transmission. I think the two reactors for SCANA and their partners in South Carolina are running in the neighborhood of 12 billion dollars.
GELLERMAN: Is that a pair or for one?
KASS: A pair. Twenty-two hundred megawatts of capability - 1.6 million homes worth of electricity.
GELLERMAN: The Obama Administration is a backer of nuclear power. It’s hoping to provide something upward of 50 billion dollars in loan guarantees to utilities that build reactors. Is that enough?
KASS: Well, over time, we will see. For right now, we’re getting off to a slow start here in the United States. And I think, do a few carefully and then move forward. So once we prove the technology and the licensing process, it should certainly get easier to obtain financing.
GELLERMAN: But, you know, nuclear power has been around for the better part of 60 years. Why does the industry still need federal government guarantees?
KASS: In this case, it’s really a matter of size. As you mention, the projects cost north of ten billion dollars, and the companies we’re talking about - the largest electric utility in the United States is in the neighborhood of 30 billion dollars, market cap. So having that support to help with the financing is key to getting more of these reactors built.
GELLERMAN: But why doesn’t the, you know, the free market pay the freight? Why do I have to come up with the guarantee?
KASS: Certainly the support that we get for the loan guarantee program and for nuclear power is in large part is derived from the number of jobs. We have 3,000-4,000 construction jobs for these two unit sites as well as 800 permanent jobs that can’t be exported. And that’s very attractive and I know the communities that have these reactors are very excited about their economic growth right now.
GELLERMAN: So it will start generating electricity, but it’s also going to start generating nuclear waste. We’ve been kind of storing that waste and we haven’t been able to get rid of it permanently since the industry began. What’s the plan there?
KASS: We like to say - politically, it’s a big problem. Technically, it’s not a big problem. We have the fuel securely stored at our sites, although our utilities would love to have an ultimate solution as much as everybody else. But also, physically, it’s not that large a problem - if you took all the used fuel from the 50 years of commercial operation of reactors here in the U.S., you’d have one football field about ten yards high.
GELLERMAN: I know that Energy Secretary Chu was a big advocate of small nuclear reactors. Anything happening there?
KASS: Yes! We’re excited to say that DOE just got approved in the FY-2012 budget for a new small reactor program.
GELLERMAN: How much smaller would a small reactor be compared to - say - the AP 1000?
KASS: AP 1000 is around 1,100 megawatts and the small reactors top out at 300 megawatts.
GELLERMAN: So why would you want a small one? And where would you put it?
KASS: There are lots of possibilities. The smaller reactors could be used to re-power old coal stations. They could be used - in the smallest cases of 25 megawatts - they could be used in a remote community that doesn’t have access to other electricity sources, it saves them on having to import fuel. There are just a range of possibilities once you get the size down and it certainly helps folks build because the capital cost is correspondingly lower.
GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Kass, are we looking at the long-talked about nuclear renaissance? Is that happening?
KASS: I think it’s happening globally. There are 63 nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, and you see countries like China and India and Russia and several different countries in Europe moving forward with new reactors. Here in the U.S., again, we’re going to start slowly, but I think you’ll see as demand increases and as folks look to diversify their energy portfolio, nuclear certainly is an attractive option.
GELLERMAN: That's Leslie Kass - she's Senior Director of Business Policy and Fuel Supply with the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Westinghouse on the AP 1000
GELLERMAN- Well, while we still don’t know what to do with radioactive waste from nuclear plants - one thing we do know: the uranium fuel to power the AP 1000 reactors probably won’t be coming from the Grand Canyon. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining near the National Park.
SALAZAR: When you look at a place like the Grand Canyon we carry out a great example through this protective measure because we’re saying, yes, this place is very special and we need to make sure that we can and will protect it.
Joining us to discuss the Obama Administration’s decision is Jane Danowitz, she’s Director of Public Lands for the Pew Environment Group. Hi Jane!
DANOWITZ: Thank you, very nice to be with you.
GELLERMAN: So why in the world would any one want to mine in the Grand Canyon?
DANOWITZ: Well, that’s a pretty good question. And I think if you told most Americans that uranium mining is allowed at the doorstep of the Grand Canyon National Park, it’s a pretty good bet that they’d stare at you in disbelief. So I think that’s one of the reasons why the President took the action that he did and decided to issue a moratorium on all new claims staking around the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years.
GELLERMAN: But there’s a lot of uranium around the Grand Canyon and there are companies that are mining it right now.
DANOWITZ: Experts will disagree how much uranium is there. I think one of the real problems here is that the United States still has a law in its books that was signed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, that does govern the mining of gold, uranium and other so-called hard-rock metals. And under that law, corporations, including those that are foreign-owned, can go almost anywhere on U.S. public lands, including places that are in close proximity to National Parks, and in National Forests, and mine.
And to add insult to injury, the metals that they can take, including gold and uranium, they can take for free without taxpayer compensation. This is in contrast to what oil and gas and coal companies have done for decades and that is, pay the federal treasury royalties.
GELLERMAN: So what’s in it for the U.S. taxpayer if we’re giving away these mineral rights for free?
DANOWITZ: Well, there’s nothing in it for the US taxpayer because not only are they giving away precious metals for free, but they’re bearing a significant burden of cleanup costs. The EPA - Environmental Protection Agency - just came out with new figures that found that once again the mining industry is the number one emitter of toxic pollutants in the country. And so, therefore, not only taxpayers are losing precious metals, but they’re also having to pay for cleanup for the environment.
GELLERMAN: Well is there any conversation in Congress at this point to change this 1872 law? You know, since we do have a budget crunch, we could use the money!
DANOWITZ: There is legislation that has been introduced to reform the 1872 mining law. And while Congress is busy with lots of issues and has had a difficult time getting consensus on most, the fact that the Grand Canyon is at risk from mining and the fact that because of this law more than 2.5 billion dollars of metals are taken off of public lands for free without taxpayer compensation, without compensating the treasury, without paying the treasury, that may well be an impetus for lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to take a look at this legislation and try to find some consensus around reforming it.
GELLERMAN: But proponents of uranium mining, including Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, say that the mines have created, you know, thousands of jobs, and could create many more, and be a source of domestic energy.
DANOWITZ: Well, there’s two parts there. One, certainly, according to the figures, tourism is, from the Canyon, is really the dominant industry in that region. The Grand Canyon attracts more than five million visitors each year - those visitors provide more than 12,000 full time jobs and generate a revenue of almost 700 million dollars annually to the region.
And the second point is that the companies that are operating, most of which in the canyon are foreign-owned, there’s a Canadian interest, there’s a Russian state-owned entity that has a significant number of claims, also the South Koreans, and at least the history has been that the uranium that is taken does not stay in the United States, but is shipped abroad.
GELLERMAN: You know, proponents of mining around the Grand Canyon say that this is simply President Obama kowtowing to his base - that there really is not an environmental reason or environmental reasons for mining not to go forward.
DANOWITZ: I think when all is said and done, protecting the Grand Canyon is going to be looked upon as one of the most important decisions that the Obama Administration makes during its tenure. And it’s a decision that’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for the whole economic vitality of the southwest - it’s good for jobs, it’s good for tourism, and it’s good for protecting one of the most famous icons in the world.
GELLERMAN: Well Jane Danowitz, thank you so very much.
DANOWITZ: Thank you very much, really appreciate it.
GELLERMAN: Jane Danowitz is Director of Public Lands for the Pew Environment Group.
PEW on Uranium Ban
[MUSIC: Bombay Dub Orchestra “Feel (Thievery Corporation Remix) from Eden (Six Degrees Muisc 2007).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: what the nose knows – sniffing out dangerous and climate disrupting gas leaks….right under our feet. Keep listening to Living on Earth!
[CUT AWAY MUSIC: Charlie Hunter, China Smith and Ernest Ranglin: “What I Am” from Earth Tones (Breadfriuit Music 2005).]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Natural Gas - it burns cleaner than coal or oil. It’s cheap and convenient---it’s right at your finger tips.
[SOUND OF A GAS STOVE LIGHTING]
GELLERMAN: 65 million American households use natural gas to heat and cook. And thanks to the mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing, supply is soaring and so is demand. The International Energy Agency says we’re on the verge of “the golden age of natural gas”, that promises to transform the world’s energy economy. It’s a bridge fuel to the future.
But delivering on natural gas’s promise, and distributing trillions of cubic feet through a maze of millions of miles of pipelines is fraught with so many potential problems and real dangers that critics say: natural gas might be a bridge too far.
[SOUND OF DOOR CLOSING, KEYS JINGLING]
GELLERMAN: My investigation led me to natural gas sleuth Nathan Phillips. I followed him up a steep, secretive flight of stairs at Boston University.
Professor Phillips points to a gas leak on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue detected using the sniff method. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)
[SOUND OF KEY TURNING IN DOOR, UNLOCKING]
PHILLIPS: So this is a part of BU that almost no one sees.
[SOUND OF WALKING UP STEPS]
GELLERMAN: Professor Phillips is director of the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. He unlocks stairway doors leading to his rooftop lab.
PHILLIPS: This is kind of what we would consider an urban laboratory.
[SOUND OF WALKING UP STEPS]
GELLERMAN: Phillips studies a city the way a biologist studies an organism - as a complex, living, breathing thing.
PHILLIPS: So we’re about, I think, something like 110 feet off the ground now on top of the College of Arts and Sciences Building at Boston University.
GELLERMAN: What a great view! We can see all the way into Charles - into Boston - it’s Fenway Park there!
PHILLIPS: That’s right, that’s right. And so, in the back there, is what we call the urban metabolism meter or sensor. And so that kind of contraption there on that little mast is measuring the carbon dioxide level and the methane concentration as it passes by that meter. We call it the pulse of the city. It gives us information about where humans are and what they’re doing, where the natural systems and what they’re doing at any time of day. We’re measuring this 10 times a second, every minute, every hour, 24/7, 365 days a year.
GELLERMAN: From this vantage point, using sophisticated instruments Professor Phillips takes the pulse of the city - precisely measuring urban metabolism: the emissions of greenhouse gases produced by the comings and goings of cars and trucks, the burning of fuels to power factories and utilities, heat homes and office buildings.
In terms of global warming, molecule for molecule, methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It’s odorless, colorless, lighter than air - and combustible, which is why methane is so useful. It’s the major component of natural gas.
[SOUND OF STREET BELOW]
GELELRMAN: Below the streets of our nation’s cities snakes a massive network of natural gas pipelines - more than two million miles of low pressure pipes. But weather, water, and accidents all take their toll on these gas distribution pipes, creating problems that most of the time are out of sight and mind - but literally under our noses.
[SMELLING THE AIR]
GELLERMAN: Professor Nathan Philips stands on Boston’s Commonwealth Ave, not far from Fenway Park, and uses another sensitive measuring device to monitor for methane: his nose.
[SMELLING THE AIR]
GELLERMAN: Leaks in the gas distribution pipeline network costs billions of dollars a year in property damage, explosions kill people and methane contributes to climate change. In fact, critics say so much of the powerful greenhouse gas leaks into the atmosphere that, over the short term, natural gas may disrupt the climate more than oil or coal.
PHILLIPS: About 9 months since I became aware of this problem, and ever since then I’ve started to, you know, keep a smell out for - well I guess you’d say leaks.
GELLERMAN: And right there, in the street - by the curb - there’s the tell-tale smell.
PHILLIPS: So mercaptan is the substance they put in natural gas so that if there is a leak people can smell that. And…
Detecting Gas Leaks in Boston (Video Courtesy BU Today, Boston University)
GELLERMAN: I smell a leak.
[SNIFFING FOR NATURAL GAS LEAKS]
PHILLIPS: Yes; Everyone I talk to… many people I talk to know about a leak, they say: ‘Oh there’s one just down the street from me.’ And really, we have a million anecdotes about leaks but when you put it all together and map it it’s pretty amazing how many leaks there are distributed over a city like Boston.
GELLERMAN: And mapping Boston for leaks is just what Nathan Phillips did. He drove around the city with pipeline expert Bob Ackley.
ACKLEY: Okay, we’re going to go right up Harvard street to Commonwealth Ave and we’ll go right up Commonwealth Ave to Kenmore Square.
GELLERMAN: Bob Ackley is a former gas company leak investigator. Now he runs a consulting firm: Gas Safety USA – and on his truck is a sensitive Picarro methane tracking device similar to the one Professor Phillips uses at his rooftop lab. You’ve got two special pipes - nostrils I guess - on the front end of your SUV - here, what are those?
ACKLEY: Well that draws in an air sample from ground level and tests it with my gas ionization unit so I’ll be able to drive down the street and detect gas and I also have one on the rear for my Picarro instrument that will actually document the methane readings on Google Earth. It tracks them and will place them via GPS point, so I can take a running sample from the ground and it will chart it right on Google Earth.
PHILLIPS: Okay, we’re at Commonwealth and Gloucester…five point three …okay, lots of leaks here…two point two….
GELLERMAN: The natural background level of methane is two parts per million but as Ackley and Phillips drive around the area where I had smelled a leak, the digital readout jumps.
PHILLIPS: Two point seven…two point eight….oh, five point two….Okay, so there was a big spike that we just… 11 point one! So that’s over about five times the global background value! Back down to two point four, so very noisy in here - five point four…this is one of those, what we call an area of neglect.
GELLERMAN: The team also drove around San Francisco mapping gas leaks.
PHILLIPS: What we see are some clean streets and then streets that have been neglected - so leak, leak, leak as you drive through… it’s kind of a hodge podge.
GELLERMAN: Some of the methane leaks Nathan Phillips and Bob Ackley detected measure 30 parts per million ---that’s 15 times the natural background level. But Ackley says even small leaks can quickly add up to a large volume.
ACKLEY: Well, we’ve captured as much as, I think it is around, 600 cubic feet a day out of a leak…so, I mean, the average household use about 200 feet. So that would be three days of gas leaking out of one leak in one day.
PHILLIPS: I was very surprised to see how many leaks there were.
GELLERMAN: One reason Professor Nathan Phillips was surprised is because Boston’s gas utility spent 71 million dollars making the system more efficient, but just last year - it’s estimated gas lost from leaks was worth more then 40 million dollars.
PHILLIPS: I wasn’t expecting to see anything like what we saw.
GELLERMAN: You’d expect that a gas company would want to fix their leaks because they’re losing gas, they’re losing money.
PHILLIPS: Well, the costs of the leaks are not borne by the industry. They are borne by the rate payers, so you and I – to the extent that we are using gas, we’re bearing the costs of the inefficiencies in the system.
Detecting Gas Leak Damage to Trees in Newton, MA (Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust)
GELLERMAN: How much…what kind of percentage…a guestimate of the gas that is going thru these pipes is leaking to the atmosphere?
PHILLIPS: That’s a big unknown. So the industry is required to report what they call “lost and unaccounted gas” to the federal government. The amount of unaccounted and lost gas reported to the Energy Information Administration is all over the map.
GELLERMAN: Neither the Pipeline Hazardous Safety Materials Administration - the federal agency in charge of gas pipes - nor National Grid - the largest natural gas utility in New England - would talk with me about gas leaks.
But I did speak with Mark McDonald. He used to inspect leaks for National Grid and now heads the New England Gas Workers Association, which had to file a lawsuit to learn how many gas leaks were reported by Massachusetts utilities.
MCDONALD: Right now it’s generally three-four percent of all gas in the distribution site is lost.
GELLERMAN: You estimate there are 22 thousand gas leaks in Massachusetts?
MCDONALD: That’s not an estimation, that’s exact. I have documentation from each gas company showing at least 22 thousand. Now that makes up 90 percent of the companies in Massachusetts. So that number is even higher. I would probably guess around 25 thousand - and there are many that haven’t even been detected, I’m sure. So it’s significant. It’s definitely significant.
GELLERMAN: Most leaks are small – the size of pinholes - gas utilities rank them a three on a scale from one to three. Some are twos, they’re leaks to watch and schedule for repair, but a three can quickly turn into a two, and a two into a deadly one. It’s what happened in Philadelphia.
[AUDIO FROM TV NEWS: With daylight a crater of clues from this explosion in a neighborhood where reported smelling gas… EXPLOSION... MAN: Boom…the corner store just went up…]
GELLERMAN: One gas worker died, six were injured. That was in January 2011. And that September, it happened in Seattle …
[AUDIO FROM TV NEWS: The couple went to the hospital with serious injuries after the natural gas explosion utterly wiped out their home. Investigators now believe the huge fireball may be linked to a tiny discovery. We have excavated the pipe and there is a small leak consistent with what we found.]
[SOUNDS OF BOSTON STREETS]
GELLERMAN: Homes within a five-mile radius were evacuated. Four other gas pipeline leaks were discovered. Less dramatic, but also deadly is the effect tiny gas leaks in the ground can have on nearby plants. Environmental professor Nathan Phillips says natural gas leaks disrupt the urban metabolism.
PHILLIPS: What we know is bad for many trees is they need oxygen in the soil.
GELLERMAN: Phillips says just like people need oxygen, so do the roots of plants. When natural gas leaks into the ground it displaces oxygen in the soil, and dries the earth. Trees near natural gas leaks can choke and die of thirst.
PHILLIPS: The most active part of the root system are the fine roots, and those are the first to go – they’re delicate, but they’re the workhorses that bring in the nutrients, bring in the water. And if they starve and start dying you’re cutting off the supply system for the rest of the tree.
ACKLEY: So it’s basically a killing of the roots.
GELLERMAN: Gas leak investigator Bob Ackley says before the invention of gas detectors, inspectors located underground leaks by looking for damaged vegetation. He says it’s still a valuable clue.
ACKLEY: And that’s what you look for in a vegetation survey is a tree that looks like it’s dying, a tree is dead and dying vegetation. And all the gas companies have it on their web site; a sign of a gas leak is dead and dying vegetation for no apparent reason.
GELLERMAN: So, one tree, how much can one tree be worth? How do you put a value on a tree?
ACKLEY: Well the arborists have a formula they call the trunk formula method whereby the go by the species, condition and location of the tree, and I’ll give you just give you a quick example - we have a tree over by LaSalle College in Newton that’s about a 50 inch beech tree---that I think we valued it at around 47 thousand dollars.
GELLERMAN: That’s one tree. Take hundreds - or thousands of trees damaged by gas leaks and you talking: a lawsuit. Attorney Jan Schlictmann.
SCHLICTMANN: The trees you know are sentinels.
GELLERMAN: Schlictmann and Bob Ackley have created The Massachusetts Public Shade Trust, surveying suburban Boston communities – charting trees damaged from leaks.
SCHLICTMANN: The trees are telling us something. They are sending out, you know, a loud signal to us that if it’s killing them then it’s killing the quality and the health and the safety of life in the urban environment.
GELLERMAN: Attorney Jan Schlictmann is best known for his environmental lawsuit chronicled in the book and movie “A Civil Action.” Now Schlictmann is suing gas utility National Grid, on behalf of five Massachusetts cities seeking compensation for the alleged damage gas leaks do to their trees.
SCHLICTMANN: So it’s doing great damage to these old stately trees and then when they die, the double tragedy is, that often times, these wonderful trees are cut down, replaced with a sapling then the sapling doesn’t thrive and then eventually dies as well and you have this repetitive process with the cities and towns and land owners not being aware of the root cause of the problem.
[SOUNDS OF THE STREET]
EHRLICH: Hey Bruce come over here. This is just one of the leaks I can smell around the building.
GELLERMAN: The building is the gold domed Massachusetts Statehouse. And sniffing out the leaks in the street behind it is Representative Lori Ehrlich. The Statehouse is the nation’s oldest - so are some of the underground gas pipes here, and they’re leaky.
EHRLICH: We’re standing here on the corner of Hancock and Mount Vernon street and though I’m concerned about this leak there are many leaks around the building. But even more of concerned are the four stories residential dwellings that are right next to the leak that I’d be most concerned about.
A leak next the the Massachusetts Statehouse is 8.3 ppm methane, four times the normal background level. (Photo: Nathan Phillips/ Boston University)
GELLERMAN: This is iconic, this is Beacon Hill - it doesn’t get more plush and powerful - and yet we’ve got leaks right here?
EHRLICH: Well, perhaps it’s a message to the legislators in the building that it’s time to pass some legislation addressing this issue. This is the second session that I’ve proposed four bills that deal directly with this issue, and the fact that we have a leak and many other leaks right outside the Statehouse, I think, just elevates it to a point where we need to do something about it before more people are killed, before property is damaged, before trees are killed and before we have a much bigger problem.
GELLERMAN: Just a few months before this interview behind the Statehouse, two blocks away, gas leak explosions sent two manholes covers flying, and shattered windows.
Representative Ehrlich’s bills would require that Massachusetts gas utilities fix all of 25 thousand leaks in their pipes within three years, and compensate cities and property owners for the damaged methane does to trees and plants. Tom Kiley is president of the Northeast Gas Association.
KILEY: We oppose those bills for a variety of reasons. A lot of them, economics and a lot of it because we feel it’s truly unnecessary to do that. Ah clearly the safety of our customers, and the consumer and residences is paramount of the natural gas industries, but we feel the cost that would be added to this are unnecessary and wouldn’t achieve the goals that the people have, and gas companies do have aggressive programs to make repairs, to replace cast iron and bare steel mains and other programs.
GELLERMAN: It can cost gas companies a million dollars a mile or more to replace leaking pipes, but it can take decades. And, critics say, in the meantime customers are paying for the leaked gas and the pipes are dangerous.
Some of the pipes are 100 years old and made of cast iron. In the 1950’s utilities began replacing them with bare steel pipes, but gas corroded them, so they were replaced with coated steel pipes. Gas leak investigator Bob Ackerly says the problem is nationwide.
ACKERLY: I’m traveling down to Washington DC this weekend. I’ve already been down there and done some spot checks, the problem is just as bad or worse with the rotting steel. So, wherever there’s cast iron and old steel in the ground, you’re going to have a problem.
GELERMAN: Since the 1970’s utilities have been laying underground pipe made of polyethylene or plastic: it’s flexible, easy to handle and install, and it doesn’t corrode. But it does crack and unlike cast iron which can last a century, Mark McDonald of the New England Gas Workers Association says plastic is only good for about 45 years.
MCDONALD: The companies believe it’s going to last forever. We’re already replacing it. The number one problem with polyethelyne, it has no resistance to damage, so the more plastic you put in the more problems you’re going to have with people digging around natural gas lines. It’s a major problem, it's going to get larger. The more plastic you put in the bigger that their problem is going to get.
GELLERMAN: Accidents are the single biggest cause of pipeline damage - from backhoes and jack hammers used by road construction crews, and workers laying electric lines and cables. The message: dig safe - and sniff.
ACKLEY: I’m at about three point four right at the leak I think it was up to six if I pull up a little bit.
GELLERMAN: Leak expert Bob Ackley says if you smell something, say something, which is exactly what he does after measuring the leak behind the Massachusetts Statehouse.
ACKLEY: I would grade this one if it were my house definitely a grade one leak. I mean, I’d want it repaired immediately. It’s a hazard - so I’m going to call the leak into National Grid now and just make sure everything is okay here.
ACKLEY: Hi, Bob Ackley here, I just want to report a gas odor in Boston by the Statehouse…
[MUSIC: Pink Floyd “Terminal Frost” from Momentary Lapse Of Reason (EMI Records 2011 reissue).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up next week - from problems with low-pressure neighborhood gas pipelines to the dangers of the really big ones.
GALLAGHER: Bringing a 42-inch high pressure natural gas pipeline into downtown Manhattan boggles the mind. I mean, It’s not a question of if something happens, it’s a question of when.
- EPA on Methane
- National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives
- Pipeline Safety Action Plan
- The Transportation of Natural Gas
- 2011 U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report
[MUSIC: Pink Floyd “Terminal Frost” from Momentary Lapse Of Reason (EMI Records 2011 reissue).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up – using your cell phone to tap into your inner scientist - a new global environmental network needs you. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUT AWAY MUSIC: Joe Smaple: “Cannery Row” from Carmel (UMG Records 1979).]
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead, why we have to give thanks to caterpillars. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Raphaella Bennin.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
BENNIN: Take a deep breath. Do you feel energized? Pretty soon your breath could be recharging, not just your lungs, but a battery.
Today, when a pacemaker, or other medical device, is implanted in a person’s body it contains a battery- and that battery will eventually need to be replaced. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin are trying to help patients avoid that additional surgery by finding a way to power a medical device without a battery.
Researchers already know how to create electricity by exposing a piece of long skinny plastic to gusts of wind or even breezes. When the air forces the taught plastic to vibrate, an electrical charge is generated. The Wisconsin-based scientists are using that same principle with a piece of plastic so small and sensitive that the wind power of just breathing can produce enough electricity to keep a small medical device running.
The researchers hope to implant the plastic in the bridge of a patient’s nose. If all goes as planned, every time the patient laughs, inhales, or speaks the medical device is charged. And knowing there are no batteries to be replaced could help a lot of people breathe much easier. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Raphaella Bennin.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
GELLERMAN: We look down on the lowly caterpillar, but our appreciation soars in the spring when it transforms into a lovely butterfly. Still, even before metamorphosis there’s a lot we can thank the creepy crawlers for - as Laurie Sanders reports.
[SOUND OF WHACKING VEGITATION]
SANDERS: With one hand, Dave Wagner uses a short stick to rap the branches of an alder shrub. In the other, underneath the leaves, he holds a beating sheet—a square frame with a piece of white cloth stretched across it.
[BEATING SOUND CONTINUES]
WAGNER: Many of these caterpillars are so well camouflaged that it’s almost impossible to pick them out with the human eye unless you know exactly what to look for and where to look. And, there’s not enough hours in the day to find caterpillars that way.
Dave Wagner collecting moths in Mohegan, CT. (Photo: Courtesy of Dave Wagner)
[BEATING SOUND CONTINUES]
WAGNER: Okay, lets’ see what we’ve got. Lots of insects. Mostly small beetles. There’s a caterpillar, look at that it’s a swallowtail larva. Gorgeous creature. Look at those eyespots. Let’s give him a little squeeze, and see if he sticks out osmeteria. Whoa. Look at that. Smell that. Pretty sweet.
So, I guess if a bird were to pick at those eyespots that you’re seeing here, those orange tentacles would come out, covered with sort of that goop- that orange citrus-y goop, and hit the bird right on the beak, possibly even go into the eyes. That’s its defense. Not to mention that it’s pretty well camouflaged, really.
SANDERS: Dave Wagner is a biologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and a world authority on caterpillars.
WAGNER: I think there’s something really special about watching a caterpillar metamorphose into an adult. You never know what you’re going to get. So it’s a real life example of the Cinderella story, the ugly duckling, the phoenix from the flame. There’s something very powerfully engaging and metaphorical here, and I’m certain a lot of kids find much hope and interest in this change.
Composia fidelissima (Photo: Andy Brand.)
SANDERS: Wagner certainly does. During the last 20 years he’s raised tens of thousands of caterpillars, and in 2005, he wrote the first comprehensive guide to the caterpillars for eastern North America. The book became an instant hit among naturalists, and with Wagner’s colorful writing style, it also went on to win a literary award.
SANDERS: Today’s excursion is to a swamp in Petersham, Massachusetts. As Wagner beats the bushes, he’s careful to rap on only one plant species at a time. That’s because most of the 3,000 species of moths and butterflies found in New England are very specific about what plants they eat as caterpillars. And, Wagner says, of all the plants that are eaten, nothing is more popular than oak.
WAGNER: Oak is like type O blood. And so there are probably 400 species of butterflies and moths in New England that eat oak. Look what we have here this is a fabulous caterpillar. This is the caterpillar of a hooktip moth. What is really exciting or interesting and novel about this caterpillar is that he has two specialized setae near his rump that he actually uses to drum on the leaf where he is at. So this is one of the few talking caterpillars that I know about.
So these guys actually advertise to their brothers and sisters, their sibs, and perhaps any other caterpillars that ‘this is my leaf.’ And so they detect little vibrations and they will start using paddles on their rump basically to drum out a beat, a signal, which says “this is mine, find another.”
SANDERS: But to protect their own skins, Wagner says most caterpillars use shape and color. Some have gone the cryptic route—they’re green or look like sticks. Or bird poop. Or wilted leaves. Others have taken the opposite approach, and use bright colors—reds, yellows, and oranges—offset by blacks or whites to advertise that they have stinging hairs or toxins.
WAGNER: These are the Clint Eastwood caterpillars. Basically you’re a bad dude, and you’re trying to advertise to any would-be predator that perhaps you’d be better off looking elsewhere for a meal.
SANDERS: And all these caterpillars, bad dudes included, play a crucial role in the ecology of our landscape.
WAGNER: Springs would be very quiet in the northeast if it weren’t for caterpillars. They play a quintessential role in the diets of many animals, but particularly, we think, songbirds. And then as these caterpillars turn into adults, they play other roles. So the butterflies and moths that these caterpillars are going to turn into play quintessential roles in pollination, for example, they’re absolutely essential again in the diets of certain flycatchers, and bats.
SANDERS: And there’s another important role that caterpillars have played. Because plants can’t run away from caterpillars, they’ve evolved a battery of chemicals to protect themselves. Wagner says these secondary chemicals are the basis for drugs and medicines—like opium in poppies and salicylic acid in willows that’s used in aspirin. Others—like rubber and turpentine-- are used in industries. And then there are culinary benefits. Cumin. Paprika. Pepper. Cinnamon.
WAGNER: Indirectly our lives are greatly enriched by the fact that there’s caterpillars on this planet. French food and Latin American food--these would be absolutely bland if there weren’t plants manufacturing these chemicals to protect themselves from ravenous caterpillars.
SANDERS: So, the next time you tip back a glass of fine red wine, give a toast to caterpillars for the many ways they’ve influenced our lives - including the production of tannin - the natural chemical in grapes that gives wine its body and character. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders.
GELLERMAN: Caterpillars aren’t the only species with curious strategies for adapting to their surroundings. Here’s Michael Stein with this week’s BirdNote ®.
[TERN CALLS, WATER SOUNDS]
A common tern (Photo: Amanda Boyd, USFWS)
STEIN: Environmental conditions shape birds' bodies, even birds belonging to the same family. For example, consider the terns.
[COMMON TERN CALLS]
STEIN: The common terns you’re hearing have long, pointed bills they use to catch small fish. They migrate along both coasts and through the interior in spring and fall, on their way between nesting grounds in Canada and their winter home in the tropics. By migrating, they move from one warm and productive environment to another.
[COMMON TERN CALLS]
STEIN: Their close relative, arctic terns, look much alike, but both their bills and legs are shorter.
[ARCTIC TERN CALLS]
STEIN: Both species feed in exactly the same way, so why would the Arctic Tern’s bill and legs be shorter? Well, because arctic terns breed in the Arctic and winter in Antarctica.
[ARCTIC TERN CALLS]
A common tern (Photo: USFWS)
STEIN: They’re subject to much more severe weather than are common terns. Because birds’ bills and legs are not covered by feathers, they lose heat. It just makes sense then for birds in cold climates to have short bills and legs – and less exposure to the cold.
[CALLS OF TERNS]
GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Stein of BirdNote®. To see some photos of common and arctic terns, take a turn to our website loe.org.
- Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Common Tern recorded by C.A. Sutherland and R.S. Little. Arctic Tern recorded by G.A. Keller. Ambient waves recorded by J. Kessler, Kessler Productions
- BirdNote® Why Arctic Terns Have Short Beaks was written by Dennis Paulson
[MUSIC: David Lanz “Turn, Turn, Turn “ from Painting The Sun (Shanachie Records 2008).]
GELLERMAN: For a new perspective on our planet’s environment - check out: Eye on Earth- the cloud computing-based network just launched. It creates a place on-line where the world’s leading environmental scientists… and you … can collaborate. Jaqueline McGlade is the director of the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, it’s one of the lead partners in the Eye On Earth project.
MCGLADE: Well Eye on Earth works in a very distributed way. It’s an engaging website, you might call it, which we would want people to join. But, having joined, it’s a possible club that you’ve come into to share information about the environment.
GELLERMAN: So, I can contribute?
MCGLADE: Absolutely. As a citizen, we see this as one of the fundamental ways, for the first time, that we can bring individual efforts on looking around and seeing what’s happening in the environment, alongside data that’s being collected by governments, by institutions, and really look at that formal and informal combination to give us a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in a particular part of the world.
GELLERMAN: So, walk me through it. I’m on the Eye on Earth website, how does it work?
MCGLADE: Well, when you first come, you’ll see that there’s a whole row of little boxes which go across like a ticker tape. Some of them are called watches: water watch, noise watch, air watch. So, if you click open, lets say, air watch…
GELLERMAN: Ok, hang on, ok…
MCGLADE: You should get actually a map of the world.
Water Watch Eye measures the water quality for more than 22,000 bathing sites across Europe. (Eye on Earth)
GELLERMAN: Here it goes…
MCGLADE: So, if you actually go into the search box, you can type a place…so, where would you like to go? I mean we could go to Copenhagen, if you like
GELLERMAN: Okay, that’s where you are- let’s do that.
MCGLADE: Yeah. Okay, so let’s go to Copenhagen. As I go in, I can see a map of the roads, you can have a 3D picture of the buildings. The most important thing is that you’ll see a kind of stream that comes in from the right, which has our rating and community rating on it. The ‘our rating’ is actually the air quality measured by a formal reporting requirement from the country. And, in the case of Copenhagen today, it says that the rating is very good. The ‘community rating’ is the one that’s been given by members of the public.
GELLERMAN: So, that would be a subjective rating, or can they take an instrument and take and accurate rating?
MCGLADE: You can have instruments, you can have sensors, but we have detected that over the years we’ve been running this- people who are, particularly those who’ve got breathing disorders- are very sensitive to the quality of air. And, when we ask the members of the public to rate the quality of air, we can get not only the overall picture of how good is the air, but also we can ask them about whether or not it smells clean- is there an odor? So, using these different words, we get a very good picture about what the quality of air really is.
GELLERMAN: So, if I were to go to water watch, and, was walking down the beach and I saw a red tide- could I just pull out my cellphone and report that to Eye on Earth?
MCGLADE: Absolutely. And, because it’s pretty much live, it means that anybody else who’s looking at water watch let’s say round about the same time or during the day, would not only be told from you that there’s water contamination and algal bloom, but other things, litter on the beach or whatever. So, in a way the immediacy of somebody going out on a picnic and encountering a beach that’s in not very good shape- means actually that that day not many people will visit the beach, if people use water watch.
GELLERMAN: Now, I noticed that you have a mobile application for a noise meter…
MCGLADE: Yes, so here we go one step further. Because, one of the questions that you raised, very important, is: ‘Well this is very subjective.’ As someone is measuring for their own purposes air quality or water quality or the quality of the beach, that’s a kind of subjective thing.
On the noise meter, then we actually have moved one step on because we have the possibility of mobile telephones being extremely good noise receptors, so having a meter on your smart phone and then literally just recording the noise of where you stand for ten seconds in terms of how intense the noise is, you then have the possibility of transmitting that into the noise watch site. And, it appears as a dot, and you can then look at it and see how many decibels were experienced at that time at that place.
The living façade of the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen. It has developed Eye on Earth. (European Environment Agency)
GELLERMAN: Boy, that’s not Eye on Earth, that’s EAR on Earth!
MCGLADE: (Laughs.) There’s the ear on earth. I think the Eye on Earth is a very, very broad umbrella to give the sense that we can see what’s happening around the world. And, noise watch is very, very popular. We have politicians and mayors, and different people around the world in cities, really interested in understanding now how important noise is for public health.
If you were able, I think, to get lets say a huge global movement to go out at one moment and measure noise, I think you would find it very interesting. But, people who are designing cities, I mean, this is a device where very simply, they can ask citizens to participate and really start to document where the noise corridors are, and understand how, even moving traffic through the day, can really be changed actually moderate the levels of noise that we are exposed to.
The Eye on Earth Noise Meter app tested in Abu Dhabi. ( Eye on Earth)
GELLERMAN: Boy, this could put a whole new perspective on the environment.
MCGLADE: I believe that we have turned the corner through the environment’s lens, into a world where people can genuinely have reliable data and information that will inform their daily living. And, I believe that’s what we need to do to change people’s perceptions of how we’re going to survive in the future.
GELLERMAN: Well, Jacqueline McGlade, thank you so very much.
MCGLADE: It’s been my pleasure, thank you so much.
GELLERMAN: Jaqueline McGlade is the director of European Environment Agency, it’s a lead partner in the Eye On Earth public science project. To survey the maps, head to our website: LOE dot org.
Eye on Earth
[MUSIC: Monty Alexander “Love Notes” from Yard Movement (Island Jamaica Jazz 1998).]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer and Ike Sriskanderajah, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. And this week we welcome our new interns - Mary Bates and Sophia Golden. Welcome aboard. 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 myplanetharmony.com. And don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And you can follow us on Twitter - @livingonearth, that's one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
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