• picture
  • picture
PRI's Environmental News Magazine

April 2, 1999

Air Date: April 2, 1999

SEGMENTS

Hollywood Bulldozes Wetlands / Celeste Wesson

The last significant stretch of open space in the Los Angles basin is about to go under the spade. Steven Spielberg wants to build a new studio on the Ballona Wetlands, and developers have planned a new city with 13,000 condos. Community activists are deeply divided about the best way to protect the wetlands: some advocate a compromise for a partial restoration, others are fighting every inch of development. Celeste Wesson reports. (10:30)

Garden Spot

Aaaah, the first signs of spring and that means it's time to plant the peas. Host Steve Curwood joins Living On Earth Traditional Gardener Michael Weishan for this first rite of the season. (04:25)

Maple Syrup Sound Portrait / Kim Motylewski

Producer Kim Motylewski visits a sugar shack in Natick, Massachusetts and comes back with the sweet sounds that flow from the art of making maple syrup. (05:20)

Nuke Power: Past and Future

Since the debacle at Three Mile Island nuclear power has been on the skids in the U.S., even though new technologies have spawned safer plants that cause less environmental and health damage than coal-generated electricity. Some in the industry say that, as the threat of global warming looms, nuclear plants can stage a comeback. Host Steve Curwood explains. (10:20)

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change: A Debate

Notwithstanding questions about safety or economy, the production of nuclear energy does not emit the greenhouse gases that many scientists say contribute to global climate change. So, can nuclear power help keep the planet's temperature stable? We posed that question to Maureen Koetz, director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute and Ed Smelof, director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School. (05:40)

International Proposals for Nuclear Waste Sites

Highly radioactive nuclear reactor waste should be securely stored, yet at reactors around the world it is stacking up in open pools. No country has built a permanent disposal site. But now some groups are proposing that international sites be built to take waste from many nations. (05:40)

Listener Letters

This week, Steve lets the cat out of the bag as he replies (in verse!) to the many listeners who were alarmed by our recent story on introducing wolves to New York’s Central Park. (02:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Celeste Wesson, Steve Curwood, Daniel Grossman
GUESTS: Michael Weishan, Linda Simpkis

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

WOMAN: Gore! Blood! Yes!

OTHERS: Augh!

CURWOOD: A street theater protest against plans to develop the vast Ballona wetlands of Los Angeles into housing and a Steven Spielberg studio. Opponents want the wetlands restored to help wildlife hang on.

HANSCOM: In California we've lost 91% of our wetlands. I don't see how we can compromise any more.

CURWOOD: But others say allowing some development is a necessary compromise.

LANSFORD: If you do make compromises that you think you can live with, that the wetland can live with, more importantly, then you have an opportunity to keep influencing it all the way through.

CURWOOD: Also, peas in the pod and sugar in the shack. This week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this roundup of the news.

Back to top

(NPR News follows)

(Music up and under)

Hollywood Bulldozes Wetlands

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Los Angeles is a city choked with cars, smog, and a shortage of natural space. And our lead story this week is about a conflict over one of the last, biggest undeveloped pieces of real estate in that city. A huge swath of property near the Santa Monica Bay is slated to become home to a major new development called Playa Vista. But the property is already home to the Ballona wetlands, one of the few remaining wetlands in southern California and an important stop for migratory wildlife along the Pacific Flyway.

The conflict is not just between environmental advocates and developers. It's also about a split among the city's activist groups, over when to compromise and when to hold the line on new development. From Los Angeles, Celeste Wesson reports.

WESSON: If you've ever heard of the Ballona wetlands, or the Playa Vista development, it's probably because movie mogul Steven Spielberg plans to build his DreamWorks studio there. Activists have made him the villain of their campaign to stop the huge development.

WOMAN: Whoa! It's gonna be bigger than Ben Hur.

WOMAN 2: You mean bigger than ET!

WESSON: In this street theater performance the Spielbergian character, a woman dressed in a shiny red coat, helps strangle a Ballona wetlands frog.

WOMAN: Dum ... dum ... dum ...

WOMAN 2: Good rope.

WOMAN 3: Gore! Blood! Yes!

OTHERS: Augh!

WESSON: DreamWorks calls the activist campaign a fake publicity gimmick. The developer accuses the activists of lying, because the studio site is more than a mile inland from the Federally-recognized wetlands. The harshness of the accusations in both directions reflects how high the stakes are in the battle over Ballona.

(Traffic)

To get a sense of the scope of the developer's plans, look down from the Westchester bluffs, between Venice Beach and the Los Angeles airport. Your first impression is of that rare thing in the heart of the city: open space, more than 1,000 acres of it. All of it once belonged to Howard Hughes, and where Hughes Aircraft once stood at the eastern inland end, DreamWorks will build its studio. To the west lie about 250 scruffy lowland acres, which developers say they'll restore as wetlands. In between, where far below bulldozers are scraping the red earth, will be the core of the Playa Vista development: 13,000 new condos and apartments, 2-1/2 million square feet of commercial space, a new marina. All designed, say the developers, to fight sprawl and encourage community. To understand why some environmental activists want to stop this development, you need to get closer to the ground.

(Bird calls)

VAN DE HOOK: You're hearing that call? It is a black-bellied plover. There it is again. These birds have thousands of miles to go to the Arctic tundra soon, and there's a lot of communication now that's developing, and you can see ...

WESSON: Roy Van De Hook and Marcia Hanscom, from the Coalition United to Save All of Ballona, walk along Ballona Creek. It's undeniably a troubled urban wetland. The creek is sheathed in concrete. The rumble of jets is constant. There's so little saltwater that some endangered species have abandoned the wetland. But still, there's a salty breeze and birds are everywhere: grebes, mergansers, white pelicans.

This is in the heart of the Pacific Flyway, where the birds migrate. Thousands of species need this to survive, and we've lost 95% of our coastal wetlands in California. So we need every square inch. Here we have the largest development in the history of the City of Los Angeles bringing 13,000 new condos, 6 million square feet of office space, and a 28% increase in traffic on one of the busiest freeways in the nation.

WESSON: Hanscom wants to halt the development entirely, and restore the whole 1,000 acres as natural habitat, letting the saltwater back in, leaving the high ground natural so birds can forage. Elevating 2 existing broad boulevards onto suspension bridges. It won't be easy to realize this dream of stopping Playa Vista and saving all of Ballona. The developers have plenty of money and political clout. Furthermore, they already have promised to restore one third of this land, a plan that other environmental activists support.

A little history: the fight to save Ballona goes back 20 years, when the heirs of Howard Hughes proposed a massive development here. For 12 years a group of activists called The Friends of Ballona fought them, sued them, and finally, 9 years ago, won an out of court settlement. As part of the deal, the owners agreed to trim back the development and to spend $13 million to restore a third of the property as a wetlands ecosystem. Not too long after, the Coalition to Save All of Ballona formed, accusing the Friends of Ballona of selling out. But Friends president Ruth Lansford says her group is simply pragmatic, and the coalition unrealistic.

LANSFORD: Nothing's wrong with trying to save all of Ballona, if you can come up with the money to do it. That would be great with us. They talk about all this money being available from government and so on and so forth. It's just not true.

WESSON: The hard reality, adds Lansford, is that the developers have no intention of selling the land. The Coalition, meanwhile, has filed several lawsuits, and one has been successful in stopping work at Playa Vista, albeit on wetlands restoration instead of buildings, pending a more thorough environmental review. The Friends -- they're the ones who have the settlement with Playa Vista, think the Coalition's lawsuit is a disaster for the wetlands, because it delays restoration work. In their settlement they won a continuing voice in the restoration. Their consultant, Michael Josselyn, is confident that they've hammered out a plan that will bring Ballona back to life. However, he's worried about time.

JOSSELYN: I think all of us who've looked at Ballona wetlands over the years realize that as years pass, the diversity within the wetland begins to decline, to a point where we're not going to be able to restore it as successfully as we would if we had started it 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. Every time we lose a species because of some condition that's getting worse out there, it's much more difficult to get that species back.

WESSON: The Coalition, however, cites another scientist to buttress their campaign to stop all the development on the land. Southern California wetlands expert Joy Zedlar says the wetlands are so degraded that native species will have to be reintroduced anyway. Zedlar says that in general, there are bigger obstacles to successful restoration than time.

ZEDLAR: I think that it would be a mistake to give up the potential for increased area by arguing that we have to do something right now. It is quite late in the game, but allowing it to get a little bit later will pay off if it means we can have a larger, functioning system. So I wouldn't trade area for an immediate short-term fix.

WESSON: In coming months various courts and politicians and agencies will try to untangle all these competing arguments as they make decisions that will affect the fate of the Ballona wetlands. The developer insists that none of it will stop Playa Vista. They refused to be interviewed for reports like this one that focus on environmental concerns. Instead, they try to reach the public directly, through an expensive PR campaign. They argue that Playa Vista will not destroy pristine land. President Peter Denniston spoke with local radio station KCRW last year.

DENNISTON: People lose perspective that of the 1,087 acres here, if you looked at the property, the portion of the property that's undisturbed, that wasn't paved, that wasn't built on, that wasn't filled, that wasn't farmed, it's less than 185 acres.

WESSON: The Friends of Ballona, because of their compromise with Playa Vista, need the development to go forward if they are to achieve their goal: getting the company to restore 300 acres of wetlands at Ballona. Ruth Lansford.

LANSFORD: If you do make compromises that you think you can live with, that the wetland can live with more importantly, then you have an opportunity to keep influencing it all the way through. Which is what I think we achieved.

WESSON: Their rivals at the Coalition say times have changed since the Friends compromise. That now there is more public and government interest in saving wetlands and open space. Besides, says Marcia Hanscom, it's not her role to settle for anything less than all of Ballona.

HANSCOM: First of all, I don't think it's ever the job of an environmentalist to compromise. We're here to advocate for the natural environment, and we've already compromised so much. If we were at 50% of our wetlands lost, then maybe I'd say okay, well, we can lose another few acres here or there. In California we've lost 91% of our wetlands. I don't see how we can compromise any more.

(Footfalls through brush)

WESSON: On a sunny morning at the dunes by the edge of the Ballona wetlands, just a few blocks from the bay and the beach, a group of volunteers for the Friends are stacking dried branches of a non-native shrub that has invaded the wetlands.

(Stacking)

WESSON: The lupin is in bloom. In the distance the elegant egrets stalk their prey. If you squint, you can wish away the gas storage pumps and roads and telephone poles, and glimpse what fuels the passion that has fired 20 years of efforts to save Ballona. You cannot see the bulldozers from here, so it's possible to imagine natural habitat restored for miles in front of you. And perhaps this is the moment to make it happen. But the bulldozers are at work, if out of sight. So it's easier to imagine just the lowland here, at the west end of the property, restored. With a whole new city sprung up just behind it. For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in Los Angeles.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: When we return it's time to get a little dirt under the fingernails out in the garden with Michael Weishan, our traditional gardener. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Garden Spot

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Well, if you like peas, it's time now to get them in the ground. The vegetable is one of the many crops that must be planted as early as possible. Our traditional gardener, Michael Weishan, is here to help us do just that.

(Footfalls)

CURWOOD: So, I gather this is your pea patch?

WEISHAN: This is our pea patch here. It's a little bit of a smelly pea patch at the moment because we've been digging in some fairly fresh horse manure. But peas are heavy feeders, so you really want to make sure that the garden is well-fertilized and well-composted before you start.

CURWOOD: So they're going to need a lot of fertilizer. What are some of the other secrets to really growing peas?

WEISHAN: Well, one of the secrets to growing peas is to get them started as soon as you can. They're very much a cool weather crop. They don't bear particularly well when the day is warm. So as soon as you can get into the ground, literally, you know, pretty much after the snow melts and it's not totally soggy, it's the time to start planting.

CURWOOD: All right; well let's get going then.

WEISHAN: Okay, first thing is to grab a shovel. I'm going to give you this one. (Shovel scrapes) And I'm going to take this one. And what we really want to do here is dig in this manure. Now, I've already started the process. Essentially, I laid in about 3 inches of rotted compost manure on top of the soil, and have been starting to dig it in. And as usual (digging) this is always easier said than done. (Digging) I don't know what that is. There's something tough down here. Let's see if we can dig out what this is.

CURWOOD: Treasure chest.

WEISHAN: Not in this house. (Grunts)

CURWOOD: Wow, look at that.

WEISHAN: Yeah. No, it's something big down in there. A fair-sized 10-pound stone or so, which we're going to lob out of our bed. It's amazing how this stuff works up with the frost heaves. No matter how many you take out, there's always more around the corner. (Digging) Okay. There are essentially 2 kinds of peas. The type that you can eat the pod, like snow peas, like you see often in Oriental cuisine, and standard podded peas that you have to split open. And we're going to actually be planting the kind that you can actually eat the shell, because I kind of prefer that. You get a little more crop out of the way.

CURWOOD: And they're so sweet. I mean, even the shells are really sweet-tasting.

WEISHAN: Yeah, absolutely. And there's a trick to actually picking peas. And it's to do it in the morning, because as the heat of the day rises, often, they'll get slightly dehydrated, and then rehydrate again in the evening. So you want to pick peas first thing in the morning.

CURWOOD: How hard is it to get these peas to grow?

WEISHAN: Peas are one of the oldest crops. They've been in cultivation for thousands of years. And one of the reasons they've been so popular all the years is that they're exceedingly easy to grow. (Seeds spilling) Now, most people plant peas in a row, and then you have to have this very intricate trellising system, because of course peas are vines and they'll often grow head high or taller. We like to use what is similar to a tomato tower. As a matter of fact, they actually double as tomato towers. This is a trick that my dad taught me. This is the reinforcing wire, this real heavy-gauge wire that concrete is reinforced with. So we have about 100 of these things floating around, and I like to use them to plant the peas. Because it becomes a very easy process. You just simply take your shovel and scoop away a little bit of the soil, and then just toss a handful of peas in there. And then simply place this circular tower right over them.

CURWOOD: So these are going to be ready to eat in...?

WEISHAN: Sixty days.

CURWOOD: They'll be gone, I guess, by the time it gets really hot in the middle of summer, huh?

WEISHAN: Well, the snap peas, unlike the regular standard potted peas, are much more heat-resistant. So we plant these all the way up through probably June or so. And every couple of weeks I'll plant another row, so that you have a constant supply of peas. I'm of a personal opinion that you really can't have too many peas, because they eat beautifully fresh. You can freeze them. You can use them in soups, in stews, in every possible type of cuisine. So it's hard to have too many.

CURWOOD: Okay, Michael. I'll be back in 2 months from today to have some of these sugar snap peas.

WEISHAN: If we get everything planted, yeah.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener, as well as publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. If you have any questions about vegetable gardening, ask Michael at our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. Click on the picture of the watering can.

Back to top

(Metal being struck)

Maple Syrup Sound Portrait

CURWOOD: In maple syrup country, this is the sound of sweetness. Raw maple sap dripping into metal buckets. The warming daytime temperatures are drawing the sap up the tree now.

(Splashing)

CURWOOD: In the sugar house, patient cooks turn the clear, thin-as-water sap into thick amber syrup. Linda Simpkis is one of the thousands of boilers who practice this rite of spring. She runs Natick Community Organic Farm, about 20 miles from Boston.

(A cock crows)

CURWOOD: Outside the farm's simple wooden shed, steam rises from a vented roof. Inside the air is moist with sweet maple. Can you smell it? Well, at least you can hear it, thanks to producer Kim Motylewski, who takes us on an audio tour of a sugar shack in action.

(Scooping, steaming)

SIMPKIS: What we're doing here is making maple syrup, and to make maple syrup you have to boil it and boil it and boil it, until you take out 39 gallons of water in the form of steam, to make 1 gallon of syrup.

(Boiling)

SIMPKIS: The evaporator pan is 30 inches wide and 8 feet long, divided in half by 2 pans. Each of the two pans is divided into 4 aisles, connected by little trap doors. And as the raw sap runs in, each aisle is consecutively more dense. Right now it looks like huge white boil on the back pan, almost going over the edge. That's what you want on a minute-by-minute basis is this kind of boil, because that's when most of your evaporation's going to take place.

(Boiling)

SIMPKIS: So I know when to stoke when I see those bubbles starting to diminish, and raw sap coming in. Then I have to stoke the fire, which is roughly every 10 to 15 minutes.

(Hinges creak; shoveling; flames spit; the door shuts)

SIMPKIS: You know, I see people who have lived in New England their whole life and have never seen maple syrup being made. I mean, this is just such a New England thing, that it just aches at me. That this is, this tradition is lost, and kids have no idea how this works.

(Boiling)

SIMPKIS: I'm going to flip up these filters here so that they drain before the next draw. And drawing is what they call pulling the syrup off. Hear it drip into the filter?

(Dripping)

SIMPKIS: So what I'm going to do now is start testing it with this hydrometer. A hydrometer tests density, or thickness.

(Shoveling)

SIMPKIS: And I'm going to fill this cup, this graduated cylinder cup, with syrup. And the hydrometer will bob up and down and tell me when syrup is ready. Just about. I need to go one more digit. And so what I do is, this is when you don't leave your pan, and you sit here. And you stir.

(Stirring)

SIMPKIS: Syrup sugar maple trees only grow in a very, very small geographical area. And the sugar trees that we are getting our syrup from are reaching their maximum age of 200 to 225 years old, which is what is natural here from the Colonial days. It behooves all of us to plant sugar maple trees, because I can't tap a sugar maple tree till it's 40 years old. So anybody who has any space, any school yards, let's plant sugar maple trees.

(Stirring, shoveling)

SIMPKIS: Fill this up again. Okay. There she is. I would say that's ready. So we're going to open up this spigot.

(Clanking)

SIMPKIS: And we're going to pull out the syrup.

(Spilling and scraping)

SIMPKIS: (Laughs) Ta da! And stump the fire.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our sound portrait of a sugar shack was produced by Kim Motylewski. Do you have stories that mark the changing of the seasons? We'd like to hear about them. Call producer Jim Metzner toll free at 877-785- 7399. That's 877-785-7399, for your stories of seasonal change.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: Coming up: nuclear power is down, but its supporters say it's not out. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

SECOND HALF HOUR

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

Nuke Power: Past and Future

Today, 20 years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear power is still highly unpopular with the American public and investors.

CURWOOD: Nuclear power is the newest technology to make electricity on a large, commercial scale, and it's probably the most controversial one. Today, 20 years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear power is still highly unpopular with the American public and investors. And no new plants have been ordered in this country over these past 20 years. The irony is that since the Three Mile Island debacle, engineers have invented far safer nuclear technologies. And nuclear electricity has, some argue, a much better health and safety record than our nation's most popular way of generating electricity, coal. So, let's look at how we got into nuclear power, where it has taken us, and where it might be going in the future.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Forty-two years ago, when the first plant went on line, it was predicted that electricity from nuclear power would be too cheap to meter. It was also designed to turn the dreaded atom of the bomb into an atom for peace.

EISENHOWER: I will now use this neutron rod to generate fissions, which will start the reactor supplying electrical power at the plant.

CURWOOD: President Dwight Eisenhower himself participated in the debut of the first commercial nuclear power plant in the world, on December 18th, 1957. As history would have it, it was built in the same state as Three Mile Island, but further west, in the rural Pennsylvania town of Shippingport.

(Applause)

MAN: Here at Shippingport, some 1,500 people jammed into a large tent for the dedication are watching a megawatt needle as it climbs slowly from zero towards a mark of 60,000 kilowatts, that represents the full capacity of the power plant here at Shippingport. (Applause in background)

CURWOOD: The trouble was, this first commercial reactor was a quick redesign of a unit made for a Navy vessel. And because of all the secrecy surrounding nuclear things in those days, the public never had a chance to question or even comment.

MAKHIJANI: Even industry people criticized this approach as being too rushed and too hasty, and the nuclear industry paid the penalty for it 2 decades down the road.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says the basic design was riddled with flaws. The worst: a requirement for a concentration of uranium so hot that it had to be kept cool by water at all times. Even a few seconds of drying would cause it to overhead and melt down. This meant the nuclear core cooling systems could never fail. The nuclear industry promised it would be safe, but it was the cooling system of a reactor designed much like the Shippingport plant that did indeed fail 22 years later at Three Mile Island.

MAN: The Pennsylvania nuclear power plant faces what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called the ultimate risk of a meltdown in the next few days, according to United Press International. An NRC spokesperson...

CURWOOD: Just 3 months after it went on line, on March 28, 1979, an inexpensive water valve failed on Unit 2. Before confused operators could sort things out, part of the core had melted, and radiation spilled out into the reactor building. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburg tried to reassure the public.

THORNBURG: There is no cause for alarm, no threat to the health or food supplies in the area here. We regard the situation as being a stable one, under control.

CURWOOD: During the accident, government officials and general public utilities lost credibility with the public. The utility kept the accident at Three Mile Island secret for several hours, and then was evasive and ambiguous. The public became alarmed that the concrete containment dome might fail and release large amounts of radioactivity. Fortunately, it did not. It was a different story in 1986, when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, caught fire. At Chernobyl there were no containment buildings for the reactors, so tons of vaporized radioactive fuel went straight into the atmosphere. About 100 square miles of Belarus were rendered uninhabitable, and deadly radioactive plumes coursed around the world's jet streams. According to Harvard physicist Richard Wilson, the disaster will likely end up causing 20,000 cancer deaths worldwide. While that's a lot of people, it's a small number compared with the hazards of other ways of making electricity.

WILSON: Chernobyl produced once, throughout the whole world, less effects on health than is produced every year from coal plants.

CURWOOD: Coal plants produce more than half of all electric power in the US, and health researchers say particulate matter pollution from coal causes 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the US every year. But the public perception of nuclear power is that of greater danger than coal or other polluting forms of generation, such as oil and gas, and opposition is strong.

CROWD: (Chanting and clapping) No Seabrook! No Seabrook! No Seabrook!

CURWOOD: In the 1970s and 80s, public attitudes had hardened so much against nuclear power that people got arrested at protests. In 1989 picketers came to New Hampshire's Seabrook station as it prepared to go on line for the first time. Activists questioned evacuation plans.

(Protesters in background)

MAN: The people of the sea coast are not willing to stand with their bags packed, ready to flee for their lives.

MAN 2: Why are they being arrested?

CURWOOD: Seabrook was one of the last US plants to go on a power grid. The domestic market had dried up, and manufacturers have had to look abroad, especially to Asia. And now they say they've come up with new designs that are both safer and cheaper.

(Fans)

CURWOOD: Inside a windowless cement building on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis is a quarter-size scale model of the AP-600, a new nuclear power plant designed by Westinghouse. A maze of stainless steel pipes and tanks run throughout the 3-story building. Nuclear engineering professor Jose Reyes points out a new safety feature.

REYES: This is one of our 2 core makeup tanks. This tank replaces several pumps in the conventional nuclear power plant. It's specifically designed for providing cold water to the core.

CURWOOD: Westinghouse engineers reduced the number of finicky pumps and valves and safety systems designed to keep the reactor cool. They claim these features make the AP-600 extremely safe and reliable. For example, a large tank is mounted above the reactor, so if the normal cooling fails an emergency supply of water is automatically dumped onto the hot fuel rods.

REYES: It uses gravity, natural circulation, pre-pressurized tanks in order to cool the core. So these features make it passably safe. We don't have to rely on electrical pumps to drive the flow to the core.

(Hissing sounds)

CURWOOD: Westinghouse Electric's Vice President for Science and Technology, Howard Bruschi, says this system is as good as it gets.

BRUSCHI: The AP-600 is designed such that even if there were a problem, as unlikely as it is, an operator could literally walk away. Because natural systems such as gravity will take over the whole operation.

CURWOOD: So you mean, if Homer Simpson were running the control panel and went out to have a beer, everything would be fine.

BRUSCHI: Not only would everything be fine, it might be preferable.

LIDSKY: Second-generation reactors are better than first-generation reactors. They're simpler, they're probably a little bit more economical. They're probably substantially safer. But they're still the same old same old.

CURWOOD: Lawrence Lidsky is a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. Professor Lidsky says even these newer models share the same fatal flaw as the original Shippingport reactor and the one at Three Mile Island. If the fuel rods go dry, the fuel melts, and there could be a catastrophic accident. Professor Lidsky says nuclear power can be accident-proof, but manufacturers would have to scrap designs that use cores that are vulnerable to meltdown.

LIDSKY: There are designs that don't need the engineered safety systems. There are designs that are not limited by the fact that they use water as a coolant. There are designs that are inherently smaller, cheaper, safer, and easier to operate.

CURWOOD: Professor Lidsky spent a decade designing a reactor that can't melt down. It runs on tiny fuel pellets that physically can't get hot enough to melt or burn their casing. But manufacturers were uninterested. And just as he says the Federal Department of Energy agreed to build a test model of his ultra-safe reactor, it halted the research reactor program. Of course, basic reasons that attention has turned away from nuclear power are long construction times and money. Once a nuclear generator is up and running, it is cheap to operate, less than a half a cent per kilowatt hour. But getting it built is another matter. Thanks to regulations and the need to have redundant equipment to protect against meltdown, nuclear power stations can now cost more than a billion dollars to build and take up to a decade to construct. Contrast that with a new natural gas plant that costs less and goes up in just a couple of years. Doctor John Ahearne is a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

AHEARNE: I don't think anybody in the next 5 or 10 years is going to be thinking about building a reactor because it's so much more expensive than to build a gas turbine.

CURWOOD: When today's nuclear plants were built, utilities were monopolies with guaranteed and regulated profit margins. That's changed with nearly every state deregulating electricity production. Now that electric suppliers compete in a free market, they have to be thrifty. So for the moment, gas plants are the obvious choice in the US. In the still-regulated markets overseas, there are some prospects for more nuclear power, especially in Asian countries, including Korea, China, and Japan. But according to Christopher Flavin of the World Watch Institute, even these countries are having their doubts.

FLAVIN: Well, if you look to Asia, what you find is that in Japan, which is the dominant Asian market for nuclear power, the rate of construction has dramatically declined in response to public concern. And the market in South Korea has also slowed down rather dramatically.

CURWOOD: Even Westinghouse Electric Vice President Howard Bruschi admits the prospects for his industry are not bright.

BRUSCHI: It's not as bright as we would like it, that's for sure. The work in Asia, however, will provide us some base load of work, we expect. But it certainly is not what it used to be in the older days.

CURWOOD: Is this depressing? I mean waiting there by the phone to ring, you know, and no one seems to be buying things?

BRUSCHI: Well, depressing, we're a hopeful bunch, and we've worked very closely with utilities around the world to show that these designs are good, economical, and quite safe.

Back to top

 

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change: A Debate

CURWOOD: Perhaps the nuclear age is winding down, and Mr. Bruschi's phone will never ring. The gap between the cost of nuclear and other technologies like solar and wind is narrowing. Indeed, some energy experts say in certain place, high-tech windmills are already cheaper than atomic power. Still, should the world take the threat of global warming more seriously, the fortunes of the nuclear power plant makers could change. If, that is, you assume the premise that nuclear power can help combat global climate change. That premise was defended and challenged in a formal debate held recently in New York City. We've asked the 2 debaters to summarize their arguments, and here's what they had to say.

KOETZ: Can nuclear energy help avoid climate change? It already does. And in the future, it can do even more.

CURWOOD: Speaking in favor of nuclear energy is Maureen Koetz. She is the Director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

KOETZ: Concerns about global climate change have led many nations to join together in an effort to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. As part of an international treaty signed in Rio de Janiero in 1992, the US agreed to voluntarily cut emissions back to 1990 levels. In 1990, America's nuclear energy plants were generating 20% of our electricity. Those plants emitted no greenhouse gases. If that 20% had been produced by fossil-fuel plants, an additional 140 million tons of greenhouse gases would have been released.

Today, nuclear plants keep a total of 155 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. Let's put that into perspective. Right now, to get to its original voluntary commitment under the Rio treaty, the United States would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 160 million tons. If nuclear plants weren't serving as a cleaner workhorse, the United States would have to make twice as many cuts to automotive, industrial, or power-plant emissions. That's right, twice as many. Put simply, the United States cannot meet its greenhouse-gas-reduction goal without increased use of nuclear energy.

Opponents of nuclear energy would argue that renewables, such as solar and wind, can easily displace our current nuclear plants and still achieve greenhouse gas reductions. Even if that were possible, it makes no sense to replace one non-emitting source with another. Our goal should be to keep all the clean electricity generation we have now, and develop more.

The crucial role played by nuclear electricity in avoiding greenhouse gas emissions is not lost on our competitors in the global marketplace. For example, over the last 10 years the United Kingdom increased its share of nuclear-generated electricity from 19 to 30%. Thanks in large part to that nuclear power, Great Britain is likely to meet its greenhouse-gas-reduction targets. So, not only here in the United States but worldwide, nuclear energy is already helping to avoid the possible effects of global warming.

SMELOFF: Nuclear power cannot be counted on to fight global climate change for 3 reasons.

CURWOOD: Speaking against nuclear power is the director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School, Ed Smeloff.

SMELOFF: First, it is too expensive. Second, nuclear power lacks broad-based public support. And third, the long-term safe management of nuclear waste is far from being resolved. Among the major sources of electricity generation, nuclear power is the most expensive. A new nuclear power plant costs 3 times as much to build and run as a new natural gas-fired power plant. In fact, nuclear power is now even more expensive than many renewable energy technologies, including wind, biomass, and geothermal power. The only way that this trend could be reversed is if taxpayers subsidize nuclear power. That seems unlikely, since public support for building new nuclear power plants has all but evaporated. The subsidy required to keep just 1 uneconomic nuclear plant running can be as much as $65 million a year. And that is on top of the staggering cost of safely managing radioactive waste for eons to come.

Money wasted on nuclear power would be unavailable for other, more effective ways of preventing global climate change. In the short term, a far more economical way to reduce greenhouse gases is to replace coal power plants with less-polluting natural gas-fired ones. Gas is twice as clean as coal, and new gas plants twice as efficient, leading to a fourfold reduction in greenhouse gases for the same amount of electricity.

Over the longer term, the role of renewable energy technologies will need to increase to prevent destabilization of the Earth's climate. Several states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, are already requiring that an increasing share of electricity come from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass technologies. With growing public support these technologies can surpass nuclear in electricity production early in the 21st century, and be a less costly solution to global climate change.

CURWOOD: Ed Smeloff is Director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School. We also heard from Maureen Koetz, Director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Back to top

And what do you think? Should nuclear power be used to help combat climate change? To let us know, call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or send us an e-mail at loe@npr.org. Once again, loe@npr.org. Our postal address is 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. And you can find our Web page at www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org.

(Music up and under)

International Proposals for Nuclear Waste Sites

CURWOOD: Even if nuclear power could be produced without risk of accident and very inexpensively, it would still have a major dilemma: what to do with the radioactive waste. When the fuel rods in a nuclear reactor have run their course, they have to be replaced. New rods go in and the old rods come out, but they're still highly radioactive. So they must be kept away from people and the environment. So far, no country has built a permanent facility to store its worn out reactor fuel. Safe places are hard to find, and few people want one in their back yard. But some think the solution is an international dump to hold everybody's waste. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman has our story.

(Voice over loudspeaker, muted)

GROSSMAN: You might expect nuclear-reactor waste to be sealed away in a concrete vault deep beneath the Earth. But in the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Boston, highly radioactive used fuel is stored in a water-filled tank that looks more like a YMCA swimming pool.

TARANTINO: This is it. Spent fuel pool. It's about 38 feet deep, holds all the fuel that we've ever used at Pilgrim.

GROSSMAN: Pilgrim official David Tarantino says the used fuel is submerged in water to keep it cool and to shield the intense radiation. In 26 years of operation, Pilgrim has only generated enough waste to fill up a 3-car garage, a surprisingly small amount considering that the facility can supply enough power for a small city. But the waste is extremely hazardous, and that has some experts worried.

GALLUCCI: I don't think anybody in the nuclear industry in the environmental world would say that things are fine with respect to the disposition of spent fuel and radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors.

GROSSMAN: Georgetown University Professor Robert Gallucci says Pilgrim is only 1 of more than 400 reactors worldwide storing reactor waste indefinitely. Not a single country in the world is even close to building a permanent burial site.

GALLUCCI: It is not a good idea to plan, for the next century or more, to leave this material in open ponds in major cities around the world.

GROSSMAN: Why not? First, because the metal rods holding the fuel corrode, and cement tanks leak.

GALLUCCI: Second, there's the vulnerability to either accident or a terrorist attack.

GROSSMAN: And spent fuel contains plutonium, which a government or terrorist organization could craft into nuclear weapons. The US is considering building a burial site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain, but some experts question its safety, and the nuclear tomb may never be built. Robert Gallucci is most concerned about reactor waste in countries with nuclear weapons ambitions, like India, Pakistan, and South Korea. He says what the world needs is 1 or more centralized sites to take reactor fuel from many nations. And while most nuclear utilities and their neighbors would like to get rid of the stuff, there are some who believe it offers a lucrative source of opportunity.

(Squealing; voices)

GROSSMAN: At Krasnoyarsk-26, a city in the heart of Siberia, technicians board a train bound for a huge underground plutonium factory. Scientist Yevgeniy Velikhov says Russia could rent out space here for storing used fuel for other countries, until they come up with a permanent disposal plan. Dr. Velikhov is president of the Kurchatov Institute, Russia's leading nuclear research center. He says Krasnoyarsk-26 is not prone to earthquakes and already has secure storage carved from a mountain.

VELIKHOV: It is no access to terrorism, no access to any accident like airplane crash or bombing, because this storage already designed and built to withstand a direct nuclear weapons hit.

(Doors shut; motors hum)

GROSSMAN: Dr. Velikhov's is only 1 of a number of competing proposals for a Russian fuel storage site. All of them would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the cash-starved country, which could fund the clean-up of Russia's decrepit nuclear weapons industry and keep underpaid nuclear technicians at Krasnoyarsk-26, like those servicing this reactor, from taking their skills, and possibly some stolen plutonium, abroad.

(Clanking, humming)

GROSSMAN: Leaked Russian documents show that the nation is already negotiating with countries like Switzerland, Germany, and South Korea. The Clinton Administration appears divided on the issue. One official said Russia should deal with its own clean-up problems first. And the Russian idea may flounder without American approval, because the US has veto power over disposal plans at many foreign reactors.

(Music and chimes. Woman's voice: "Nuclear power produces 17% of the world's electricity, without contributing to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Like any other form of power generation, it produces waste.")

GROSSMAN: Russia's not the only one that wants to get into the nuclear-fuel-disposal business.

(Music. Woman's voice continues: "And Pangea is an organization devoted to promoting a safe world solution to the problem.")

GROSSMAN: As this confidential video explains, a multinational company called Pangea is proposing not to store spent fuel but to bury it permanently. Pangea Vice President Ralph Stoll says his company has scoured the world looking for a private site with the best physical characteristics.

STOLL: Good, stable geology. Minimal rainfall. Flat terrain. No natural resources identified in the area. And remote from population.

GROSSMAN: The firm also wants a democracy with no known plans to make nuclear weapons. Ralph Stoll says one country fits the bill.

STOLL: We think that's Australia.

(Music and woman's voice-over continues: "Pangea, leading a global solution for the disposal of nuclear materials.")

HILL: Australians are fairly concerned, if not outraged, by this news that they are going to be dumped with a whole lot of plutonium.

GROSSMAN: Australian Felicity Hill heads the United Nations office of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She says ever since environmental activists made public Pangea's promotional video, the firm has been under attack.

HILL: The reaction's been fairly loudly, and clearly, No.

GROSSMAN: The Australian government has come down firmly against the plan. Pangea says it's not giving up, although it faces opposition on many fronts, including concerns about how spent fuel would arrive in Australia.

MULLINS: The latest news this morning, a tractor trailer carrying radioactive material crashed and caught fire early today on Interstate 91 in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. Authorities are now calling ...

GROSSMAN: This 1991 crash did not release any radioactivity. There have been no serious highway accidents with reactor fuel. But Mary Olson of the Washington-based Nuclear Information Resource Service says the thousands of shipments needed to fill up a site in Australia, Russia, or any other place would dramatically increase the risk of such accidents. She says every country should care for its own waste.

OLSON: No matter where we choose the site, this stuff is going to leak out. So even if we get it there safely, it's only a matter of time. Unless there is the commitment to continue stewardship. And I would hazard the guess that that commitment is greater when it's closer to the people who made it.

GROSSMAN: Political and technical obstacles will certainly delay and could halt any international spent fuel site from opening. But nuclear utilities aren't letting that stop them. And at storage pools around the world, the radioactive fuel rods continue to stack up. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, comments from our listeners. Our story on the proposed reintroduction of wolves into New York's Central Park drew a large and howling response. Most listeners were appalled that anyone would intentionally introduce a wild predatory animal into a crowded urban area. Even the experts were taken aback. Thomas McNamee, author of The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone, was so shocked by the proposal that he had to question its credibility. Mr. McNamee wrote, "I think maybe that wolf biologist profiled in your piece is putting you on." Close, Mr. McNamee. Actually, we were putting you on.

(Wolf howling)

CURWOOD: The howl came swift and certain, unmistakable in tone. "Bring wolves to Central Park!" rang the cry from every home. Listeners said, "You're off your rocker, certifiably insane! The idea was clearly cooked up by a cad without a brain. It's a scandal in sheep's clothing! It could make your heart arrest! It's ridiculous, outrageous, and unspeakably grotesque. Please cancel my subscription and return my pledge to me. You won't catch me supporting wildlife catastrophe." So, we'd like to make amends for breaching journalistic rules. Thus to all our worried friends, we can only say April Fools!

(Goofy music up and under)

CURWOOD: And by the way, we didn't fool everybody.

HUTCHINGS: My name is Mark Hutchings. I listen to WSIU out of Carbondale, and I've got to say your April Fools Day section on releasing wolves into Central Park in New York was very humorous. Thank you.

CURWOOD: And thank you, Mark. You can call our listener line, too, any time, at 800-218-9988. Our e-mail address is loe@npr.org. And the Web page is www.livingonearth.org.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: "Hold That Tiger")

CURWOOD: Next week: massive public works projects along coastal Louisiana are struggling to control eroding wetlands. But a much smaller program is gaining fame. It's using old Christmas trees to help rebuild the marsh. Still, time is running out.

MAN: The Gulf is at our door right now. If we don't do anything to save that, we'd just as well start building houses on stilts in New Orleans, because it's coming this way. It's just moving, moving, moving, moving.

CURWOOD: Can Christmas trees save The Big Easy? Find out next week on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

Our program is produced by Daniel Grossman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindyck, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. Poet-in-residence is Jesse Wegman. We had help this week from Alexandra Davidson, Aly Constine, Chris Berdik, Paul On, and Maury Lowenger. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Eileen Bolinsky is our technical director. Peter Thomson heads the Western Bureau. Our editor is Joyce Hackel, and Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

 

Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Newsletter
Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Committed to healthy food, healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy business.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live.

Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.