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

March 10, 2006

Air Date: March 10, 2006



Recycling Nuclear Waste / Jeff Young

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The Bush administration wants to reverse a 30-year policy against reprocessing nuclear waste. The costly process was banned because it produces plutonium, which could be used to make weapons. But the government says new technology could make this "recycling" safe. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports. (05:00)

The Latest in Power Plants? / Ingrid Lobet

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By far the majority of America's electricity comes from burning coal, splitting atoms and burning natural gas. But partly through federal subsidies, renewable energy is getting more commercially competitive. As Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports 350 thousand homes in Nevada and California may get their juice from the sun and from hydrogen. (05:00)

Chernobyl Remembered / Bruce Gellerman

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Host Bruce Gellerman, who reported on the 10th anniversary of the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl looks to the 20th anniversary this April with thoughts of his own energy needs. (02:00)

Flight of Technology / Steven Cherry

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Steven Cherry reports on recent research about the use of electronic devices, including cell phones, on airline navigation systems. (06:30)

Too Hot for the Trot

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The Iditarod, the famous dog sled race through 1150 miles of Alaskan wilderness, has changed its course in recent years to make room for global warming. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Stan Hooley, executive coordinator of the race. (03:30)

Out of the Loop

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The Knik bar of Knik, Alaska has relied on Iditarod tourists for big business every year around race time. Traditionally, the course passes right by the bar. But the new trail map doesn't include the little town of Knik. Bruce Gellerman talks with Darlene Donnelly, the bar's owner. (02:20)

Dancing Gnats / Jeff Rice

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Gnats are annoying little bugs. But if you know the trick, gnats will actually move at your command. Jeff Rice reports from Idaho. (02:45)

Note on Emerging Science / Bobby Bascomb

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Bobby Bascomb reports on how spots on the sun could make for spotty service, from electricity to cell phone reception. (01:30)

The Baby Business

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We may not talk about where babies come from very often, but there's a booming, and largely unregulated business making sure they get here. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Deborah Spar about her recent book, "Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." (12:40)

One Too Many / Bonnie Auslander

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Commentator Bonnie Auslander weighs in on the trend in increasing family size. (03:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Stan Hooley, Darlene Donnelly, Deborah Spar
REPORTERS: Jeff young, Ingrid Lobet, Steven Cherry
COMMENTATOR: Bruce Gellerman, Bonnie Auslander
NOTE: Bobby Bascomb.


GELLERMAN: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: I’m Bruce Gellerman. Waste not, want not. The Bush administration says there’s a new way to turn nuclear reactor waste into fuel without creating bomb-grade material. The move would reverse a 30 year US policy.

SELL: A program based on old reprocessing technology cannot and should not survive. But we believe there is a better way.

GELLERMAN: But critics aren’t buying it.

LYMAN: The problem is once you start looking at the details the program completely falls apart.

GELLERMAN: Also: the bottom line and the global baby business.

SPAR: In the US alone right now it’s about $3 billion a year. And it’s very unregulated.

GELLERMAN: So, right now, let the baby buyer be ware.

SPAR: We don’t want to set up a heavy handed regulatory authority of baby creation, but I think we need some basic rules of the road.

GELLERMAN: Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

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

Recycling Nuclear Waste

High purity uranium oxide product recovered from spent nuclear fuel (Photo: Department of Energy)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood.

For 30 years, U.S. government policy has banned the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Presidents since Gerald Ford have concluded that reprocessing was too costly and too risky – it creates weapons-grade plutonium that could fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.

Now the Bush administration wants to reverse that policy with something called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. It’s a multi-billion dollar research effort aimed at recycling spent fuel not just from reactors in the U.S., but in the future from developing countries as well.

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.

YOUNG: Recycling your trash is a good idea, right? So Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell asks, why not recycle our nuclear waste?

SELL: All leading thinkers that have looked at nuclear power, that have looked at how we can accomplish our goals for clean development, recognize that that will eventually lead us to recycling of spent fuel.

High purity uranium oxide product recovered from spent nuclear fuel (Photo: Department of Energy)

YOUNG: Sell says technology called UREX Plus developed in DOE labs, could allow for that to safely happen. Waste from traditional light water reactors would go through a chemical process separating some elements. It would not yield pure plutonium, as technology now used in Europe and Asia does. Instead, plutonium would be bound up with other chemicals in a material that could later be fuel for an advanced reactor.

SELL: It allows you to extract much greater energy out of the spent fuel, and it also results in a waste form at the end of the process that is much more stable and much easier to dispose of.

YOUNG: The proposal also aims for greater international control of the movement of nuclear materials. If a developing country wanted nuclear power, it could lease fuel from the US, France or Britain, then return the waste for reprocessing.

SELL: If a country has the ability to enrich uranium, or to reprocess plutonium, it effectively has the bomb.

YOUNG: So that’s Sell’s sales pitch: slow the spread of nuclear weapons materials, get more energy from fuel, and reduce waste. His first audience on Capitol Hill was receptive. New Mexico Republican Senator, Pete Domenici , is a fan of nuclear power and reprocessing.

DOMENICI: In the 70s the US decided to abandon its leadership on nuclear recycling and let the rest of the world pass us by. With the creation of this new global nuclear energy program we’re going to get back into the ballgame.

YOUNG: South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the program “visionary.” But the reprocessing idea is getting a frosty reception elsewhere.

LYMAN: Well of course it sounds good, the slogan that we should be recycling our nuclear waste instead of throwing it away is appealing on the surface. But the problem is once you start looking at the details, the program completely falls apart.

YOUNG: That’s Ed Lyman of the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. Lyman says materials produced by the technology DOE is pushing could still be used to make weapons. And he’s skeptical of claims that reprocessing would solve the waste problem.

LYMAN: Unfortunately reprocessing doesn’t actually reduce radioactive waste. All it does is shuffle it around. The fact is all these materials have to be disposed of somewhere.

YOUNG: Some scientists who support the administration’s general ideas are still uneasy with the proposal. Ernie Moniz teaches physics at MIT and served the Clinton administration as a science advisor and undersecretary of energy. Moniz says reprocessing technology is not ready.

MONIZ: It may lead us down the wrong technology pathway. So again, rushing into large-scale reprocessing would seem to be a bit premature until one has technologies for the whole integrated system in hand.

YOUNG: And then there’s the price tag. The administration wants $250 million for the Nuclear Energy Partnership next year. But that’s just a down payment on a program that Energy Secretary Sam Bodman says could cost tens of billions of dollars.

BODMAN: This is going to be a very expensive undertaking if we decide to go forward with it. My own estimate, personal estimate, is that it’s gonna be between $20 and $40 billion to accomplish all this.

YOUNG: England, France, Japan, and Russia all reprocess spent nuclear fuel with mixed results. There’s less waste, but the countries still have some 240 tons of plutonium to store and guard. But that does not deter the DOE’s Sell, who says new technology would make a US-led program different.

SELL: A program based on the old reprocessing technology cannot and should not survive. But we believe that there is a better way.

YOUNG: As it considers the President’s budget Congress must decide if it agrees that this “better way” is worth billions and the reversal of long-standing policy. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- "Extracting Plutonium from Nuclear Reactor Spent Fuel"
- "Hearings Demonstrate Little Enthusiasm for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing"

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The Latest in Power Plants?

Solar Power Plant (Photo: Solargenix)

GELLERMAN: The holy grail of energy production is generating power without the pollution. Right now about two thirds of the industrial sulfur dioxide emissions and about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the US comes from power plants. Clean energy is literally a drop in the bucket: hydropower generates less than seven percent, solar and wind, just a fraction of that. But as Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports, two new projects in the southwest are generating clean power…and buzz.

LOBET: We've all seen rooftop solar collectors. But there's another kind – industrial strength. It's called concentrating solar. High-tech collectors, like mirrored tanning beds spread over acres of desert land, track the sun across the sky.

MYLES: They operate almost exactly the way a sunflower operates. It wakes up in the morning, facing east, and tracks to the west.

LOBET: John Myles is president of Solargenics, a North Carolina-based company that's just broken ground on a 350-acre array of concentrating solar collectors in the Nevada desert. With parabolic precision, the mirrors focus heat on a line filled with oil that runs through the center of each unit, heating the oil to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot fluid is then exposed to water flashing it into steam, which drives turbines, just like any other power plant, only you didn't have to burn any coal or gas.

Solar Power Plant (Photo: Solargenix)

MYLES: Our plant in Nevada is the first plant in 15 years. It's the third largest solar plant ever built in the world and it represents a real resurgence in the industry. We think there will be other projects in Spain very soon, and more plants in the United States.

LOBET: The Nevada One solar project will produce 64 megawatts of power. Small for a power plant, but very large for solar: enough electricity for 50,000 houses. It will need water for it's cooling towers, but so do most power plants that turn heat into electricity. News of most renewable power projects crosses the desk of Jesse Broehl. He edits renewable energy access dot com, and this one caught his eye.

BROEHL: I'd say it's pretty significant. Not just in its size – this is commercial scale solar power – but I think it's also significant in terms of representing a shift for solar, where this new approach, concentrated solar power, has been around for awhile but we haven’t seen a facility like this built in 15 years. So to see this go up now bodes well for solar in the future

LOBET: Everyone agrees one big reason this project is being built now is that Nevada requires a quarter of its new green energy be from solar power.

Not quite as far along on the project table is another new kind of power plant, this one is next to an oil refinery about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Edison Mission Group and BP are planning to build the world's largest hydrogen-fired power plant. Hydrogen only occurs bound to other substances, and this new plant will get its hydrogen from a waste product known as coke.

PARNELL: It is a black, almost coal-looking substance that is a byproduct of the refining process.

LOBET: Charlie Parnell is Vice President of government affairs for Edison Mission Group. Using coke from the refinery next door will be cleaner than the status quo. Currently, it’s being transported to China, burning heavy ship fuel the whole way.

PARNELL: About 1,000 truckloads a day take the waste petroleum coke from the Carson refining facility to the Long Beach harbor, so we’ll actually have the benefit of no longer using those thousand diesel trucks to deliver that petroleum coke to the harbor

LOBET: In China the coke is burned. But the part of this hydrogen project that's got energy experts' attention is what BP and Edison plan to do with the remaining waste product, which is carbon dioxide.

PARNELL: The CO2 will be captured after the gasification process. It will be put in a pipe and shipped offsite to existing oil fields where it will be used for further recovery of oil from those oilfields and it will be sequestered permanently.

LOBET: Oil companies often force gas underground to try to push out thick oil deposits, especially these days, with every barrel worth more than $60. But it's not yet known whether this is an effective way to permanently dispose of the world's surplus carbon. Again, Jesse Broehl.

BROEHL: That's probably one of the things that no one knows about this. How effective is it? Can you just pump gas into the underground? And will it stay there forever? At what point in the future could that be released?

LOBET: That's a question a lot of people would like to see answered. In the meantime, if they can persuade investors, they'll be using refinery waste to produce energy cleaner than natural gas, but dirtier than wind or solar, to serve 300,000 households.

For Living on Earth I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles

Related links:
- Renewable Energy Access
- Solargenix Energy
- Edison Mission Energy

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Chernobyl Remembered

GELLERMAN: Ten years ago this April I stood in the shadow of what was left of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. I was gathering sound for a story I was gathering sound for this program about the 10th anniversary of the disaster. Even then, sarcophagus, the giant black hood that shrouds the doomed reactor was leaking radiation and we could only stand there for but a minute or so.

In the nearby town of Prypiat, where reactor workers and their families lived, you can still see the remnants of their lives: newspapers from April 25, the day before the accident. In a playground, a Ferris Wheel once filled with squealing kids now rusts and creaks in the wind. 47 emergency workers died fighting the explosion. Tens of thousands were caught in the radioactive fall out. How many more died from cancer? Nobody really knows.

But these days the only time I give any thought to Chernobyl nuclear reactors, or power generating plants at all, is when I get my monthly electric bill. It’s been going up. A lot. And that’s got me thinking: sure, I’m worried about global warming, and nukes don’t produce greenhouse gases. And they’re safe… if you don’t worry about the 100,000-year half life of the radioactive waste. Or terrorists. Or an accident.

But I need my electricity. It’s the lifeblood for all the gizmos and gadgets; my cell phones, PDAs, laptop, and mp3 players. Efficiency experts call them energy vampires, and they’re slowly bleeding me. They’re on 24-7

Today, a TV uses more energy during the 20 hours its on stand by then the four hours you watch it. If we just unplugged these devices we’d drive a stake through the vamp amps, and the nation would need 20 fewer power plants. But how realistic is that? Well at least on one day this April 26, on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, I’m going to pull the plug on my kitchen full of energy wasters. The people who lived and died in Pripyat deserve at least that.

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[MUSIC: David Darling “Lament” from ‘Cello’ (ECM – 1996)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: dialing at 30,000 feet. The Federal Communications Commission is thinking about lifting the ban on using cell phones in commercial flights. Some researchers say think again. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Happy Apple “The Landfall Planetarium” from ‘Youth Oriented’ (Sunnyside Records – 2003)]

Flight of Technology

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. You know the drill: turn off your computers, shut off your GameBoy, power down the iPod, and wait till the flight attendant tells you it’s safe to turn them back on.

But, for now, leave that cell phone in your pocket – it might interfere with the plane’s navigation system. Or so it’s been feared. Now the Federal Communication Commission is considering lifting the ban. Is it a good idea? Steven Cherry looks at the latest scientific research.

FLIGHT ATTENDENT: At this time all electronic devices including cell phones and two way pagers must be turned off and put away. After take off I’ll let you know when you may use approved electronic portable devices.

CHERRY: These days you can use laptops, DVD players, game machines, and PDAs during flight. And thanks to a recent Federal Communications Commission rule-change you can also dial up your cell phone while taxiing to the gate. Now, the FCC is considering allowing cell phone use in-flight. But are they safe? A few years ago, four researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, began to have some doubts. So, the group, headed by Bill Strauss, then a Ph.D. candidate, put a laptop computer together with an array of instruments to measure electromagnetic emissions.

(Photo: Dan Hyde)

STRAUSS: We used a portable spectrum analyzer with a broadband antenna, and a computer to drive the software to record all of the data, placed it in a small carry-on bag, and placed it in an overhead compartment.

CHERRY: Strauss now works at the Naval Air Warfare Center as an expert on electromagnetic interference. Over the course of three months in late 2003, he flew, and took measurements on, 37 different commercial flights around the eastern United States. His team has just published an article describing the research, which Strauss calls disturbing.

STRAUSS: The RF environment on board commercial aircraft was much more active than previously believed. For one thing, the navigational aircraft bands, particularly GPS, had a lot of activity which we believe was derived from cell phone transmissions, which we also were finding at quite a high rate – one to four per flight.

CHERRY: Strauss says GPS is becoming an increasingly important aid to pilots, especially during night and bad weather landings. One particular cell phone model, the Samsung N300, was notable for the way its radio frequency emissions interfered with GPS.

STRAUSS: The Samsung phones were basically emitting RF energy in the same band as the GPS navigational systems. The problem there is that the GPS system uses very low-level signals, and these were quite large signals, essentially blinding the GPS onboard equipment. So any aircraft that’s navigating using GPS navigation solely, or at least as a primary system, will have a very difficult time. Not so much of a concern at 30,000 feet when you’re going coast to coast, but a big concern if you’re using a GPS landing aid system and you’re coming in on approach.

CHERRY: And Strauss says the problems aren’t limited to cell phones.

STRAUSS: DVD players, laptops, GameBoys, the list goes on, are all electronic devices which emit some amount of radiation or of energy.

CHERRY: Besides their own research, the Carnegie Mellon team studied data compiled by government agencies, including NASA, which teams up with the FAA to run a database, the Aviation Safety Reporting System, to collect incidents reported by pilots.

STRAUSS: There was a child using a GameBoy, and it was causing a 30 degree shift in the navigational instruments. So the pilots came back and asked if they could turn off the machine, and the problem went away. And then they asked him to turn it back on and, sure enough, the 30 degree shift in navigation reappeared. It was pretty remarkable.

CHERRY: Strauss worries that these problems could fall into a gap between the FAA, which oversees airline safety, and the FCC, which regulates the airwaves. A spokesperson for the FCC’s Wireless Bureau says the commission regulates cell phones only insofar as they can interfere with cellular systems on the ground. Keeping on-board aircraft communications and navigation systems safe is up to the FAA. And the FAA doesn’t plan on changing its regulations anytime soon. A spokesperson, Les Dorr, says they’ve asked an aircraft industry group, the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, or RTCA, to look into the question of electromagnetic device emissions.

DORR: We don’t anticipate changing our regulations because it’s still going to be incumbent on the operator of the aircraft, when you’re talking about an airline, you’re talking about the airline, to come to the FAA if they want to allow cell phone use and say, here’s our data, here’s our test protocols, and here’s why we think it’ll work. And then we want to have the data that we’ve developed via the RTCA, to compare that against and look at it and to have it to make an informed judgment.

CHERRY: Strauss, hopes the airline industry group will not only study the issue, but also collect more data. In the meantime, he’d like to see passengers better understand the risks of sneaking in those illicit phone calls.

STRAUSS: The RTCA group has previously published three reports. In all three of those reports one of their recommendations was to inform the pubic to a larger extent about the dangers of using the electronics. And the FAA has tended not to put that forth, I think mostly because they feared it would worry passengers unnecessarily. And, in fairness, the airlines are quite cognizant of what the dangers are, and they monitor the situation to the extent that’s reasonable. But I think some of the data I’ve come up with, as well as the NASA data and other things, have put a little bit different light on it lately.

CHERRY: The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics report on electromagnetic device emissions and airline safety will be issued before the end of this year. Meanwhile, the FCC, which asked for public comments on the issue last year, has received eight thousand responses and is studying them

FLIGHT ATTENDENT: It is now safe to use your cell phones, but we do ask that all other electronic devices remain off until we arrive at the gate.

CHERRY: For Living on Earth, I’m Steven Cherry in New York.

GELLERMAN: Steven Cherry reports for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of Eye Triple E Spectrum magazine. To find out more about cell phone safety visit our website, Living on Earth dot org.

Related link:
IEEE Spectrum website

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[MUSIC: Eyvind Kang & Tucker Martine “Horizon” from ‘Orchestra Dim Brigades’ (Conduit Records – 2004)]

Too Hot for the Trot

Lack of Snow Moves Iditarod North (Photo: NASA)

GELLERMAN: The Iditerad is called the last great race on earth.


GELLERMAN: Each year since 1973, on the first Saturday in March, mushers have driven their dog sleds over more than a thousand desolate miles through some of the most grueling and gorgeous terrain Mother Nature has devised. This was what the start of this year’s race sounded like…

WOMAN: ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, go! All right, down you huskies head on down the trail to Nome!

GELLERMAN: Down you huskies! The Iditerad trail – now a national historic trail – began as a mail and supply route running roughly along the Yukon River from Anchorage to Nome. But over the past decade race officials have had to alter the trail. Even in the middle of winter it’s been melting. Stan Hooley is Executive Director of the Iditerod race and I reached him in his office in Anchorage. Mr. Hooley, thanks for joining me.

HOOLEY: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: What have the conditions been for this year’s running?

HOOLEY: Well, we’ve had some fresh snow. As a matter of fact, if I look outside race headquarters now we’re getting a light dusting here. Reports further up the trail is that there’s some fresh snow there as well. So what we thought might be problematic trail conditions, or less than desirable trail conditions a couple of weeks ago, Mother Nature seems to be solving that as we speak.

GELLERMAN: But now you’ve been altering the trail lately, as I understand.

HOOLEY: Well lately is kind of a relative term. It’s been warming for the last decade or more, and we’ve had to adapt things a little bit, sometimes shorten up day one, the day one start here in Anchorage. We did that again this year, but we’ve also done that I think eight out of the last 12 years, so it’s not new to us.

(Courtesy Iditarod Race Committee)

GELLERMAN: So it’s getting warmer?

HOOLEY: It is. I think globally this is, you know, a topic that is getting a lot of attention, a lot of discussion. And the realities we deal with is things are warmer than they used to be, and sometimes things aren’t quite as winter-like, at least in this area of the state, to stage this race. I would point out though we really probably have three or four distinctive climates, if you will, in this state over that thousand miles of trail. So the weather here will be much different than it is in the interior, and it will also be much different than that along the coast as we make our way to Nome.

GELLERMAN: Why do people do this?

HOOLEY: Well, it’s a lifestyle. I think those familiar with Alaska are familiar with the history of the traditional use of working sled dogs as a part of the culture. In fact, I would think that most folks would characterize this as a celebration of Alaska’s short-but-yet-storied past. It’s a state that’s relatively young compared to a lot of other states around the country, but the sport of mushing, the culture of mushing, is something that is very much at the core of the culture here.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Hooley, if I said, you know, Mush! On, you huskies! Is that kind of like the way it’s done?

(Takotna Community School)

HOOLEY: Yeah, some people say Mush! Some people say Hike! Some people say Go! It all depends upon how you have trained your dog team and the voice commands that you’ve utilized.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Hooley, I gotta mush.

HOOLEY: Okay. Alright. We’ll let you do that, but thanks for your call.

GELLERMAN: Stan Hooley is Executive Director of the Iditerod race.

Related link:
Maps of the course and more photos at Iditarod.com

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Out of the Loop

GELLERMAN: For Darlene Donnelly, owner of the Knik Bar in Knik, Alaska, this year’s running of the Iditarod…didn’t. The race usually starts right in front of her bar, but not this year. Darlene is at the Knik Bar. Hi!


GELLERMAN: So was it a packed house this year?

DONNELLY: No, it was very quiet, very dead. The place is usually packed. I mean, you can’t hardly get in the doors and outside. If the Iditarod’s coming through it goes out here on the lake and across the lake, and the people can, you know, see their favorite musher come in and check in at that point, and then right across the end of the lake is where the Iditarod trail starts. We have people outside selling Alaskan-made articles, you know, their hats and their carvings and everything. So it’s kind of good for everybody.

GELLERMAN: I hear that there’s not enough snow there and that’s why they’ve moved the path.

DONNELLY: Up till last year we had snow. They said we didn’t have enough. I had drivers with trucks to dump the snow; we had groomers to groom the snow so that it would be perfect for them. And they wouldn’t do it.

GELLERMAN: Boy, what is it going to be like at the Knik Bar this year?

DONNELLY: Well, it was pretty dead. They started the race later now up there so the people don’t get even back down until, you know, six, seven o’clock at night, and of course by then everything’s over with. Everybody’s ready to go home.

GELLERMAN: Boy, that must have hurt?

DONNELLY: Oh yes, it sure did.

GELLERMAN: What do you do at the Knick that’s special for the Iditarod?

DONNELLY: Well we have Hobo Jim, who is a legend here for the Iditarod. He’s a real good entertainer, everybody knows who Hobo Jim is. He’s been coming to this bar for Iditarod for 25 years now, and he draws in a big crowd, too. They come to see him and come to see the race go through – which has not happened, I think this is the fourth year straight in a row now.

GELLERMAN: Darlene Donnelly is the owner of Knik Bar in Knik, Alaska. Well Darlene, I want to thank you very much, and I hope things get snowy next year and I hope –

DONNELLY: Yeah, you and me both. (Laughs)

GELLERMAN: Darlene, you got any Hobo Jim music there?

DONNELLY: Oh yeah, mm-hmm.

GELLERMAN: Can I hear some?

DONNELLY: Okay, hold on, let me turn the jukebox on and I’ll play the Iditarod song for you, how’s that?

GELLERMAN: That’d be great.


[MUSIC: Hobo Jim “Iditarod Trail” from ‘Thunderfoot’ (Amazing Rhythm Ace – 1982)]

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Dancing Gnats

GELLERMAN: From the Knik Bar in Alaska to the gnats of Idaho. Jeff Rice has this story about having fun with gnats.

RICE: Near the Boise foothills, the river ambles through the pastures and cottonwood groves. The late afternoon sun gives the marsh grass a soft focus. And a blizzard of gnats rises up near the water’s edge where a man is humming.


RICE: But he’s not humming to himself, and there’s no real tune.

ROBERTSON: [SHORT HUM] They just think I’m crazy [LAUGHS].

RICE: Dr. Ian Robertson is an entomologist at Boise State. One day, when we were talking about something completely different, he casually tells me that you can hum to gnats and in a sense, they’ll dance for you.

ROBERTSON: [SHORT HUM] Just a simple hum [SHORT HUM].

RICE: He says it’s just one of those things that’s passed around from entomologist to entomologist. I believed him not just because I wanted to, but because it actually makes sense.

ROBERTSON: Well, the males have special organs at the base of their antennae that can detect the wing frequency – the vibrations of the female’s wing. And so when a female flies into the area the males detect that and then all swarm towards her. And so when humming we’re trying to mimic the frequency of the wing beats of the female in terms of the sound it makes [SHORT HUM].

RICE: And it actually works.


RICE: Hum, the gnats move forward. Stop humming, they stop. Forward, stop.


RICE: Clouds of gnats shift direction like flocks of birds. Then they become liquid; they move and surge almost like a tide lapping against the shore. And the humming pulls them like an undertow.

ROBERSTON: You see how just the whole group of them speeds up when that happens [SHORT HUM]. Then as soon as you stop they just go back into their normal flight pattern [SHORT HUM]



RICE: It’s not long before we are controlling whole fields of them. It’s nothing short of beautiful, a swirling Busby Berklee musical of insects. And it gives me an idea: if this works with a couple of people, think of the possibilities.


RICE: Hit it!


RICE: So did we attract any gnats?

SINGER: I had one fly up my nose [LAUGHTER].

[MUSIC: Elvis Costello “Mystery Dance” from ‘My Aim Is True’ (Rhino/WEA Records – 1977)]

GELLERMAN: Our lesson on how to make gnats dance was produced by Jeff Rice. Choral humming? Courtesy of the Boise State Chamber Singers.

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Just ahead: How much is that baby in the window? How money, science and politics drive the commerce of conception. First, this note on emerging science from Bobby Bascomb.


Note on Emerging Science

BASCOMB: Can you hear me now?

Cell phone users may be asking that question more often than they may like in the next year or so, and they can blame it on the sun. Every 11 years sunspots increase on the surface of the sun. And scientists say the coming cycle will be particularly severe, with a 50 percent increase in strength of sunspots and, as a result, an increase in severity of disruptions here on earth.

A sunspot is a dark, cooler area on the surface of the sun. Cooler because of a large magnetic field located in the area that inhibits the transportation of heat normally distributed by the sun’s natural currents. For us earthlings it means an increase in electrical disturbances that result in power outages, satellite failures, and communications disruptions.

The strongest recorded solar cycle was in the late 1950s. Of course, there were far fewer satellites orbiting back then and less reliance on electrical power grids. We can’t control the activities of the sun, but researchers hope that they’ll be able to predict individual storms early enough to give satellite operators and electricity providers enough time to get ready. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Bobby Bascomb.

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GELLERMAN: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: HIM “Moss Garden” from ‘Music For Plants’ (Perfectifon - 2005)]

The Baby Business

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. On the world’s stock markets investors bid on shares in companies. On the world’s commodity markets you can buy and sell stakes in everything from gold bullion to pork bellies. Then there’s a largely unseen and unregulated global market that people don’t like to think of in terms of money: Kids as commerce.

It’s the baby biz: adoption, in vitro fertilization, sperm donation, surrogates and perhaps, one day, clones. Harvard business school professor Deborah Spar has taken a look at the bottom line in the trade in children. Her new book is called “The Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception.” Deborah Spar, welcome to Living on Earth.

SPAR: It’s my pleasure, thank you.

GELLERMAN: How big is the baby business?

SPAR: Well, in the US alone right now it’s about $3 billion a year, and that’s really only counting IVF treatments and some of the hormones.


SPAR: In vitro fertilization.

GELLERMAN: I was reading in your book that in, what, 2001 there were 41,000 IVF children born in the United States?

SPAR: That’s right. It’s a very large number.

GELLERMAN: Now, when they first started they were called test-tube babies, and it really was not accepted at all.

SPAR: That’s exactly right. First of all, it’s worth noting that test-tube is the wrong word here. Although these children are conceived outside the womb – they’re actually conceived in Petri dishes – but test-tubes always seemed like a better image for people. But for sure when the first baby was conceived – Louise Brown, 1978 – people went wild, and there were protests in the street, picketing. And people said Louise Brown was a monster.

And yet what’s happened, as we’ve seen, is that there were so many parents who couldn’t conceive children the old-fashioned way that they scrambled to the doctors who could produce IVF babies, and within a couple of years the demand was so high, and so many children had been born healthy, that really the opposition went away.

GELLERMAN: Has the demand gone up for children over the years? And if so, why?

SPAR: No. Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things that I found in this research. If you go back to the beginnings of time, or go back to the Bible, as I do in this book, we see that there has always been a demand for children. Because for whatever reasons, roughly 10 to 15 percent of all populations across all time have been infertile; and those people have always wanted to produce children. And it really wasn’t until the past several decades that technology gave them a way to produce.

GELLERMAN: But the notion here – that it’s become a business – is still unsavory.

SPAR: For sure it’s unsavory. It’s disconcerting. It upsets people. But what I try to do in this book is to say that we really have to fess up, if you will, and say it is a market, and people are spending money, and making money, and making babies.

GELLERMAN: You write that it’s largely unregulated.

SPAR: It is very unregulated.

GELLERMAN: I mean, if I were to want to adopt a child, say, there are regulations, there are rules, there are requirements.

SPAR: That’s right. And one of the things I’m arguing in this book is that I think we should look at the fertility market in some ways akin to the way we look at adoption. And we don’t want to set up a heavy-handed Regulatory Authority of Baby Creation, but I think we need some basic rules of the road.

GELLERMAN: Well what would those rules be?

SPAR: Well, I argue we need to start with the easy ones. First of all, we just need to look at the medical implications of what we’re doing here. Most of these technologies seem to be very safe for both the mothers and the children, but not all of them are. We need to look more closely. We need to look at the implications for women of shooting them up with massive amounts of hormones. We need to look at the implications for women who donate their eggs and also receive massive amounts of hormones. We need to look at the implications of multiple births; of doctors and clinics who are willing to implant four or five embryos at a time, giving rise to multiple pregnancies. We just need to look at these things and think about where we might want to draw some lines, purely for reasons of medical safety and the health of the mothers and babies concerned.

GELLERMAN: What other technologies are out there?

SPAR: Well, what we’re beginning to be able to do more and more is to manipulate the embryo itself. So IVF creates the embryo artificially, if you will, outside the womb. We now have technologies led by something called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which allows researchers to take the tiny embryo, when it’s really only eight cells large, remove a single cell from that embryo, and test it for a range of genetic diseases; then, once you do the tests, of course, the parents can choose which embryos they want to implant.

GELLERMAN: What about at the edges of the technology and where this might be going? I’m thinking of cloning.

SPAR: This pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is really quite intriguing because right now it’s being done largely for medical reasons to allow parents to select against some horrible genetic disease; it’s also being done for gender selection. But take that one step further and it’s not that hard to begin to screen for things like hair color and eye color. And I think we need to think about that, and make sure that that’s something we want to allow.

If you then go further down the spectrum – or the slippery slope, depending on your perspective – one can imagine parents trying cloning. The cases that we know of are not the crazy ones that people always think about. It’s not the mad scientist who wants 50 copies of himself to rule the world. It’s overwhelmingly parents who have lost a child. A four-year-old gets killed suddenly by a bus; the desperate parents don’t just want another child, they want that child back. And the doctors or the researchers who have begun to push to the edges of this technique have all told me that the calls they get are from these kinds of parents.

GELLERMAN: What about a parent who has a child with a genetic disease, and they want to create a child that can help cure their first child?

SPAR: Right. That’s something that we’re already doing right now. So it’s for a handful of genetic diseases where a child is dying and the only way to save that child is by having a perfectly matched blood or bone marrow donor.

GELLERMAN: And you can do that now?

SPAR: Yeah. Yeah. A number of those cases have occurred already using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. What they do, the parents go through IVF, they produce a number of embryos, and then the doctors, using very, very sophisticated screens, they screen the embryos for healthy embryos, and also embryos that are a genetic match for the sick child.

GELLERMAN: Is the United States the center of this global marketplace?

SPAR: California seems to be the center of the global marketplace. California has a very permissive environment, as you’d imagine, it has a large market for many of these technologies. And there has been not legislation in California, but court cases, which have put some kind of basic rules of the road out there, mostly having to do with making sure the intended parents can in fact get access to the child in cases of contestation.

GELLERMAN: But you’d think that with the intersection of science and ethics that there would be a tremendous amount of regulation of this commerce.

SPAR: You would think so, but, in fact, in this country we get precisely the opposite. And I think that has to do very deeply with the divisive nature of the abortion debate in this country. It’s very, very hard to deal legally with these technologies until you determine what the moment of conception is.

GELLERMAN: So instead of dealing with this they just let it go and out of mind, out of sight?

SPAR: Exactly.

GELLERMAN: Unspoken.

SPAR: There’s virtually no political incentive for someone in Washington to tackle this issue, and so it really has just been pushed to the sidelines.

GELLERMAN: Well they’ve gotten very good at making these embryos and implanting them and having children as a result of that kind of conception. But there are then excess embryos.

SPAR: That’s right. At the moment, the estimates say that there’s 400,000 excess embryos in the United States alone.

GELLERMAN: Four hundred thousand?

SPAR: Four hundred thousand.

GELLERMAN: And what’s the law say about the buying and selling of those?

SPAR: The law says nothing. There is no law. The one thing we do know legally now is you can’t use those embryos for stem cell research. So the only legislation we have, or prohibitions we have, is you cannot use those for research. Other than that, it’s kind of fair game. What’s happening at the moment is that there’s more of a friends and family market in these embryos; so clinics will make them available to couples or individuals if they’re not having luck with other means.

And there’s been a really interesting development, out of California again, where a gentleman who runs an adoption agency there has begun a program of what he calls embryo adoption, which is mostly among Christian conservatives, that if a Christian couple has created an embryo – they don’t want that embryo destroyed, they certainly don’t want it used for research – they will legally allow that embryo to be adopted by another couple. And clearly there’s a lot of implications here because if you can adopt an embryo, you presumably can’t do other things with an embryo.

GELLERMAN: And you can buy and sell it?

SPAR: That’s right. And again, that has not quite happened yet, but if you look at other elements of this market I see no reason not to expect that we’re not going to get a market in embryos as well.

GELLERMAN: So it’s astonishing, actually, that you have this incredibly large global business taking place unregulated and basically unobserved.

SPAR: That’s right. Because it gets back to the basic nature of this; because it’s so personal and intimate, people don’t want to subject it to the light of day. And again, what I’m trying to argue here is that everyone’s better off if we get over our disgust here, if you will, or level of discomfort, and say we’ve got to look at what’s going on and then figure out if there’s pieces of this that need to be restrained in some way.

GELLERMAN: Of course, science really is pushing the ethical issue here. You have a couple, they have fertilized embryos, and the husband says, no, you can’t use it, I’m no longer your husband. The wife says, I want to have a baby and I can’t do it any other way.

SPAR: That’s right. And there was a case of that here in Boston last year where the embryos were implanted in the wife, who was now divorced from the husband, and the husband sued the fertility clinic for having forced him to become a father against his will.

GELLERMAN: So what did the court say?

SPAR: The courts forced the clinic to cover his child support payments.

GELLERMAN: Where does this go in 50 years? Technology’s driving this; what’s the edge of this known universe?

SPAR: The edge of this known universe, I suspect, is that we’re gonna have more and more children created through non-traditional means. I don’t suspect that technology will ever replace the old-fashioned means, because as one of the doctors said to me, people would still rather have sex. So we’re certainly never going to see full replacement, but we will see more and more people having more and more children through these alternative means. Having children later in lives; having children with same-sex partners.

I think the part that I find most worrisome is the potential for genetic manipulation, and I think we need to watch this. And I think we need to understand – which we don’t understand yet – what is it that people choose when they choose their children? Do they choose characteristics that are as much like themselves as possible – in other words, are they trying to replicate the children they would have had through natural means, or are they trying to create something different? Something better. If it’s the latter, I get worried. And I don’t know that it is, but I think that’s the part of the market we really need to watch.

GELLERMAN: You have three children.

SPAR: Yes.

GELLERMAN: All natural?

SPAR: No. Two were created the old-fashioned way and the third was adopted.

GELLERMAN: Why did you adopt a child?

SPAR: I always wanted to adopt, for no strong reasons. There’s never been any adoption in my family that I’m aware of. I felt very blessed that I was able to conceive easily, and healthy children. And I did know there were an awful lot of children out there and it seemed like an intriguing thing to do.

GELLERMAN: Did you purchase your child?

SPAR: Yeah, I think I did.

GELLERMAN: You had trouble answering that.

SPAR: Of course, because nobody wants to acknowledge, no parent wants to put those words together, “I purchased my child.” But I’m okay with saying that, because I think it was a transaction, if you will, that was a very good transaction. And I purchase health care; I will hopefully be spending lots of money to send my oldest child to a good college next year, I will be purchasing an education. We purchase lots of things that also have value, have personal value, to us.

GELLERMAN: With me has been Deborah Spar, Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of the new book, “The Baby Business - How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception.” Professor Spar, thank you very much.

SPAR: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

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One Too Many

GELLERMAN: Well, whether you decide to have children using the latest technology, or the old fashion way, you also have to decide how many children to have. Commentator Bonnie Auslander has been crunching the numbers.

AUSLANDER: My husband and I met in Asheville, NC, where writer Bill McKibben was giving a reading. So it was fitting that after our daughter was born a friend gave us a copy of “Maybe One,” McKibben’s book, in which he argues that having only one child is the soundest environmental choice those of us in the developed world can make.

At least I think that’s what he wrote. I didn’t read it: I hid it. It had been difficult enough convincing my husband that we should have one child. I knew getting him to father two would be harder than making him take me to the latest Jane Austin film adaptation. I didn’t want any persuasive tracts lying around that he could use to bolster his position. So I took McKibben’s book and shoved it behind some old bank statements at the bottom of a filing cabinet.

Having two kids has always been my goal. It’s practically a family tradition. I’m one of two, so is my father, and so are all of his cousins. And I’ve always believed producing two kids who would eventually replace their parents was okay, even if it meant that for an overlapping time we would be planting a larger environmental footprint on the planet.

So while intellectually I agreed with McKibben that producing one child was best, I couldn’t imagine intentionally raising a single child. They might turn out too bossy or too lonely, and who would they compare notes with later on about their nutty parents? If I had read McKibben’s book I would have learned that only children aren’t any more likely than those with siblings to be overbearing or friendless, but I waited until after our second child was born to see what he had to say.

Now, eight years after McKibben’s book was published, I find myself surrounded by friends and acquaintances who aren’t stopping at one, or hanging at two, but who are having three or four or even more. A conversation with a demographer confirmed my hunch: family size in the U.S. is on the rise.

So what’s going on here? Are these couples hoping for a girl at long last after having two boys? Is it a desire to advertise their fertility? Or could it be as it was for one couple I read about, a marker of affluence that boasts “I can afford to have more kids than you?”

Then I remembered what Amir, a newly married Palestinian man I knew when I lived in Germany, said to me. “If I stay here, two kids is enough,” he told me, “but if I move back to Palestine and stop at two, my friends will say, ‘What’s the matter with you? Are you sterile?’ ”

The pressure, Amir described, to have a big family is about who he is and where he’s from, but as the planet’s crisis worsens, there’s pressure, or there should be, pushing us all in the opposite direction. In that sense we’re all Amir, standing at the cross-roads as we weigh how many kids we want against how many kids the planet can bear.

GELLERMAN: Commentator Bonnie Auslander, her husband, and two children – just two – live in Bethesda, Maryland.

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[MUSIC: Jingle Babies “What Child Is This?” from Rockabye Christmas’ (Jingle Cats Music – 1997)]

GELLERMAN: You can hear our program anytime on our website or get a download for your pod, my pod or iPod. The address is loe.org that’s loe dot org. You can reach us at comments@loe.org once again: comments at loe dot org. Our postal address is 20 Holland St. Somerville, Ma 02144. And you can call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-9988. CDs and transcripts are $15.00.

GELLERMAN: Next week we begin a series on climate change with a trip to the front lines, to a town in northern Canada that's trying to cash in on polar bear eco-tourism. Problem is, the changing climate isn’t cooperating.

WOMAN: If the change is as rapid as all the climate models predict, by the middle of this century there's no sea ice in Hudson Bay, there are no bears. If there's no sea ice, you can't have bears.

GELLERMAN: “Early Signs” on the climate horizon, next time on Living on Earth.


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with sounds that send shivers through polar bears.


GELLERMAN: Jonathon Storm recorded ice melting at Alaska’s Columbia Glazier.

EARTH EAR: “Water’s First Breath” recorded by Jonathon Storm from “The Dreams of Gaia” (Earth Ear – 1986)

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Chris Ballman, and Eileen Bolinsky - with help from Christopher Bolick, Kelley Cronin, James Curwood and Michelle Kweder. Our interns are Bobby Bascomb and Emily Taylor.
Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at LOE dot org. Steve Curwood’s away. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm. Organic yogurt and smoothies and milk. Ten percent of profits are donated to efforts that help protect and restore the earth. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from NPR member stations, the Ford Foundation, the Welbourne Ecology Fund. And the Saunders Hotel Group of Boston's Lennox and Copley Square Hotels. Serving you and the environment while helping preserve the past and protect the future, 800-225-7676.

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