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

March 5, 2010

Air Date: March 5, 2010



Climate Confusion

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"Climategate" has damaged the credentials of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and decades of science on global warming. But as scientists push back against efforts to dismiss the threat of global warming, some media watchers say journalists aren't balancing their coverage of climate change with the scientifically-sound other side of the story - that the impacts of a warming world could be worse than the IPCC predicts. Host Jeff Young talks with media experts and scientists about the fallout of the hacked email scandal, and how to repair damage. (12:00)

Note on Emerging Science / Liz Gross

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Researchers find naturally occurring laughing gas in clam bellies... but as Liz Gross reports the impact on the climate is not so funny. (01:40)

Nuclear Money Meltdown / Bruce Gellerman

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President Obama has big plans for the future of commercial nuclear energy but the industry still has to deal with the waste it’s generated over the past 50 years. The administration has pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain repository so, today, half a century of radioactive waste remains at power plants. That's costing taxpayers and ratepayers billions of dollars a year. Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman investigates the flow of federal funds and nuclear waste in the second story in our series. (09:15)

Years After War, the Battle for Benefits Continues

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Roughly 200,000 Gulf War Veterans suffer from debilitating diseases associated with Gulf War Illness. Jim Bunker, president of the Gulf War Resources Center, tells host Jeff Young that the federal government has denied many vets the benefits and treatment they need. But now, the Veterans Affairs Department has announced that they will re-examine benefits claims that have been denied. (06:30)

Three Men and a Bike / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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Bicycles burn calories, not carbon, so they’re considered among the cleanest forms of transportation. But most bikes are made of aluminum and steel which leave a large carbon footprint since the materials are mined and processed. Now a group of young men have come up with a clean, renewable replacement: bikes made of bamboo. Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith went to the Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn, New York and has our story. (06:00)

It Was Big While It Lasted / Dan Becker

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Safe Climate Campaign’s Dan Becker mourns the passing of a big car. The Hummer finds its eternal parking spot in that big lot in the sky. (02:45)

The Sound of Solar

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If you’ve ever seen the aurora borealis, you’ve seen evidence of the solar wind - the constant stream of hot, charged particles flowing into space from the atmosphere of the sun. Now you can listen to it, too. Members of The Solar and Heliospheric Research Group at the University of Michigan are using the solar wind as musical inspiration. Host Jeff Young speaks with composer Robert Alexander and space science research fellow Jason Gilbert about how to make music from celestial data. (07:00)

This week's EarthEar selection
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Great Plains toads trill their way to a new mate in Colorado.

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Jeff Young
GUESTS: Richard Alley, Bud Ward, William Freudenburg, Jim Bunker, Jason Gilbert, Robert Alexander
REPORTERS: Bruce Gellerman, Jessica Ilyse Smith
ESSAY: Dan Becker


YOUNG: From Public Radio International - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. A media storm swirls around climate science — embarrassing emails, mistakes in major documents that made the headlines. But the press coverage could be missing the most important facts.

WARD: Like it or not, the earth is still warming and the glaciers are still melting regardless of what happened with those emails – the climate doesn’t care.

YOUNG: Also, remembering the day a small town got its nuclear power plant, piece by piece.

MALLOY: And the whole school walked down the hill, and we sat there and we watched it drive down the road, cause it was a huge, huge, ordeal and we got out of classes for the afternoon and I can remember the turbine being brought in.

YOUNG: Atomic power came to Haddam, Connecticut, but the nuclear waste never left. We investigate the nuclear waste money meltdown. Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth. Stay with us!


Back to top


Climate Confusion

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

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

For climate scientists, now is the winter of their discontent. Their major work, the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize, is now under attack. A sloppy paragraph wrongly projected how soon Himalayan glaciers might melt. Another section overestimated flood-prone areas in the Netherlands. Scientists say the mistakes are minor. But the errors came to light just as the heat was building around another matter: embarrassing revelations in thousands of emails by climate scientists that were hacked.

NEWS MONTAGE: “Climategate set to break wide open…a rain of questions being raised today in the debate over global warming…the scandal over global warming heating up…anyone who thinks that those emails don’t damage the credibility of the entire movement is naïve…a major scientific scandal concerning researchers and their behavior.”

YOUNG: Well, now scientists are pushing back. The IPCC announced an independent panel to further review research. And leading figures – including the president’s science advisor and the head of the National Academy of Sciences – have launched a full court press to defend the integrity of climate studies.

We spoke with Penn State University Geosciences Professor Richard Alley, who helped write a section of the IPCC report.

ALLEY: There’s no question that there’s a paragraph in [sigh] buried in the thousand pages of the second working group report of the fourth assessment report of the IPCC that’s wrong. Scientifically it is not a big deal. The difficulty is that it’s shaken the confidence of some people in the public who have heard a lot of excitement about a bad paragraph and who may possibly think that because there’s one bad paragraph, it’s all bad, uh, I…[draws breath] no [laughs]. It’s completely absurd. The effort that the authors put in, the quality of the science is very, very high.

YOUNG: And why do you think it is that the story that most people are hearing about the IPCC now is of that nature, that, boy, there’s problems with this report?

Climate scientist Richard Alley. (Courtesy of CIRES)

ALLEY: I really wish I knew – what’s come out doesn’t shake the fundamentals of the science as we know it. One of the key things about science about the IPCC and all of us in general – a big result which is put forward to the public can never be broken by one mistake, and so my suspicion is that we just have not done enough of a job of communicating this.

YOUNG: That’s Penn State Professor Richard Alley. He faces a tough PR battle. Scientists waited months to respond. And reasoned, nuanced answers are hard to deliver in the press once a powerful – if factually challenged – story line has taken hold.

Veteran science writer and journalism teacher Bud Ward finds all this both fascinating and depressing. Ward edits the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. He faults some major media outlets for the way they’re telling this story.

WARD: It’s probably not being told with proper context. Let’s keep in mind that there are thousands of emails that were released. Like it or not, they lend themselves to what I call ‘cherry picking’, so it’s very easy for anyone to go in and pick a sampling of emails to support one’s previous perspectives. The whole story broke on a Sunday with two national newspapers doing the first stories on this, and that was the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I would fault them both for accepting prima facie the term ‘Climategate’. That of course harks back to Watergate, and in my view it’s something of a misnomer. I think Watergate was an extraordinarily important historic development at the highest levels of government. The climate emails that were hacked or stolen from the University of East Anglia – that may be a scandal, there may be an embarrassment, though probably not at the level of ‘gate’ like Watergate was. And that initially helped set the framing of the issue.

YOUNG: What about the accuracy of the coverage of the errors in the IPCC report?

WARD: Well, let’s keep in mind that IPCC, which of course won the Nobel Peace Prize just – what was it? – 15, 18 months ago, shared it with former vice president Al Gore. The IPCC was on a pedestal. I think they’ve fallen off that pedestal as a result of both the hacked emails and a result of the mistaken data that they reported on melting of Himalayan glaciers.

YOUNG: So if winning the Nobel Peace Prize sort of put them on the pedestal, I guess there’s a strong desire among journalists to knock them off that pedestal, isn’t there?

WARD: I guess one lesson is that one can’t remain on a pedestal forever; their time will come. Now in this case, with IPCC I think they basically would lead the league with an extraordinary batting average throughout their reports of accuracy, but it’s not perfect, there are mistakes. And some of these mistakes have come out just at the worst possible timing from IPCC’s standpoint, in the wake – if you will – of the hacked emails. So, it’s a combination of things that have begun to come together. But I think it have knocked IPCC a bit off stride, and certainly off its pedestal.

YOUNG: Are news consumers getting a sense from this coverage, though, that relatively minor errors in the scope of a 3,000 page scientific report, results in the whole thing being suspect or tainted?

The much-disputed hockey stick graph as shown in the 2001 IPCC report. (Courtesy of the IPCC)

WARD: I think it’s very easy to make a point that this hacking, or release, or a theft – call it what you want – of these emails did have a profound and has had a profound impact on the politics and the perception of climate science. There are a number of public opinion polls, which have shown the public’s concern over this issue has gone down, the percentage of the public who are considered critical of this issue or opposed to doing anything on climate change, on carbon dioxide, that percentage is going up. But it has not had much impact on actual climate science.

Like it or not, the earth is still warming and the glaciers are still melting, regardless of what happened with those emails. The climate doesn’t care, but the perception of those issues has taken a hit. I think what we’re also seeing, and it’s going to be real interesting to watch, is we’re going to see an increasingly lack of confidence in the science community. We’re going to see this, Jeff, not only in the climate science community directly involved here, but in the broader community of scientists. How much ground can scientists lose before the science, itself, loses ground in the popular mind?

YOUNG: You know, one of the earliest insights I gained into journalism, as a reporter, was that reporters don’t just gather and spread facts, reporters tell stories. And the narrative of the story can become very strong, sometimes too strong a temptation. Do you see that happening here, and what sort of narrative might we see in this coverage of climate science now?

WARD: Well, I think the narrative simply is this whole deck of cards could be falling apart – everything we’ve thought based on all the expert scientific evidence over the past two or three decades is now wrong, that’s the narrative that we’re at risk seeing take charge. And of course, there’s no truth to it, and truth eventually will out.

YOUNG: It’s just amazing to me that a body of science with this number of very smart people involved – I’m talking about the IPCC – won the Nobel Prize, and yet, in the court of public opinion is getting whipped.

WARD: Well, not only are they getting whipped in the court of public opinion, but I’m concerned they’re getting whipped in some other ways that are even a greater risk and a greater threat. There’s absolutely no question that the scientists involved in what we’ll call the establishment science, again the IPCC, the mainstream science has seen a frightening up-tick in the amount of hate mail that they’re receiving, they’re receiving threats. I know of one world-class scientist – no exaggeration here – one world-class scientist who has had dead rodents tossed onto the front door stoop with a note attached saying, ‘This could be you. This could be your children.’

So, it’s gotten extremely ugly and extremely dangerous out there. I can tell you there are scientists who’ve been working these fields for decades and are basically saying, ‘I’m not sure it’s worth it anymore. I don’t want my kids to be threatened; I don’t want hate mail coming to my email address or to my front door step. This isn’t the field I got into and I didn’t get into it to do these kinds of battles, I got into it to do the science.’

YOUNG: Bud Ward edits the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, thank you very much!

WARD: A pleasure to be with you.

YOUNG: Recent polling shows this coverage having an impact on public opinion. But, as Ward mentioned, nature seems singularly unimpressed. Despite some big snowstorms, global measurements show this January among the warmest on record. And emerging science points to climate change impacts that could come faster than the IPCC projected.

William Freudenburg tracked how those new studies were reported in major newspapers. He’s the Dielson professor of environment and society at University of California at Santa Barbara. And Professor Freudenberg found a curious disconnect in climate coverage.

William Freudenburg

FREUDENBERG: There were very few new studies coming out indicating climate change wouldn’t be so bad. There were more than 20 times as many new studies coming out indicating it would be far worse than the IPCC had estimated.

YOUNG: So this is – you’re comparing it to the sort of consensus projections in the IPCC and 20 times as many reports say it’s going to be worse than that?

FREUDENBERG: It’s going to be worse than that. The bottom line, I guess, for any journalist that really wants to cover both sides of the story, the scientifically credible other side is that the IPCC hasn’t been nearly straight enough about how bad it’s going to be.

YOUNG: I guess the irony in what you’re finding here is that the page-one stories we’re reading indicate, oh gosh, the IPCC seems to have overblown likely impacts, when in fact, the science sections of the same paper tells us something completely different.

FREUDENBERG: The people who cover the stuff that gets on page one, they tend to quote folks that don’t know that much about the science, but when you look at the sections where the science journalists – if you can find science journalists who are still employed today – they do a pretty impressive job. The coverage has been dominated by a relatively small number of contrarians, many of them affiliated with think tanks that manage to get a lot of their money from major fossil fuel companies.

YOUNG: And what’s the lesson here?

FREUDENBERG: Well, the lesson for the people who consume the news is that we’ve been getting sold a bill of goods for 20 years and we should demand that the scientific truth come out where there is scientific truth and the evidence is really pretty clear: global warming is happening, people are largely responsible for that, and it’s probably worse than we think.

YOUNG: Dr. William Freudenberg of the University of California at Santa Barbara, thanks very much.

FREUDENBERG: Thank you for your interest.

[MUSIC: Nguyen Le’ “Totsu” from Walking On The Tiger’s Tail (ACT Music 2005)]

YOUNG: Just ahead – a nuclear money meltdown – paying again for dealing with waste. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

Related links:
- Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
- Click here to learn about more dire climate predictions.
- For more on balance and bias on global warming coverage, click here.
- William Freudenburg’s website.
- Richard Alley’s website.

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Note on Emerging Science

"Excuse me!"

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. Coming up – the veterans who are victims of Gulf War illness get some overdue attention – but first this Note on Emerging Science from Liz Gross.


GROSS: Laughing gas can make a dental patient happy as a clam. But scientists were not so happy to find clams belching out this powerful greenhouse gas. A recent study by Danish and German biologists analyzed digestion in a number of aquatic bottom feeders, including mollusks and insect larvae. The belly gas of these invertebrates contained levels of laughing gas – or nitrous oxide – that surprised the scientists.

Nitrous oxide is the fourth largest contributor to global warming. Pound for pound, this gas traps 310 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. While burning fossil fuels is the most common source of nitrous oxide emissions, worms living in nitrogen-rich soil also release the gas. The recent study though was the first to measure the emissions from animals living in rivers, streams and oceans.

But the researchers found it's not the clams themselves that release the gas – it's their lunch. These animals feed on sediment full of nitrogen-hungry bacteria. And thanks to runoff from fields treated with chemical fertilizer, there are plenty of nitrates out there. Usually, the bacteria don't break down these nitrates. But in environments with no oxygen, like the belly of a clam or a snail, they do – releasing laughing gas in the process.

With demand for nitrogen fertilizer increasing, and global greenhouse gas emissions going up, nitrous oxide in mollusk burps is no laughing matter. That's this week's note on emerging science. I'm Liz Gross.


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Nuclear Money Meltdown

This comic book was given to school children on field trips to the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Plant. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

YOUNG: You might call it a money meltdown. For decades the federal government promised to permanently bury that high-level nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada. And utility consumers paid the government billions of dollars to do that. But the Obama administration wants to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain – while at the same time promising 54 billion dollars in federal loan guarantees to build new reactors. That means nuclear utility companies have to continue to store the spent fuel rods on site – often in pools of water and increasingly in special dry casks.

Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Bruce Gellerman has been following the flow of the waste and following the money. His story starts in Haddam, Connecticut.

GELLERMAN: Haddam, Connecticut is quintessential old New England – a collection of quaint villages founded 350 years ago. Today, it’s a bedroom community for New Haven and nearby Hartford.


GELLERMAN: Elizabeth Malloy was born and raised in the historic town.

MALLOY: Well, we’re in Haddam Meadow State Park right now and you can see what attracted the first settlers to Haddam, this beautiful open space floodplain here that provided great areas to grow hay and crops and things like that, as well as you’re right on the Connecticut River here.


GELLERMAN: At Haddam Neck, where the Connecticut converges with the Salmon River, there are sites from the town’s prehistoric past: homes from its rich colonial heritage and remnants of a nuclear power plant whose final chapter has yet to be written.

Elizabeth Malloy is executive director of the Haddam Historical Society. She’s keeper of records, and preserver of memories, like this one circa 1966 when this small town entered the atomic era piece-by-piece.

MALLOY: I was probably in third or fourth grade and I can remember the day they brought the turbine in. They actually closed school and the whole school walked down the hill and we sat there and we watched it drive down the road ‘cause it was a huge, huge ordeal. And we got out of classes for the afternoon and I can remember the turbine being brought in.

GELLERMAN: Then came the even larger nuclear reactor, and later the shipments of the one thousand nineteen enriched uranium fuel rods that would power the plant. In the basement of the historic society, Elizabeth Malloy pulls out plastic toy windmills, a comic book and a wood ruler – freebies students got on field trips to the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant. And on a dusty shelf, old metal canisters.

Elizabeth Malloy, executive director of the Haddam Historical Society, holds plastic windmills given out to children on field trips to the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Plant. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)


MALLOY: And the other thing we got were these movies. January 12, 1966, produced for the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Powerplant. I love the title, “The Atom, A-T-O-M, and Eve.” The other movie we have is called, “The Mighty Atom” starring Reddy Kilowatt. And he was a little kilowatt cartoon character, and the atom would come to life and tell us all the wonderful attributes of nuclear power.

[MUSIC/Cartoon: “I wash and dry your clothes…I’m Reddy Kilowatt!”]

MALLOY: It was interesting. I think probably every middle school in lower Connecticut probably went there at one time or another.

GELLERMAN: But today, the Connecticut Yankee site is off limits. It’s fenced off and guarded 24/7. In 1996, after the reactor core lost cooling water, the plant was shut down for good, just 28 years into its 40-year license to operate.

The Connecticut Yankee Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations. (Courtesy of Connecticut Yankee)

t took a decade to decontaminate the area. The discovery of radioactivity underneath the plant doubled the cost to decommission the site, soil and surroundings. Yankee utility ratepayers footed the 870 million dollar bill.


MALLOY: And directly across the way here you can see the parking lot of Connecticut Yankee. And you can see the old wires that would come down the dome. And the full facility was located directly straight ahead where those wires are, where that tower is.

GELLERMAN: So the plant was right here?

MALLOY: Right here, right on the river. You could not miss it. You could not miss it. I’ve actually flown in planes over Connecticut and that was how I could tell where I lived because we’d look down and look for the dome and now it’s completely gone, there’s not a building left.

GELLERMAN: What does remain of what was once the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant is hidden from view in 43 huge dry storage casks lined up in rows, like a modern Stonehenge. The casks – 20 feet high, and 11 feet in diameter – are made of concrete and stainless steel. Each weighs a hundred tons. They contain all of the spent nuclear fuel assembly rods ever used at the plant. Historian Elizabeth Malloy says in 1987 the federal government promised Haddam it would haul the dry casks away to a permanent repository in Nevada.

MALLOY: When this storage facility was built we were told that it would remain there until Yucca Mountain was open, which if you talked to one person it was going to be a matter of a few years. If you talked to other people it might be a decade or so. And if you were to talk to probably realists it was never going to happen.

GELLERMAN: And so far, it hasn’t. There are more than 60 dry cask Stonehenges, containing high-level nuclear waste, in 33 states. When Nevada said, “Not in my back yard,” communities like Haddam, Connecticut wound up keeping the radioactive waste in theirs. Technically, the cask sites are called Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations. At some, the nuclear plants are long gone and decommissioned. But the radioactive waste they produced – some with half lives in the tens of thousands of years – remain, orphaned, in what was supposed to be interim storage.

GELLERMAN: If you had a question for the owners of Connecticut Yankee, what would you ask them now in terms of the waste?

Elizabeth Malloy stands along the Connecticut River across from Haddam Neck where the nuclear power plant once stood. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

MALLOY: Well, I think I would ask them what is the plan for the dry cask storage. I mean, how long is it going to be there? And they’ll probably tell me they don’t know. It’s in the federal government’s hands. It’s always passing the buck I think to somebody else.

GELLERMAN: But you pay the bucks.

MALLOY: I do pay the bucks, but I’m just one person.

GELLERMAN: Today, we all pay to temporarily store commercial nuclear power waste but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Connecticut Yankee produced 110 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Under the terms of the federal Nuclear Waste Fund established in 1983, consumers of the energy paid a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour for the removal and permanent storage of the nuclear waste. Bob Capstick, a spokesman for Connecticut Yankee says the pennies have added up.

CAPSTICK: Right now I believe they collect somewhere on the order of 750 to 850 million dollars a year from the operating plants.

GELLERMAN: And that doesn’t include interest. Over the years, the federal Nuclear Waste Fund has collected more than 30 billion dollars. About 10 billion went to study Yucca Mountain; the rest went into the government coffers and now exists as an I-O-U to be reimbursed by future taxpayers.

Because Connecticut Yankee was decommissioned, it no longer pays into the federal waste fund. Today, the company only exists to maintain and monitor the dry casks storage installation. It costs eight million dollars a year and Bob Capstick says that money has to come from someplace and that someplace is once again: ratepayers.

CAPSTICK: In effect, they’ve kind of been forced to pay twice because of the failure of the federal government to come and take the fuel in 1998 to begin removing it from the site, we had to build this dry cask storage facility, and each year that we continue to have to safely protect and monitor this spent fuel for the federal government it costs the ratepayers money, as well. And so we’ve gone into court and we’ve sued the federal government for its failure to meet its obligation.

GELLERMAN: So far, Yankee has been awarded 140 million dollars in damages, and has more suits pending. So do other nuclear energy companies. In fact, there have been 60 suits against the federal government for failing to take the spent fuel as required by law. Power plant operators have won all of them. Seven billion dollars has been paid out and that money comes, not from the Nuclear Waste Fund collected from ratepayers, but the federal treasury – taxpayers.

And now Steve Kraft from the Nuclear Energy Institute says, enough is enough. The trade group wants the Department of Energy to stop collecting the one tenth of a penny per kilowatt-hour that continues to flow into the Nuclear Waste Fund.

KRAFT: If things continue the way they are, the rate payer will continue to pay and get no services because they’re shutting down the Yucca Mountain project which was the only thing that program was currently paying for.

GELLERMAN: And a growing number of state officials agree with the Nuclear Energy Institute.

WHITE: We have the federal government’s waste and the federal government has our money.

GELLERMAN: That’s Greg White. He sits on Michigan’s Public Service Commission.

WHITE: In my view, this is more than just a legal obligation. This is a moral obligation. At some point in time, the customers of the nuclear utilities in this country need to get some kind of return.

GELLERMAN: White wants the Department of Energy to live up to the contracts it signed 27 years ago and haul away what now amounts to more than half a century of nuclear waste.

The Department of Energy wouldn’t provide an official to comment for this story but the Obama administration has put together a blue ribbon commission to study the waste issue. Their report is due in two years. In the meantime, the nation’s 104 operating nuclear power plants continue to produce four and a half million pounds of high-level radioactive waste a year.


GELLERMAN: And in scores of places like along the shore of Haddam, Connecticut, behind high-security fences and sensors, huge storage casks made of cement and stainless steel stand – silent, unseen and largely out of mind – testimony to a nuclear era long gone but by no means over. For Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.

YOUNG: Hear part one of Bruce’s nuclear money meltdown at our website, l-o-e dot org.

[MUSIC: Medeski, Martin And Wood “Baby Let Me Take You Down” from Radiolarians II (Indirecto 2009)]

Related links:
- For more on nuclear waste, listen to the first part of this series.
- The Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant
- Click here for more about the town of Haddam.
- Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
- For more about the federal Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, click here.

Back to top


Years After War, the Battle for Benefits Continues

YOUNG: Some 700 thousand U.S. veterans served in the Gulf War in 1990 and ‘91. Of them, some 200,000 have reported a variety of symptoms commonly called Gulf War Illness. Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki recently announced that the VA will reexamine disability claims for thousands for Gulf War vets who were denied benefits.

Jim Bunker says it’s about time. Bunker’s president of the Gulf War Resources Center. His 14 years of Army service ended with a medical discharge after his tour in the Gulf.

BUNKER: I served in the Gulf War from January first of 1991 to May fourth of 1991. About mid-March I became extremely ill. I stared having muscle twitches and started losing control of some of my body functions, and had a hard time breathing and everything, and they evac-ed me out of there back to the States shortly after that. And ever since then I’ve had neurological problems, you know, tingling in my arms, my legs, and that. When I was discharged out of the service I was on two crutches because I couldn’t walk that well. And I had a lot of cognitive dysfunctions; it’s like the whole world’s going 150 miles an hour past you, and you can’t catch up.

YOUNG: I’m guessing this has affected your ability to work, as well?

BUNKER: Yes, I’m considered 100 percent disabled by the VA. Because of this I was medically retired out of the service.

YOUNG: Well, tell me about your experience once you were back and after you received your medical discharge. What was it like trying to get the VA to pay attention?

BUNKER: It was hard. It was really hard. I’d filed a claim for neurological problems – my hands, which was denied all the time and my legs also because they couldn’t find anything wrong with them. I started seeing a psychiatrist and I would be bringing her the different researches and she kept saying, no, it’s not that, and then give me more anti-depressants, and it’d just drive me nuts.

And finally, one day when the big report came out and then she just goes, Mr. Bunker, we just have to agree to disagree because I don’t care what you’re going to say about the scientific data, it’s only in your head. And I left her office and went up to the patient rep and got a whole different person.

YOUNG: So what do you think is causing these symptoms that are now known as Gulf War Illness?

BUNKER: The research advisories committee in 2008 came up with the causes: the nerve agents that we were exposed to in the Gulf, the pre-treatment that we had for nerve agents, which is called pyridostigmine bromide or PB pills. And then the pesticides that we were exposed to. There’s been a lot of studies showing that these ailments are affecting lab rats the same way they affect us, and also long-term studies with these chemicals in farmers who use pesticides have been starting to have – have been shown they have some of the same symptoms after a long-term exposures.

YOUNG: Why do you think so little has been done to this point to get that basic of a correction diagnosis for these Gulf War veterans?

BUNKER: Well, one of the main things the VA has held for years was that it was only stress and nothing but stress. And until Dr. Steele’s study released in 2000 showed that it wasn’t stress, but it determined that also veterans who were sick was based upon where and when they served in the Gulf War as to how sick they were. Wasn’t then until everybody started saying there might be something here.

YOUNG: How much of this rests in a sort of bias that wounds that aren’t immediately obvious, that aren’t physical, aren’t real somehow?

BUNKER: A lot of it. Almost all of it. You know, people say that if you can’t see it – a wound – if it’s not cause by a bullet, or you’re not burned or anything like that, then you’re really not hurtin’. Just grab your bootstraps, pull them up hard, and keep going. I’ve had my own family members tell me that. You know, my brothers, my sisters and them. And that gets really frustrating. They had the same philosophy, and probably slightly changed, but not too much for people with traumatic brain injuries.

There’s a lot of veterans put out the service from Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan because of traumatic brain injuries where they’re not functioning right anymore and the DOD puts them out with what’s called a personality disorder. And the discredit to those veterans was the fact that keeps them from being able to get benefits at the VA unless they know the right regulation to file under.

YOUNG: How might this proposal by VA secretary Shinseki change things?

BUNKER: If it’s done right, hopefully it’ll reopen claims that were denied for reasons that they shouldn’t have been and be able to provide compensation to these veterans that they well deserve. It also should train doctors and nurses and caregivers that this is a real ailment, that there are something really wrong with these people and it’s not just psychiatric disorders or they’re not hypochondriacs or anything like that, they’re really sick and need to be treated.

And I’ll wait to see like other veterans – we’re all just skeptics because we’ve heard a lot of things over the last 20 years, and we’re going to hold off and see exactly how it unfolds.

YOUNG: James Bunker’s president of the National Gulf War Resources Center. Thank you, sir.

BUNKER: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Bombay Dub Orchestra “Egypt By Air” from 3 Cities (Six Degrees Records 2009)]

YOUNG: Coming up: A creative new use for bamboo gets some traction. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

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

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Three Men and a Bike

Bamboo—the raw material to make bicycles in Bamboo Bike Studio—lies on a worktable beneath a finished product. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)

YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. And when it comes to clean, inexpensive and healthy transportation, bikes are hard to beat. But since they’re typically made of steel or aluminum, which go through a lot of processing, bicycles can still carry a sizeable carbon pedal print. In Brooklyn, NY, three men are taking an ecological approach to building bikes. We sent Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Smith to give it a spin.


SMITH: Rickety, jolting, awkward, riding a steel bike on a cobblestone road is a tricky balancing act. I huff and puff alongside Sean Murray, who moves with ease on his bike made of bamboo.

MURRAY: One of the nice things about the bamboo frames is that they drink up all of the vibrations in the road. So right now I’m not sharing your suffering.

SMITH: [Laughing] Why is that?

MURRAY: It’s because the bamboo itself is a composite material and it’s got these really strong fibers that are as rigid as steel. Those fibers are set in a matrix of very soft and supple bone, so you can ride over cobblestones like these and not really feel it.

SMITH: Bamboo bikes are Sean’s specialty. For almost two years he’s been working along with two friends at their Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn.


MURRAY: Always crazy traffic…go up and make a right.

SMITH: On the way to the studio, Sean’s bike draws a lot of attention. Heads turn as we come upon a blocked street where a commercial is being filmed.

MAN: Your bike’s made out of bamboo?

Marty Odlin harvesting roadside bamboo in New Jersey. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)


MAN: Can I pick it up?

SMITH: A crewmember notices how light the bike is – weighing a mere 4-6 pounds.

MAN: Nice, that’s cool…I like that!


SMITH: The one-room bike studio has high ceilings, little heat and unfinished walls. On the right bamboo frames in progress are mounted at workstations. To the left floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with different types of bamboo.

MURRAY: This is our bamboo, which comes from the tri-state area. This piece right here is from Staten Island. This retired firefighter gave us a call and then me and him chopped it down in his backyard.

SMITH: Bamboo grows quickly and is invasive, so there’s no shortage of the plant – even in the urban northeast. The team constantly fields calls from homeowners offering up backyard bamboo. Justin Aguinaldo designs the sleek bamboo bike frames. He uses special tools like a Japanese pull saw – a thin blade that resembles an icing spatula.

AGUINALDO: Bamboo has a really tough silica outer coating and it dulls blades really fast. And if you use a regular saw it’ll also be more prone to splitting.

Justin Aguinaldo shows off finished bamboo bikes. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)

SMITH: Justin hands me the saw and the bamboo and he and Sean nod at me expectantly.


SMITH: I’m surprised at how easy it is to cut the bamboo. Sean says it’s because the plant has been treated.

MURRAY: After we harvest the bamboo then we do a treatment process that strengthens it and takes it from a dead plant into something that you can build a bike out of.

SMITH: The bamboo is heated until it’s dried, which reduces the chance of infestation and rot. No chemicals are used; it’s heat that turns the fresh green bamboo to a baked golden brown. The team won’t disclose the specifics of the process while they’re still perfecting the technique. But, Justin says it’s sustainable.

AGUINALDO: It doesn’t take a lot of energy, which is really nice because not only does it conserve energy but it also makes it feasible for someone in a developing country or a non-industrialized country to actually build this bike on their own.

SMITH: That’s the major goal of this project. The Bamboo Bike Studio has paired with Columbia University’s Earth Institute to bring their technology to Ghana.

AGUINALDO: We’re trying to work with the tools they would have to work with and figure out a way to do it so that it’s scalable, so that it’s doable, you know is it possible for a human being with their own two hands and a few tools to actually do this.

A man in Ghana test rides a bamboo bike. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)

SMITH: For Ghanaians, and others in the developing world, bikes are a good form of low-cost transportation. Marty Odlin is the third member of the bamboo bike team. He recently returned from Ghana and says bikes can give people access to jobs, food, and hospitals.

ODLIN: I had a lot of people tell me what a difference it would make for them to have a bike.

SMITH: He looks forward to not only providing people with transportation, but also to creating bikes that are inexpensive and produced locally.

ODLIN: An average steel bike shipped in from China is roughly 100 dollars and in a large-scale factory we project that we’ll be able to sell these at a profit for about 50 dollars a bike.

Expensive metal bicycles for sale in Ghana. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)

SMITH: This reduction in cost could make a difference in Ghana, where the average per capita income is barely over 700 dollars a year. There’s a lot of bamboo in the country and using local materials could help fuel a bike-building economy. But, to Justin there are other reasons why he uses bamboo.

AGUINALDO: That question should be asked for all materials. Because then the question should be why steel…why is that the go-to all of the time?

SMITH: He says treated bamboo is as strong as steel and will hold up better on unpaved roads common in developing countries. On weekends, Sean, Justin and Marty run workshops in New York to teach others how to build their own bamboo bikes.

Sean Murrary (in blue) helps students work on a bike. (Courtesy of Bamboo Bike Studio)

The classes aren’t cheap – they’re over 900 dollars but the proceeds support research on how to build strong and easy-to-make bikes in developing countries. Students at the workshops learn more than just bike craftsmanship they also gain an awareness of the origin of materials.

MURRAY: Our tubes just grow out of the ground. So, just in the two days when you actually take the raw materials and put them together in such a way to make something as useful as a bicycle, it’s something that will then color the way that you look – not just at bicycles – but at every product.


SMITH: I leave the bamboo bike squad to get back to Manhattan.


SMITH: On the subway I look around me. After an afternoon with the Bamboo Bike Studio guys I can’t help but think about where the glass, the steel and plastic come from. And I wonder if they could be replaced with something more sustainable. Perhaps the transit system can start simply…bamboo seats anyone?


SMITH: For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Ilyse Smith in Brooklyn, NY.


Related link:
Click here for more about the Bamboo Bike Studio.

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It Was Big While It Lasted

Not too big too fail. (Photo: Tricky)

YOUNG: Well now, it is with deep emotion that we note the passing of a true giant in the automotive field. Dan Becker has this appreciation:

[MUSIC: Ray Davies “Funeral March” from Wurlitzer And Church Organ Music (Cavendish Music 2009)]

BECKER: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to bid farewell to a legend, one whose demise has been recorded around the world; such was the impact of this icon. One of massive strength, it left behind a vast mark – some would say gash – on our planet.

General Motors’ Hummer has died. But it will continue to spew its fumes – and spread global warmth – for years to come. The Hummer was born in 1992, the offspring of an M1A1 Abrams tank and – it is rumored –Beelzebub. Too big for its garage, it was raised in a driveway in Kokomo, Indiana. Eventually, it moved to the wide-open spaces of Scarsdale, N.Y. But throughout its life, it was misunderstood, got no respect, and often not enough gas.

The Hummer did what most cars do, but oh so much more. It drove through big puddles. It dropped kids at school. And like the true truck it was, it hauled lattes home from Starbucks. It had but five seats, just like the Prius. For all its hulk and bulk, it carried a modest trunk. Still, the Hummer managed to generate conflict even among the most conflict-averse. I remember the time an auto reporter called to say he was taking the Hummer for a test drive. He looked down at the car stopped next to him at a red light. There sat five nuns. Each blessed him – with a one-finger wave.

Over its lifetime, the Hummer’s greatest success was excess: Excess gas consumption –10 miles per gallon – and excess pollution. Some people hated the Hummer, but at heart it was just a big garbage truck that dumped into the sky. The Hummer will be missed – especially by the world’s oil cartels who benefited from Hummer’s success and became its close drinking buddies. Many petro-tyrants recall their late nights together when a well-lubricated Hummer would regale them with his adventures, like the time he emitted more carbon dioxide in a day than the entire nation of Slovenia.

The Hummer was predeceased by the Ford Excursion, affectionately known as the Ford Valdez. Survivors include Chevy Suburban, Ford Super Duty Pickup, Dodge Ram, Nissan Armada and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Services will be held in Federal Bankruptcy Court.

YOUNG: Commentary from the Safe Climate Campaign’s Dan Becker.


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The Sound of Solar

YOUNG: If you’ve ever been to the far north, you may have seen the aurora borealis, those dancing, leaping lights in the northern sky. What we see in the northern lights is the effect of the solar wind. But we haven’t been able to hear those electrically charged particles streaming through space from the sun. Until now:

[MUSIC: drumbeats, whooshing sounds, and vocals]

YOUNG: Here to tell us the story behind this music is Jason Gilbert, a research fellow in space science, and Robert Alexander, a composer and media artist. They’re part of the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group at the University of Michigan. Welcome to the program!

GILBERT: How are you doing?


YOUNG: Jason, what is that we were listening to?

GILBERT: What you were hearing was data from the advanced composition explorer, the ACE spacecraft. It’s measuring the solar wind. It’s essentially a stream of numbers that are coming down, which give us information on the temperature, the density, the charged state of the atoms in the wind.

YOUNG: What is solar wind?

GILBERT: Solar wind is essentially the atmosphere of the sun as it expands out into space. It goes streaming by the Earth very fast, and we catch it with our instruments, we measure what it is, what it’s made of, where it’s coming from, how fast and how hot it is.

YOUNG: So, obviously, pretty important to study this, but why is it important to take that data and turn it into music?

GILBERT: We wondered if there was a chance that there were things in the data that we just weren’t seeing as we look at it visually. Perhaps there was some pattern or some artifact that we could hear audibly instead. And so, we decided to sonify our data just to see if there was some other interesting piece of the puzzle that we could work out.

YOUNG: And Robert, that was your job, to take this raw data and make it into music. Where do you even start with that?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think that the things I noticed right off the bat just looking at the data is that some things were changing very rapidly – you’d get this really chaotic, sort of turbulent behavior with some of the data entries, while other points of data were happening much more smoothly. And some of the data points, such as the speed of helium as it was moving by the satellite. I was thinking that this would translate directly to something that might be similar to the sound of wind blowing here on earth.


ALEXANDER: I thought, well, what is wind sound like in our ears, and I thought that, hey, the pitch of wind as it goes by is in part determined by the speed at which it goes by. So that’s the approach that I took.

YOUNG: So this almost tribal drum beat that we hear…


YOUNG: What is that in terms of the data?


ALEXANDER: So, that’s a grandiose metronome. They’re actually representing the rotation speed of the sun on something it’s known as the Carrington rotation.

YOUNG: And the swelling, sort of, symbol crashes?


ALEXANDER: So, you’ve got this whooshing sort of sweeping sound and that relates directly back to the helium velocity and density.

YOUNG: And then the sort of constant tones, almost like a choir or a string section – what’s that?


ALEXANDER: So, I actually recorded my sister, Amanda Alexander, and I layered her voice such that at different charge states of carbon the prevalence of different layers of her voice changed just based on the charged state.

YOUNG: So, what we’re actually hearing here is the carbon in different charged states, the helium, and the speed that the sun is doing all this, right?

ALEXANDER: That’s correct.

YOUNG: And it comes together like music. It’s amazing.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. [Laughs]


YOUNG: And your – what it’s all about – your subject matter here is, it’s the sun. You’re giving voice to the sun, essentially.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, the source of all life on Earth. It’s pretty humbling to have that as source material.

YOUNG: Jason, is there a scientific benefit for this, or is this purely art, or does this affect the way you view what you study now?

GILBERT: In its current stage, this is purely an artistic production, but one of the things that we envision is perhaps having a graphical interface on your screen where you can check a box to turn on the carbon, or turn on the iron, or see how much this element is compared to this one. If we can make it an interactive tool like that, a researcher can use it find the science that they’re most interested in.

YOUNG: And does the finished product sound anything like what you had imagined when you first thought this up?

GILBERT: To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. When we first started this I didn’t know if it was just going to sound like dropping a handful on needles onto a piece of steel. You know, random noise everywhere, but when we first started to listen to what Robert had been able to sonify, we were able to recognize, oh, that was a coronal mass ejection that just went by; oh, I can hear the wind getting faster here.

And the first time he showed it to us, we actually had the data on the screen, so we were watching it go by and so we knew what was coming, and then when it went by we knew how to recognize it in the future. So it turned out to be much more than what I expected.

YOUNG: And Robert did this end up sounding like what you thought it might sound like when you started out with that stream of data?

ALEXANDER: When I first started out I was extremely aware of wanting this data to be scientifically accurate, so most of my sonification work was extremely restrained and it sounded like really simple tones, and the scientists they kept prodding me like really, be more adventurous, and take more risks here, and really go out and try using a beat rather than a metronome.

YOUNG: And Jason, has this affected the way you now look at your data, listen to your data, the kind of questions you might ask of the data?

GILBERT: I think this is definitely given me a new appreciation for how things work out in space. You know, we can watch our satellites and see visually how the solar wind affects them and how this space weather affects them, but to hear it sort of gives it a new dimension, one that I hadn’t considered before. It’s opened my mind.

YOUNG: Jason Gilbert and Robert Alexander who collaborated on putting the solar wind to music. Thank you both very much.

GILBERT: Thank you.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much for having us.

[MUSIC: Robert Alexander “Music From The Sun,” produced and composed by Robert Alexander]

Related links:
- The Solar and Heliospheric Research Group at University of Michigan.
- Composer Robert Alexander’s website

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YOUNG: On the next Living on Earth – 50 years before "An Inconvenient Truth", a moviemaker takes on climate change.

MOVIE CLIP: Well, it's been calculated a few degrees rise in the Earth's temperature would melt the polar ice caps!


MCBRIDE: You could say it's strange bedfellows, Frank Capra and Al Gore, but Capra was kind of like a premature climate change advocate.

YOUNG: Frank Capra, film legend and frustrated scientist, next time on Living on Earth.


YOUNG: We leave you this week in the company of Bufo cognatus.

[Earth Ear: Carlos Davidson "Frog and Toad Calls of the Rocky Mountains, Vanishing Voices," Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology" 1996]

YOUNG: The Great Plains Toad burrows underground in the grasslands of central Canada – south to Mexico. But they do come out to breed in the heavy spring and summer rains. These so-called “advertisement” calls by adult males hoping to find a mate were recorded near Wilcox, Colorado. These and other trilling songs may be found on the CD “Frog and Toad Calls of the Rocky Mountains” by Carlos Davidson.

[Earth Ear: Carlos Davidson "Frog and Toad Calls of the Rocky Mountains, Vanishing Voices," Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology" 1996]

YOUNG: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, Jessica Ilyse Smith, Ike Sriskandarajah, and Mitra Taj, with help from Sarah Calkins, Marilyn Govoni and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Emily Guerin and Bridget Macdonald. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. You can find us anytime at l-o-e dot org. I’m Jeff Young. 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. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield dot com. Support also comes from you our listeners, The Ford Foundation, The Town Creek Foundation, The Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues. And Pax World Mutual Funds, integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making, on the Web at Pax World dot com. Pax World – for tomorrow.


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