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Nuclear power plants - now safer and cheaper

Nuclear power plants - now safer and cheaper

Barry Brook traces the history of nuclear power. Today, about 440 nuclear power reactors are in
use, known as Generation 2 reactors. These were designed between 1960 and 1980. Recently,
Generation 3 reactors have adopted a standard design, allowing for faster approval. 45 are being
built. 350 are planned. Chernobyl was a cheap design. There was no containment building. Barry
Brook describes Chernobyl as an accident waiting to happen. Newer reactors are orders of magnitude
safer than the older models. Generation 4 is the new excitement. Efficiency is much higher meaning
uranium supplies will last so much longer. They can burn a range of isotopes of uranium and other
elements producing short-lived waste.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: The nuclear power stations some of us grew up with are now over 50 years old. The
next, the fourth generation, represents a whole new prospect, one which may have influenced
environment minister Peter Garrett with his go-ahead for another uranium mine this week. Here's
Professor Barry Brook with a brief history of nukes.

Barry Brook: Well, the very first generation, I guess you'd call generation zero, was Fermi's
graphite pile under the basketball court in Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the
atomic bomb during WWII. And from that technology spun out the reactor program for US submarines,
and so there was a big push by Admiral Rickover to develop the pressurised water reactor for US
submarines. Then they basically took a submarine reactor and put it on land in Shippingport and it
was the generation one nuclear reactor. And then they built one in Calder Hall in the UK...

Robyn Williams: Calder Hall in the north, that's right. I remember that was opened over 50 years
ago.

Barry Brook: Yes, that was in the early '50s, about 1952 Calder Hall was opened. From that then it
was a rapid phase of research and development and refining the technology. From the 1960s through
to the 1980s is generally what's called generation two nuclear power, and that involves a whole
raft of different designs. Most of the nuclear power that's delivering today...so there's about 440
reactors delivering today and all of them use water as a moderator and a coolant, and so they're
called light water reactors. They can either be pressurised water reactors or boiling water
reactors, but they're the same fundamental technology.

Recently, in what's being called an evolutionary advance in nuclear power, there are these
generation three nuclear reactors, and they're basically like generation two but they're less
costly, they're more modular, you can build a lot of the components in a factory. Importantly
there's a standardised design that they're trying to develop, which means you can get certification
for just one design and then plonk it down in many different places without having to seek
independent certification in every new reactor, which was a big stumbling block, especially in the
US, in the 1970s. China, for instance, is building 12 nuclear power plants right now, all of the
same model, called the AP-1000, which is one of those generation three units developed by
Westinghouse.

So that's the thing that's happening right now, and I think there's about 45 nuclear power plants
under construction, about 350-odd in planning stages around the world, so that's taking off. But
that's still basically the nuclear power that everyone thinks about. It is certainly much safer
technology than those earlier reactors and certainly the reactor that had a steam explosion and a
graphite fire in Chernobyl was a funny sort of Russian design, was very cheap to make, didn't have
a containment building, would never be built in a western country. Essentially as an accident it
was, whilst appalling, just can't happen in any western reactor.

But even from there the design safety has gone orders of magnitude further. And so the most recent
model developed by General Electric Hitachi called the Economic and Simplified Boiling Water
Reactor had a thorough risk assessment done on it and they estimated the chance of a Three Mile
Island style meltdown (which was that accident that happened in Pennsylvania in 1979, it didn't
kill anyone but it wrecked the reactor) about once every 29 million reactor years for these new
designs, so that's a pretty unlikely prospect.

Robyn Williams: But these ones because they've really got built-in safety, they're really carefully
designed and so on, they're really expensive, aren't they. They take a long time to put up and cost
a fortune, so that's why so many people are reluctant (even the Americans) to put them up.

Barry Brook: That's the popular opinion, that they're very expensive, but most of the expense in
the US comes from the complicated certification rules right now. Japan, for instance, is building a
lot of nuclear reactors and in the late '90s they built two advanced boiling water reactors which
were one of these first of the generation three design, and they built them for a cost of less than
$2,000 a kilowatt hour, which is highly competitive. Coal, you might bring it in at $1,500 a
kilowatt hour, so it's very close to that sort of price range.

Similarly, the AP-1000s, the whole idea is that you have the standardised, modularised designs. A
lot of the components can be factory built, they've been simplified in many ways, inherently safe
in that their safety systems rely on the basic laws of physics to shut them down, so it's often
called walk-away safety. There's so many redundant back-up systems and physical systems that need
to fail and essentially can't fail unless Newton and Einstein are wrong, that they're inherently
safe. So I think the costs of nuclear power are vastly overplayed in the argument about whether we
should take it up.

Robyn Williams: What about generation four, using up some of the old waste?

Barry Brook: Yes, generation four is a big excitement I think in nuclear power, and that is often
called a revolutionary design. So generation three is evolutionary, the same sort of technology
just done better. Generation four looks at it in a completely different way, although ironically
most of the technology for it has been developed quite consistently over the last 50 years. The
very first experimental reactors used a system called a fast spectrum, to have really fast neutrons
that could break up not just what we think of as enriched uranium, uranium-235, but also
uranium-238, depleted uranium. So instead of getting less than 1% of the energy out of uranium,
these fast reactors get about 99.8% of the energy out of it which means they're incredibly more
efficient in terms of using the uranium resource. And actually we've mined enough uranium already
to run the whole world in these reactors for about 500 years.

Robyn Williams: So the old argument about running out of uranium isn't on any more?

Barry Brook: We may run out in 50,000 or so years if we powered the whole world by uranium, but
then we've got about four times as much thorium to use as well. So the argument that we'll run out
of uranium is a dead duck.

Robyn Williams: And what about using the old waste stuff that we've got stored away?

Barry Brook: That's the really exciting prospect, that these fourth generation reactors, because
they can burn all sorts of transuranics, so not just uranium but plutonium and americium and
curium, and they can burn the fertile isotopes as well as the fissile isotopes, so they can burn
uranium-238. It means that what is generally considered spent fuel, which is about 1% plutonium,
about 98% uranium and a bunch of transuranics, all of that can be burnt in these reactors. So
something that would have to be stored for around 100,000 years because of their long half-lives
(plutonium is 24,500 years, for instance, it can take quite a while to decay) these can all be
consumed in these reactors, generate electricity and then the fission products, the result of
smashing these large atoms into smaller ones, highly radioactive which is a good thing actually
because it means that their half-lives are very short and within less than 300 years they're below
the radioactive level of the original uranium ore. So all of the fuel that's currently being
produced by the current generation of light water reactors will go into fast reactors and be
totally consumed. So there is no long-lived radioactive waste problem.

Robyn Williams: But 300 years is more than my lifetime and it's still going to be around. Doesn't
that worry you a bit?

Barry Brook: It produces about a tenth the waste of the current generation reactors, so it's a very
small amount of waste. It comes in a vitrified form which is a type of rocky glass that locks up
these fission products for about 1,000 years.

Robyn Williams: Like synroc?

Barry Brook: Very similar to synroc. And of course 1,000 years if you've got to wait 100,000 years
isn't sufficient, but if you've only got to wait 300 years then that's fine. So we've built places
like Yucca Mountain. We'll need geological storage areas for this waste, but managing it for 300
years is clearly not a problem. We've managed many structures built by humans for 300 years, and it
will be about a tenth of the waste, and frankly it's also the only possible solution for getting
rid of that long-lived waste. And so I think for all of the huge benefits that using this sort of
power source brings, the small cost of storing about a tenth the amount of waste that comes out of
current reactors is a tiny price to pay.

Robyn Williams: How much do they cost and how long does it take to put them up?

Barry Brook: That's a question that can only really be answered by building a commercial scale
demonstration. The Russians are building a reactor called the BN-800 right now, which is a sodium
cooled fast reactor, it's one of these generation four reactors, currently under construction. The
Chinese are looking at building one too. The Indians are building a fast breeder reactor. So we'll
know within the next couple of years about how much they cost and about how quickly they can be
built.

General Electric Hitachi, one of the major world producers of nuclear power stations, has got a
model blueprint called the S-PRISM which is one of these integral fast reactors that they say can
be built for about $1,500 per kilowatt hour, which is extremely competitive. And the design of
these plants is such that they're very modular. Each reactor is about 300 megawatts, and so you
might have them in double loops and about four of these reactor loops within a plant, so a total
plant of about 2.5 gigawatts, which is considerably larger than any coal-fired power station. The
economics of doing it that way means that most of it can be built in a factory and then brought on
to site, and so that reduces costs. You can actually build them on sites where coal-fired power
stations currently are. Even in some cases there's the prospect of ripping out the coal burner and
whacking in one of these fast reactors. And frankly if we're going to replace the 500-plus
gigawatts that are being built in China right now and that have been built in the last ten years,
all of that coal that we've got to shut down, I see this as being by far the best most economic
prospect of convincing China to do that.

Robyn Williams: Barry Brook, who is the Sir Hubert Wilkins Professor of Climate Change at the
University of Adelaide, Wilkins a legendary explorer. The fourth generation of nuclear power,
perhaps that why Peter Garrett gave the nod to another Australian uranium mine this week.

Bruce Alberts - editor Science magazine

Bruce Alberts - editor Science magazine

The journal Science was first published in 1880. Regarding climate change Alberts says there is no
debate among scientists. Politicians will continue to argue. He says papers challenging climate
change aren't published because they don't pass peer review, the method which applies to all papers
published in key journals. He points to astrophysics as an area which is expecting enormous growth
in the next few years due to technical advancement.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Bruce Alberts is a top scientist too, a former present of the National Academy of
Science in the USA. Now he's editor of the great journal Science, often mentioned in this program.
So how is he coping in publishing?

Bruce Alberts: I'm still not on top of it. I've found actually in every job I've had (I've had many
different kinds of jobs throughout my career) that it takes me a year of actually working on
something before I really get familiar with it and learn all the ins and outs. But I'm slowly
catching on. Putting out a magazine every week is sort of a miracle. We have the inauguration, the
city is closed down for two days, and still the magazine comes out. I'm actually not sure how it
happens.

Robyn Williams: It's been coming out for many, many years, hasn't it.

Bruce Alberts: Yes, since 1880 and they've never missed an editorial. I'm responsible for making
sure there's an editorial every week. I was hoping that there had been somebody else who had missed
one but I'm not that well organised and sometimes it's pretty close.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you some things about science in general. Talking about editorials, I
remember one that your predecessor Don Kennedy had which was headlined Debate Over about climate
change. Was he right?

Bruce Alberts: I think among scientists the debate is over, of course not among politicians. The
problem is always in science that you can always find scientists who take the contrary view, that's
how science advances, and so you could always find a scientist who will take any position on any
issue, and those who don't want to believe in climate change do that. Often the media feel they
have to give a balanced view, so they have one of each kind. My old job with the National Academy
of Science, its major role is to really tell the government what the consensus opinion of science
is and try to avoid that kind of confusion that happens when you could find testimony...scientists
on every side. And almost always the consensus of the scientific community is correct, and
certainly what you should bet on when looking forward towards the future.

My academy did several reports, the most memorable one perhaps was for George W. Bush when he was
going to Europe in 2001, and suddenly people in the White House asked us 14 questions about climate
change. We did a very rapid report for him that basically said what we would say again today, that
it's 95% certain that human actions are causing serious global warming. And when you have odds of
95% that your house is going to burn down, you'll do something about it.

Robyn Williams: Of course you've got a tremendous overview of the published papers, not only in
your own journal but in other journals. Out of 1,000 papers on climate change, how many can you
remember that go against the trend? Any?

Bruce Alberts: Well, I get lots of complaints from people who want to publish papers saying climate
change doesn't exist, but they have a hard time getting their papers published because they don't
pass peer review. So there are actually very few papers that get published in the peer review
literature that seriously challenge in any way the basic hypothesis. As in evolution (we're at a
meeting on evolution right now), there are always things you don't understand, and the creationists
use those things you don't understand, the 'missing links', to challenge the whole idea of
evolution. In the same way some people use the few things we don't understand (we never understand
everything) to challenge the whole idea of climate change. It's not a valid way of talking about
science.

Robyn Williams: No, there's always doubt about some detail, but I just want to get a picture
of...given the fact that there's so much politics surrounding climate change, the science is
something that a few people in the academies and a few people in journals can have an overview of,
and of course you've got the privilege of looking from both vantages having been president of the
National Academy and also editor of a journal. And so your interpretation of what really is
legitimate science as we know it in 2009 is very important.

Bruce Alberts: Yes. So when the academy does something like answer the 14 questions that the White
House gave us for Bush about climate change, we set up the committee that has the broadest range of
scientifically valid views on it, and we get in that case a consensus report. But this is a
critical issue for every nation. I think one of my missions at the Academy and still I think a
critical mission for me at Science magazine, is try to help build up science everywhere. Because if
you're sitting in some African country, you want to know what your scientists say about this.
You're going to be pretty distrustful of Americans or Chinese or somebody coming in and telling you
what the science says. And it's a strong argument for having a scientific capacity in every nation.

When I was first in the Academy we dealt with, for example, sad issues of people starving and yet
refusing to accept corn that had some genetic modification in it as a food stock, when in fact that
corn was safe. And what you need in those African countries that have those kinds of problems or
any country that has those kinds of problems, you need your own scientists to be able to reliably
inform the public about the consensus, and many countries don't have that. If we had much more
scientific capacity everywhere I think we'd be a more rational world.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you about astrophysics and the future. At the moment physics is in an
embarrassing state with all sorts of big questions unanswered, conflicts and so on. Do you see that
being resolved in the next few years?

Bruce Alberts: I'm not an expert in astrophysics but I have to be on top of what the experts
believe in order to run this magazine, and the experts who I believe in feel that the next five
years are going to be a terrific time for astrophysics. There are new machines, not only the
collider but observing instruments in space that hopefully, people think will give us a handle on
what dark energy and dark matter are. 95% of the mass energy in the universe is not known, so this
is a great challenge for science. I think it's really intriguing to the general public as well to
think that science has been able to discover that 95% of what's out there in our universe is
something other than what we're familiar with.

I'm very interested in different kinds of science education that would allow kids not just to
memorise what scientists have discovered, do much less of that, but also reach out and deal with
some of the mysteries that we don't understand and get them excited about exploring the world and
giving them some experience of exploring the world themselves. So that's another place where I
think Science magazine can have a substantial effect.

Robyn Williams: How would that work, if you've got such an august science journal with technical
papers as well as high powered policy at the front, how would young people get something out of
that unless they're really, really clever?

Bruce Alberts: This is what we're struggling with right now. I'm a firm believer that if you're
going to try to do something like this you have to have people who are actually dealing with young
people design the experiment. First of all, as a scientist, every organisation I've ever been
responsible for, I believe in doing experiments, and some will not work and some will. So we're
about to do an experiment, and we have a team of teachers, both at the high school level and the
college level, who've actually been using Science magazine in their own way for their classrooms,
and we're trying to work with them to prepare very selective things from Science. Not everything is
appropriate.

So they'd have the scientific paper of the news focus article, but in addition to that they'd have
some kind of helpful background material that would enable them to come to grips with some of the
technical issues, but even more importantly, some challenges for them to try to meet in dealing
with this kind of material by giving them something where they have to do some inquiry of their own
using the web and other resources. This is the way you get kids excited about science and realising
what science is. In the Unites States we've completely bored our kids with facts...they call them
factoids...this is a joke. And what results is what I call learning science is learning key terms
as a vocabulary.

Some kids in San Francisco, including my granddaughter, the homework is writing down a bunch of
science words and writing the definition. They've got 50 of these things to do every night, and who
likes that? It's not science, and it actually turns everybody off of science. So I think we need a
completely different redefinition of what we mean by science education. In this belief I'm in good
company because the National Academy of Sciences did a major report called Taking Science to School
in 2007 which basically says the same thing.

Robyn Williams: Well, of course the National Academy of Science in Australia has got a similar kind
of program called Primary Pursuits which has been tremendously successful. Final question about, of
course, the new government, it's been there since January 20th and you've got your senior science
advisors in place; how do you assess the new regime?

Bruce Alberts: All scientists are very pleased about the attitude toward science as well as the
quality of the people that have been appointed to important scientific positions. People like Steve
Chu you would never have thought of as being in the Cabinet. He's a fantastic scientist and a
fantastic manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Robyn Williams: And Nobel Prize-winner as well.

Bruce Alberts: Yes, a Nobel Prize-winner of course. And we need scientists to support all these
people because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see if scientists could actually be good
or I would say excellent administrators. And Washington is enormously complicated and difficult and
these are very well-meaning and skilful people but I think they're going to need a lot of support
from all of us to make this complicated task work.

Robyn Williams: Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and former president of the
National Academy in the USA. I talked to him at the Darwin Festival in Cambridge.

Forty years since Apollo 11 - first manned mission to the Moon

Forty years since Apollo 11 - first manned mission to the Moon

In 2009 we're celebrating 40 years since Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to the Moon.
Twenty years later, and twenty years ago, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and
Buzz Aldrin gave a press conference in Washington. Today we replay excerpts from that press
conference.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: I think you may have noticed we landed on the Moon exactly 40 years ago. The
Science Show celebrated last week, as did Catalyst on ABC television. Today let's hear from the
astronauts themselves, reflecting at a press conference 20 years ago, starting with Buzz Aldrin.

Buzz Aldrin: Apollo, to me, was a response to a challenge. It has been termed by many as one of the
most audacious endeavours in human history. About a year ago, I elected to make an effort at
putting down some of my reflections as to what I thought the significance was of the putting
together of that event and the achieving of it, and it's available in the form of Men From Earth
right now.

I had hoped that, along with that, this might become a catalyst to chart a new course, perhaps
because I got caught up in the enthusiasm of the '60s and of achievement that we were all a part
of, perhaps wishful thinking. I felt that this situation would be a very ripe one for the
leadership of our nation to chart a new course, a bold course. I feel certainly that we will have a
course charted for human expansion outward.

Bill Heinz: Bill Heinz of the Chicago Sun Times. How are you? For Neil Armstrong. In Houston on the
5th July, I believe it was, of 1969, I asked you if you had thought of any memorable words to say
as you landed on the Moon. You said you had not. Then, on 20th when you did land, you gave us some
very memorable words indeed, and I'm wondering when it came to you exactly what would be the
appropriate thing to say?

Neil Armstrong: Well, it was a statement that was natural in the sense of the time. It was a step
and a step, and I thought about it really after we got there.

Frank Miles: Frank Miles, Independent Television News, London. Since one of the main purposes of
the Apollo program as a whole was to gather Moon rock, and during the course of the six landings
850 pounds, some seven and a half hundredweights, was gathered, and in excess of 90% of that still
lies untouched in a vault in Texas. Would you like to comment, Mr Armstrong or Dr Aldrin?

Neil Armstrong: Yes, I think that was superb idea. It may be that we don't have the opportunity to
return to the Moon in the next decade or two. During that time period, new analytical techniques
and experimental devices will be invented which will allow far more understanding of those samples
than we have available to us with our current equipment and techniques. So the fact that we're
saving large amounts of that rock for future use I think is perceptive and wise.

Eda Molinari: I'm Eda Molinari from Familia Cristiani, Italy. How did your great experience change
your inner life?

Neil Armstrong:: Well, before 1969, the press conferences were much smaller.

Dick Juliano: Dick Juliano from AP Radio. For Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin. It's estimated that it
costs as much as $300 million to launch a space shuttle, and it could cost $30 billion to build the
Space Station. That money could build a lot of houses here in the United States and feed a lot of
hungry children. What would you say to Americans to justify the resources that go into space, as
opposed to being spent here at home?

Buzz Aldrin: I'd look at the numbers. We're putting less than 1% of our budget into the space
program. I certainly think it's well worth that and more. We could carry out, I think, a very
credible, expansive program for less than 2% of our budget. I don't really believe it's up to us to
make value judgments as to exactly how that ought to be spent. I think we're expected to be firm
advocates for the business that we were in for a good bit of our life, and I think we certainly
are. We advocate expansion of space activities as much as possible.

Michael Collins: I would just say that it's the responsibility of a government to take care of
present needs and to anticipate future directions. And it seems to me that less than a penny on the
federal dollar is not an excessive amount to look toward our future.

We're a nation of explorers. If we had pursued the logic that says you have to take money from the
space program and put it into restoring the cities, we would never have ventured beyond Jamestown
or Plymouth, because certainly they were squalid little settlements with problems that dwarf the
problems of cities today, and we never would have gotten west beyond the Appalachian Mountains had
we decided to render those little colonies perfect before we continued our exploration, and I think
that the same thing is true today.

Muriel Pearson: Muriel Pearson, CBS News. This is a question for all of you. What was the moment of
greatest personal fear for each of you during the flight, besides knowing that you'd have to face
all of us when you get back?

Buzz Aldrin: Compared to that, all the rest sort of pales into insignificance.

Neil Armstrong: I would just answer the thing you fear the most is the unexpected. We used to spend
a lot of time practicing our responses to various kinds of failures and abnormal circumstances, and
I think we felt fairly comfortable with most of the kinds of things that might happen. The ones you
worry about are the ones you didn't foresee and didn't properly prepare yourself for.

Michael Collins: Well, I would say flying to the Moon is a long and delicate daisy-chain of events;
any link in the chain, if it gets severed, ruins the whole thing. The one that...it wasn't fear,
but it was mistrust, the one that I mistrusted the most was the rendezvous part. That was the thing
that was on my mind primarily was bringing this ungainly looking critter back up from the surface
of the Moon successfully.

John Getter: John Getter, KHOU-TV. Gentlemen, I think what we're all struggling to try to explain
here, maybe you can help us with, is an understanding of what was different then from what is now
that allowed the whole world to get behind such a project for a short time? Is it simply that the
Russians aren't as bad a guys as they used to be, that we have done this, some combination? Is it
just the times? What?

Buzz Aldrin: I think we all sense what you're trying to point at. Those years that were ripe for a
commitment of that nature in the '60s were ones of international uncertainty and perhaps a bit of a
questioning of where our technical competence was relative to some of the unknowns, exactly what
the Soviets were able to do then.

A lot of that certainly has changed now, but I think we all sense that there's an exponential
increasing of technology and capabilities to do things, and certainly space is a challenge to go
out there. And just naturally we would like to expect responses to come to that challenge of the
frontier, the cutting edge of technology demonstrations, to respond with a significant growing
series of achievements.

The capability technically does exist to do a lot of things, but also their price tag begins to go
up rather significantly, and that tends to space them out a little. But once establishing an
expectation of interesting, significant achievements of technology in space, I think we'd all just
naturally like to see them continuing on in some fashion.

Michael Collins: President Kennedy said that we were going to land a man on the Moon and return him
safely to Earth, that was his goal. President Bush, whom I consider to be a president as dynamic as
Kennedy, I think, in today's climate would have to say, 'I think we ought to dedicate ourselves to
the goal of perhaps considering appointing a commission, after due deliberation with the Congress
of investigating the feasibility of certain long-range goals for the space program, perhaps even
including a mission to Mars.' You know, it's just a sign of the times. The times are a lot more
complicated today, plus there were a couple of precipitating events that caused Apollo to be
launched that do not exist today.

Max Gomez: Max Gomez from KYW-TV in Philadelphia. You've all expressed some significant support for
an expanded role of America and space exploration and a permanent place in space. The public, I
think the problem is they don't understand exactly why is it important that we continue to explore.
And is that important for America? Is it important for perhaps mankind in general to continue to
explore? And then, just as importantly, because it's part of the argument that keeps going back and
forth even within NASA, does man need to be part of that exploration?

Neil Armstrong: I think it's a good question and a fair question and probably the question; what is
it about exploration? And I think it's just inherent in the human condition. I don't know whether
we have an exploration gene or whether it's something that we acquire. I think we have a curiosity
gene and that's very, very close to exploration, but people have always gone where they've been
able to go. Some tribes have been happy to stay in the rainforest, but if you go back to the
littoral nations of Western Europe, they've always had an obsession to go out to the far corners of
the globe and it's just inherent in us and I think particularly in this country. We are a nation of
explorers. I mean, we've started on the east coast, we went to the west coast and then vertically.
I mean, starting with the Wright brothers, Yeager through the sound barrier, Armstrong and Aldrin
on the Moon, it's in our tradition, it's in our culture, it's a fundamental thing to want to go, to
touch, to see, to smell, to learn, and that I think will continue in the future.

Robyn Williams: The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin in 1989.
Compare what they're saying today.

DNA from old grave sites

DNA from old grave sites

Hundreds of soldiers are thought to still lie in pits where they were buried by German forces in
the days immediately after the World War 1 Battle of Fromelles. For Australia, it was the worst day
in military history with the loss of about 1,900 soldiers. The remains of 400 soldiers have never
been found. Now the search is on to locate the soldiers' remains. DNA analysis will be used. The
Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide specialises in the recovery of DNA
from ancient human specimens. Alan Cooper is concerned that an early deadline won't allow complete
analysis to be done.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: The news from France isn't good. It was worse during WWI when so many Australians
perished. Now Dr Alan Cooper, director for the Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide is embroiled in a
fresh imbroglio about the dead.

Alan Cooper: There's a very interesting case that everyone will no doubt have heard about, about a
mass grave from WWI called Fromelles, and this was revealed through the heroic activities or an
amateur historian who's been trying to find the location of a number of missing servicemen from
WWI, and against all odds and some resistance from officials, went out and actually used air time
photographs from WWI and a lot of historical data to pinpoint the site of a major battle at
Fromelles. It's actually the worst day in Australian military history in terms of numbers of dead,
somewhere around 5,000 I think, an enormous number. (Editor: Australians in Formelles - 1,900 dead,
casualties 5,500. Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was the first major battle for the Australian troops and they were sent over the top in a badly
planned attack, you know, here we go again. The British pulled out, didn't tell everybody, the
Australians went over the top, there was no support. They got through the lines, an amazing charge,
obviously pretty heroic stuff, and then without the support had to get back, and by which stage the
Germans had set up crossfire with machines guns and shot everybody down. It was a huge disaster.

The sad thing was...that was sad enough, but what made it worse was that many of the Australian
bodies were recovered from no-man's-land by the Germans and buried quickly, as happens in war under
pretty trying conditions, behind the lines, and for some reason this grave was lost, the records of
it were lost or not followed up on at least anyway. And so about 400 Australians who were never
found have been missing ever since. And that's what the school teacher went out and did, he
actually found these people and he found, using metal detectors, Australian badges, WWI badges,
actually showing that the site existed.

Since that point the Australian government has stepped in to support the excavation of this mass
grave to try and identify the missing personnel because many of the families have no idea what
happened in this battle. So the mass grave has been located, they're digging it up right now. It's
a project funded by both the UK and the Australian governments, and there's a move afoot to try and
do the genetic identification of these individuals, because there's 400 bodies, and trying to work
out who's who is going to be pretty tricky.

We've been trying to get involved in this project because the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is
the only international laboratory that specialises specifically in the recovery of DNA from very
damaged ancient human specimens, and in that regard we're quite different from forensics groups.
Forensics, as you see on TV, is fantastic at getting DNA back from tiny amounts of material. For
example, if you drink from a glass your lips will leave behind DNA on the glass, and like all good
spy novels they can run around afterwards and pick the glass up and get your DNA off it. That's
great. It's a tiny amount of DNA and forensic techniques work very well. But the key point is the
DNA is in good nick, it's long, intact molecules, hardly any of them but they're long and intact.

The difficulty of something like Fromelles is you're talking...it's 100 years in wet clay in
France, and that's a long time, the bodies have all decomposed, the bones have been quite damaged.
And the project unfortunately...this is being run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the
UK...they're trying to run it like a forensics project where they've basically said 'We want all
the genetic work to identify these 400 bodies to be done by December', and the archaeology is not
going to be completed, the digging up of the material, until September. So you're going to try and
identify 400 bodies from 100 years ago, all of whom are European and genetically rather closely
related in six months? It's just crazy. And yet at the same time the project itself is going to run
for five years because they want that much time for the modern relatives to turn up and give
samples to try and identify these people.

I'm writing all sorts of protest letters because I think this is just ridiculous. We can't do that
in six months, no-one can. The best you could do is to get a forensics lab to run standard kits,
like they do after a mass disaster, which are designed for good quality DNA. They're not going to
work on a large proportion of this material, and as a result you're going to get a very small
percentage of individuals being identified that could otherwise have been. We would be able to,
using proper ancient DNA techniques, we think get between 50% to 80% more of those individuals
identified, allowing the families to do the burials, to actually work out what had happened. And it
just drives me nuts that...

Robyn Williams: You could actually do the bits, you could handle that sort of technology?

Alan Cooper: Totally, that's what we're set up to do. For example, we're part of this National
Geographic project you might have heard of called the Genographic, mapping humans all around the
world. We are the ancient DNA node, if you like, of that. There are six groups, one of them is us,
and we do the ancient DNA from the entire world. We're the only group in the world that specialises
in this ancient damaged human DNA. It's the most difficult thing to do because so many of the bones
and museums or archaeology sites get handled by people digging them up, and when they handle them
they're putting their own DNA on the outside of the specimens. So trying to determine what is the
real DNA from the bone and what is the contamination from within the laboratory or from the
handling when the bone was excavated is extremely difficult, so much so that none of the other
major ancient DNA groups in the world (there's about five or six of them) will work or specialise
in human DNA. We're the only one that does. And we've spent a lot of time developing the techniques
specifically to allow us to do this in as precise a fashion as possible. We estimate this project,
400 individuals, a year and a half, you could do it, you'd be working hard but you could do it. Six
months is crazy, it's a cowboy rush-job.

Robyn Williams: Any chance that you might be considered?

Alan Cooper: Well, tendering processes are very complex and it's all legal and unfortunately it's
being run by the UK Commonwealth War Graves, the Australian government is allowing them to handle
it, and they really don't seem to know what they're doing, in no uncertain terms. Certainly I've
written several letters to them suggesting that they may have erred in many ways, and certainly the
timeline is crazy. Because of that timeline we couldn't get involved. So you've got an Australian
centre, the best in the world for doing this sort of science, not being able to be involved in
identifying missing Australian personnel, in a project paid for by the Australian government, it
just drives me nuts.

Robyn Williams: Professor Alan Cooper is a federation fellow at the University of Adelaide, and
director of the Centre for Ancient DNA. He's Australia's answer to Emilia Fox.

Actin gene causes congenital myopathy

Actin gene causes congenital myopathy

Congenital myopathy covers a range of rare lethal diseases. They affect muscle fibres. Babies born
with congenital myopathy are often born paralysed. Kristen Nowak and Nigel Laing at the University
of Western Australia traced mutations in the actin gene as the cause. They describe how the project
began and how their work has produced results which may lead to a cure.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: The floppy baby story also began in South Australia. It's a story about genes and
babies and long-term detective work. Meet Kristen Nowak and Professor Nigel Laing from the
University of Western Australia.

Nigel Laing: Our work with this group of diseases, the congenital myopathies, actually started with
a large family from South Australia. The real beginning of all this was walking down Alice Spring's
high street with Eric Haan who is the chief clinical geneticist in South Australia, and he said,
'Nigel, we have this family in South Australia with ten living affected people. Are you interested
in working with this family?' And of course ten is the magic number, and that family was big enough
to track down. So that's where we started from. And in 1995 we tracked that gene down to being a
mutation in tropomyosin which is one of the proteins of the thin filament in your muscle fibres.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so it affects muscle. In what way?

Nigel Laing: Children are born affected, and in the most severe form they can be born almost
completely paralysed. And then there is a spectrum of severity through to adult forms. So nemaline
myopathy can come on at any time from in utero to being an adult. It was always known that it was
genetic and the question was how to track down the genes, and that first big family from South
Australia basically unlocked the disease.

Robyn Williams: How did the family respond to being under your microscope?

Nigel Laing: The family was very keen to be involved and it all went very smoothly.

Robyn Williams: With these genetic clues, Kristen, how did you get involved?

Kristen Nowak: I started with Nigel doing some work experience and he was brave enough to take me
on as a research assistant to start with, and I found that he was so dedicated to the families that
we were researching. We were studying DNA samples from patients and families all around the world.

Robyn Williams: When you say 'work experience', do you mean when you were at school, you were just
wanting to know what it was like in a lab?

Kristen Nowak: No, I actually had already graduated, I'd done my bachelor of biotechnology and then
honours. But I do remember thinking about DNA and finding it really exciting at school. So I can
remember one of my year ten teachers telling us about her family, she had about six or seven
siblings, and she had a lethal form of dwarfism in her family, and I remember her then telling us
that they could track down what was causing that disease with DNA.

Robyn Williams: You became a tracker. What did you do?

Kristen Nowak: Nigel had met a professor from Germany, Hans Goebel, who's a leading expert in
neuropathology, and he had presented three patients, unrelated, who had this unusual form of
pathology in their muscles, and two of them were very severely affected and they had died within
the first few months of life. Nigel had looked at that and said it looks like there's aggregates of
actin, which is one of the fundamental proteins of making your muscles contract. It looks like
there's a lot of this protein aggregating in this muscle. Perhaps one of the genes that's involved
with this disease is actin itself.

Over a period of probably six to 12 months, DNA samples from these samples were sent to us here in
Perth and we were able to study the DNA, and we found the first mutation in this gene called actin,
and that was the first time anyone had found mutation in that gene. And then we ended up finding
three different mutations in these three patients, and it started from there.

Nigel Laing: What was showed was that frequently because it's a lethal disease, the affected
children have new mutations not present in either of their parents. So the mutation has arisen de
novo in either the sperm or the egg that give rise to them, and that's a clue that that's what's
causing the disease.

Robyn Williams: Why should it happen like that?

Nigel Laing: The way I think about that is every time our cells divide you basically have to type
out (I worked it out one time) 17 years of non-stop typing, and no biological system is that
accurate. So every time our cells divide we get new mutations and it's just fate.

Robyn Williams: It's like the difference between the word 'fist' and 'fish'. Fists and fishes are
quite different, and that's only four letters, so a mistake like that on a gigantic scale, you're
bound to get some sort of error. The latest paper isolates it down to this particular gene. In what
way has the latest paper refined things?

Nigel Laing: One of the things that we hypothesised was that those are the mutations in the actin
of your skeletal muscles, and we always knew that there's also another actin gene which is for your
heart, and that actin is also the foetal actin in our muscles. So it's expressed in our skeletal
muscles before we are born, and then for reasons that nobody knows, it's switched off around about
the time of birth. And so we thought that one way you might be able to treat the skeletal actin
diseases was with cardiac actin.

And then we found another group of patients who have no skeletal actin in their muscles, and what
we found were a number of patients who had no skeletal actin in their muscles at all. When we first
did the analysis of the gene and found those mutations I thought this couldn't be true because the
clinical picture of some of these patients was not as severe as some of the patients with the
dominant actin mutations. And so what's the answer? The answer is those patients with the recessive
absence of skeletal actin have themselves kept their foetal form of cardiac actin going. And so
they're existing on having cardiac actin in their skeletal muscles, which isn't normally there.

Robyn Williams: They have another supply.

Nigel Laing: Yes. But we found those after Kristen started doing the mouse work, so what we set off
to do with the mouse work was to see to what extent cardiac actin could replace skeletal actin in
the skeletal muscles.

Kristen Nowak: Yes, so we've done that, and we were able to make some transgenic mice that kept
their cardiac actin switched on after birth as well as their skeletal muscle actin. We didn't know
whether that itself would be deleterious because maybe nature had made cardiac actin be switched
off for a reason. And then we also imported some mice from Cincinnati; Professor Jim Lessard made
some mice which were like these patients Nigel was telling you about which had no skeletal actin.
These mice die about nine days after birth, and we think it's the cardiac actin that's there during
development that keeps them alive, and then once that switches off and the skeletal actin is
supposed to switch on at birth, it's not there to do so. So unfortunately they die.

We're able to breed these mice together, so we created mice that didn't have the skeletal actin but
instead they had the cardiac actin in their skeletal muscle after birth. We were hoping that they
would live a little bit longer than nine days, and in fact they did and they're still alive now
after two years of age. And that's another time when Nigel didn't believe the results and he made
us repeat it many times, and they were running around just like their controls who were normal.

But the exciting thing is that we've found not only are these mice surviving and they seem to be
running around and doing quite well, but they actually do better than normal mice. So we've found
that they can run about 2.5 times further than mice usually do (this is kilometres per day) and
they also are more active. And what's interesting as well, we're not sure if it's because of all
their running, but they have less visceral fat, they have less fat around their kidneys and their
reproductive organs, about three times less fat. So that's something that was quite unexpected.

Robyn Williams: It's amazing. But one thing that puzzles me, if this actin, this material, which is
essential for the working of your muscle, is there separately in a system for the heart, why
doesn't it stay in the heart? How does it get to the skeletal muscles and your biceps and legs and
all that sort of thing? Why isn't it just confined to the heart?

Kristen Nowak: What we've done is we used a skeletal muscle specific promoter to activate it in the
skeletal muscles as well. So it's there in the heart and it's now in these mice there in the
skeletal muscle also.

Robyn Williams: So because all those cells have got the same sets of genes, you can switch on the
heart material?

Nigel Laing: We've genetically engineered the mice so that they'll express the heart actin in the
skeletal muscles. So these are genetically modified mice. So these aren't just normal mice where
we've managed to activate the heart gene in skeletal muscles, but that's the next step that we
would have to go through to try and treat the actual human patients because you cannot make
genetically modified people.

Robyn Williams: Not yet anyway!

Nigel Laing: No. The ultimate prize with this work is to try and find some way in the patients of
keeping their cardiac actin gene going in their skeletal muscles after they normally switch it off
or getting it switched back on again.

Robyn Williams: If you crack the puzzle, how many potential patients are we talking about around
the world?

Nigel Laing: These are rare diseases. As far as rare diseases are concerned, one of my readers in
the University of Edinburgh said something once which was that if you've got the rarest disease in
the world, it's the most important disease to you. And that has stuck with me, as someone who works
in a group of rare diseases. But these are nasty, nasty diseases. As I said, the most severe forms
of these, which a lot of the patients who have actin mutations have, they're born almost totally
paralysed and they go into ventilators straight away. And couples who've had a child like this do
not want to have another child, and so tracking the gene down and making prenatal diagnosis
available all around the world has been a huge thing for these families.

Robyn Williams: Professor Nigel Laing at the University of Western Australia, with Dr Kristen
Nowak, and a good article on their achievement is in the current edition of Australasian Science
magazine. Saving babies with useless body muscles by growing them heart muscle substitutes instead.
Clever stuff.

Chinese approach to internet addiction

Chinese approach to internet addiction

A BBC report about a youth rehabilitation centre on a Beijing army base, which treats teenagers who
are antisocial, doing poorly in school and are sometimes depressed due to the long hours they spend
on line, usually playing internet games.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: You'd recall our Science Show series Cars: The Crunch a few weeks ago, enlisting
your help on motoring distractions. Well, we want to do the same again, this time on internet
addiction. Is it a real syndrome? Well, the Chinese think so. This report from the BBC World
Service.

BBC presenter: China has asked the World health Organisation to classify internet addiction as a
clinical disorder, like compulsive gambling or alcoholism. The country has the world's largest
population of computer users, an estimated 250 million of them, and nearly half of them are aged
between 18 and 30, and millions of these younger users are online for more than six hours a day. Dr
Tao Ran has analysed the behaviour of more than 3,000 young addicts and he says many are suffering
from a clinical condition. The doctor started his People's Liberation Army Treatment Centre for
Internet Addicts ten years ago. Although many other clinics have followed, his military approach
still makes Dr Tao's centre stand out. Our reporter Karen Meirik was allowed to have a look at the
treatment methods.

Karen Meirik: I'm at a military training centre just outside Beijing. This place is surrounded by
walls and guards and it's completely separated from the rest of the city. At the exercise grounds,
dozens of teenagers in military uniforms are being trained by a bossy drill instructor. Nothing
special for young recruits maybe but these aren't new conscripts, they're patients. All these kids
are here to be cured from their addiction to online games. Most of the kids cannot be interviewed,
but I'm allowed to interview one of them, a rather pale-looking lad.

Wan Chuan: My name is Wan Chuan, I'm 20 today. My family sent me to this treatment centre. I spent
too much time on the internet. Some weeks I was online playing games for two days in a row, some
days more than ten hours non-stop.

Karen Meirik: Wan Chuan is a typical example of the more than 50 patients in Professor Tao's
internet addiction clinic. Most of them have been sent here by their parents, and I asked Professor
Tao why his method has got so popular.

Tao Ran: Traditional Chinese parents believe that strict army training can be of great benefit to
young people. Not only can it strengthen them physically, it also teaches them self-discipline as
well as encouraging team spirit. Internet addicted kids have a lot of psychological problems.
They're very inactive. They sleep during the day and play the computer at night, so as part of
their military training, we make them eat, study and sleep at normal times. The uniform and drill
are crucial in helping to cure their addiction.

Karen Meirik: It seems ironic that playing war games on the internet with too much dedication is
what brought these teenagers to this internet boot camp. I ask Wan Chuan if he really believes his
online gaming habit qualifies as a serious addiction, and he says it does.

Wan Chuan: I think playing games the way I used to is an addiction. Every month I used to spend a
lot of money at the internet bar. I'd use all my pocket money and would forget to eat good food,
just stuffing myself with junk. I didn't buy any clothes. I would spend on average about 500
renminbi per month just on the internet.

Karen Meirik: Wan Chuan was lucky to have enough pocket money. Countless other kids turn to
stealing or violence to get the money to finance their addiction. According to one judge in
Beijing, 85% of juvenile crime in the city is internet related. Professor Tao thinks that because
of Chinese culture and the one-child policy the problem has become more severe in China.

Tao Ran: Parents in China have extremely high expectations of their only child. They're desperate
for him or her to be successful. This burdens the child with overwhelming pressure. But when the
parents are disappointed they start to focus on the shortcomings of their offspring; 'Why didn't
you study harder? Why didn't you achieve more?' Well, the most frequently used words by those
parents are 'you should do this' and 'you must do that'. They don't realise that 'must' and
'should' damage a child's self-confidence.

Karen Meirik: This is why in Tao Ran's clinic not only the children but also the parents get
treatment. Unfortunately the parents are much harder to cure than their offspring.

Tao Ran: It's harder to cure parents than children because they're older and more set in their
ways. Still, it's vital to try and treat parents. Usually the only thing that matters to them is
their child's achievement at school. They ignore the fact that the family home is where the child
should learn social skills and good manners in the first place.

Karen Meirik: While the children, most of them boys, are being drilled by the military instructors,
I'm watching them from a distance, right next to a small building where some parents are taking
part in another kind of lesson. None of the parents want to be interviewed, they seem ashamed to be
here. But they're also privileged. A month of treatment in this clinic costs over 8,000 renminbi, a
fortune for most Chinese people and four times the average monthly income for Beijing residents.
Still, Wan Chuan doesn't feel too privileged to be here.

Wan Chuan: Slowly it's getting better. At first I didn't like it here and really wanted to leave.

Karen Meirik: How effective the treatment is remains to be seen. After weeks of discipline and
drilling, Wan Chuan still misses the World Wide Web.

Wan Chuan: Yes, I miss it a little bit. I would still like to play.

Robyn Williams: The BBC World Service. And then this on ABC News on Thursday this week.

Newsreader: A Chinese hospital has been ordered to stop using electric shock therapy to cure
internet addiction. Nearly 3,000 people have reportedly undergone electroconvulsive therapy at a
hospital in Shandong province, but the Chinese Health Ministry says there's no clinical evidence to
show the therapy, which is normally used to treat severe depression, has any effect on internet
addiction.

Robyn Williams: So what's going on; a disease or nothing much? What do you think? Go to the Science
Show website now and say your piece. A Science Show special, Hooked on the Net, coming up next
week.