Friday, January 26, 2007

Nuclear Future

After more than a quarter of a century since the last nuclear generating station was commissioned in Canada, nuclear power is poised for a remarkable comeback. Until very recently, cost overruns, poor performance, and the irresolvable problem of waste disposal had shelved any new nuclear construction. But thanks to concern over climate change, our seemingly insatiable need for electricity, and our aging generating capacity, nuclear power is set to become our once and future source of electricity.

In Ontario, the McGuinty government has committed over $ 40 billion for new nuclear construction and the refurbishment of the province's existing fleet of aging reactors. In Alberta, the oil industry is promoting the construction of a nuclear power plant to replace natural gas in the processing of Fort McMurray's oil rich tar sands. Ironically, the McMurray reactor would boost the production of oil, a primary source of greenhouse gases.

All this nuclear buzz has prompted The Ethical Funds Company, Canada's leading manager of socially responsible funds, to review its position against investing in nuclear power. Twenty years ago, the company decided to exclude companies involved in uranium mining and nuclear power from its family of mutual funds. The company review was triggered by the "profound environmental, social and economic threats posed by climate change."

"We were motivated to conduct this review by recent claims that nuclear power can serve as a primary strategy for fighting climate change," said company Vice President Bob Walker. "In our view, these claims do not take into account the significant environmental, social and political challenges and risks associated with nuclear power."

The report, One is Too Many: Considering Nuclear in a Time of Climate Change, was based on sound scientific data compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in its 2003 study, The Future of Nuclear Power. While the MIT data was chosen because the Institute and its researchers are not directly tied to the nuclear industry, the report was based on a pro-nuclear assumption. According to the study's introduction, "Nuclear technology represents an important option for the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants."

Despite its seemingly pro-nuclear bias, the data presented in the MIT study was sufficient for The Ethical Funds Company's to decide to continue excluding nuclear industries from its investment portfolios. This decision was based on five key issues.

Firstly, nuclear is financially unsustainable in an open electricity market. "Cost analysis indicates that despite decades of government support - and in the absence of future subsidies - nuclear power cannot compete with coal, natural gas or some renewable sources of electricity."

Secondly, while the actual risk of a serious nuclear accident is very low, the resulting devastation would catastrophic. Using the MIT data, an expanded industry could anticipate as many as four nuclear "core" damage incidents by mid-century. The report concludes, "One accident, in our view, would be unacceptable."

The third - and perhaps most profound - argument against nuclear expansion is the problem of waste disposal, which has yet to be resolved after decades of debate. Earlier this week, Stephane Dion did an about face on the federal Liberals decades long support of nuclear power. In a speech to the Economic Club and the Toronto Board of Trade the Liberal leader said,

"As long as I have not received a convincing strategy for the waste, I am not able to look Canadians in the eye and say, 'I'm comfortable with the waste,' I will not recommend it."

The fourth argument against nuclear power is its link to nuclear weapons. Simply put, you cannot develop nuclear weapons without access to the nuclear fuel chain. The report concluded that this is a risk that society and future generations should not be asked to bear.

Finally, there is no single magic bullet, whether it is nuclear or any other technology. What we need is a multi-faceted approach that includes conservation, renewable energy sources, and carbon capture and storage.

"There are technically achievable, more sustainable and less risky options for fighting climate change," said Walker. "Massive investment in nuclear power could divert resources from these options and leave us with environmental and social challenges for our children and grandchildren to clean up. All these factors continue to make nuclear power as unacceptable to us now, as it was 20 years ago."


The report, One is Too Many: Considering Nuclear in a Time of Climate Change, is available on The Ethical Funds Company . Follow the Features link to Sustainability Perspectives.

The Future of Nuclear Power, an Interdisciplinary MIT Study, can be downloaded from the MIT website.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Saving the Seed

Film is a powerful medium. Witness the dramatic rise in public concern since the release of Al Gore's, An Inconvenient Truth. While much of the scientific data presented wasn't new, it has informed a new audience and inspired millions of people to start talking about the reality of climate change. Some perhaps, are even willing to take personal action to reduce their energy consumption. It's a bold first step for a society previously unwilling to have broad public discussions about the importance of this issue.

On Christmas Day, 2006, another movie was released that should have an even greater emotional impact on those who see it. Children of Men isn't a cinematic lecture; it's story that comes from the mind of acclaimed British mystery writer, P. D. James.

Set in 2027, Children of Men tells the story of a world without hope. The last live human birth occurred eighteen years before, in 2009, and now the world is in chaos. Virtually every government on the planet has collapsed into anarchy, except Britain (largely because it's an island, but mostly because all good Brits know that there'll always be an England.)

Despite its restricted rating, Children of Men, which was directed and co-written by acclaimed filmmaker Alphonso Cuaron, should be required viewing for everyone. Beyond the worry of a climate raging out of control, imagine what would happen if there were no more babies? As the main character says,

"I can't remember the last time I had any hope. Since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?"

What indeed. The theme of the movie is hauntingly familiar. Nearly two decades ago, I asked Dr. Rosalie Bertell, renowned scientist, eco-feminist, author and visionary, what she thought the purpose of the environmental movement was. Her response was so complete, so perfect, it has been etched into my psyche ever since and continues to feed my concern and passion.

"The whole purpose of the environmental movement is to save the seed," she said. "Everything that's ever going to live in this world, whether it's a tree, or a plant, or a fish, or a baby, all into future time, is present right now in the seed. And if we damage that seed, there is no place else to get it. It is our most precious possession, and we have got to think in terms of the seed, because that's the future."

The future, so chillingly depicted by Children of Men, takes place a mere twenty years into the future. Dr. Bertell's comments were made less than twenty years in the past. And while Children of Men could be labeled pure fiction, there is mounting concern within the scientific community that environmental contamination is affecting our ability to produce healthy offspring.

It began with Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which documented the impact that the pesticide DDT was having on the ability of songbirds to produce viable eggs. Since its publication in 1962, other scientific researchers including Dr. Bertell, Dr. Theo Colborn, and Dr. Sandra Steingraber, along with many others, have expressed increasing concern about how the contamination of the environment is threatening the ability of many species to reproduce.

Male fish with female genitalia, increasing levels of birth defects, precious puberty (girls menstruating as young as seven), delayed puberty in boys, learning disabilities, childhood asthma and other diseases, genetic mutations, and a host of anomalies in a variety of species, are all warning signs that we should be heeding. While carefully researched scientific evidence may prove the point, Children of Men asks the question, "What if?" in such a compelling and visually stunning way that it is hard not to take the question to heart.

As Children of Men so graphically points out, all it would take is one barren generation. And then, as the graffiti on a wall in Alphonso Cuaron futuristic London asks, "The last one to die, please turn out the light."


The extensive works of Dr. Rosalie Bertell can be found on The International Institute of Concern for Public Health's website. The IICPH alerts and informs the public of the health hazards of pesticides, nuclear industries and other commercial, military, and industrial products. The Institute also documents the impact of environmental disasters on survivors.

Dr. Theo Colborn's book, Our Stolen Future, brought worldwide attention to scientific discoveries about how endocrine-disrupting chemicals can interfere with the natural signals controlling development of the fetus. tracks the most recent developments.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Signs and Portents

The first week of January witnessed many strange and oddly related events. Among the most notable:

- A man and his preteen daughter are seen checking out plasma televisions at a Best Buy store. On one screen, is a nature documentary about the ecological importance of Australia's threatened Great Barrier Reef, home to a variety of species, including the Great White Shark. The child, moved by what she is seeing, turns to her father and says, "I don't like sharks, but I feel badly that their home is being destroyed."

The father replies, "I don't give no flying shit about sharks, nor that big reef thing. That's up to yous."

- Advance reviews of the 2007 North American Auto Show, which opened on January 13th, state that automakers are desperate to green their images and buoy flagging sales. After killing the EV-1, the world first fully electric car, GM unveiled its new electric concept car, the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid, will supposedly get the equivalent of 150 miles to the gallon, three times that of the world's leading hybrid, the Toyota Prius.

Hybrid SUVs, (a great automotive oxymoron) are also center stage at the 2007 event, which marks the 100th anniversary of the auto show.

- Blue Mountain, Ontario's largest ski resort, lays off 1,300 full and part time employees during what should be its busiest time of year due to warm weather and lack of snow. The winter closure, the first in the 65th year history of the resort, is expected to have a devastating impact on the local economy.

- In Southern Ontario, residents enjoy double-digit temperatures and sunny skies. In many gardens, spring bulbs have already started to sprout.

- Foresters report that British Columbia's pre-Christmas storms have taken a much heavier toll than originally predicted in Stanley Park. The 400-hectare park, which is known around the world as an evergreen oasis, was devastated by the storms. At last estimate only one tree in a 1,000 - many of which were hundreds of years old - survived unscathed.

- Prime Minister Stephen Harper vows to get serious about climate change and replaces the much-maligned Rona Ambrose with John Baird as Canada's Environment Minister. Baird's first visit as Environment Minister is to review the devastation of Stanley Park.

- In Ontario's parks and recreation areas, beavers that traditionally hibernate over the winter months are active. This not only disturbs their reproductive cycle, but also decimates saplings and other vegetation that is a primary food source for Canada's voracious national mascot.

And so it goes, on and on.

When scientists first began predicting that increased carbon dioxide levels might dramatically alter the climate, they used the analogy of a frog in water. While the story is pure myth, it makes a dramatic point.

As the story goes, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop to safety. Put the same frog in a pot of cold water, and then slowly heat the water, and the frog will stay put, even to the point of boiling to death.

Like it or not, we are all sitting in that pot of water and the heat is slowly rising. For some the attitude is, "Who cares if we lose a few trees?" Others are genuinely trying to change their energy consumption, but see the total lack of consideration by others as negating their efforts. Still others are enjoying the warmer temperatures, unwilling to even consider that we might all soon be in very hot water.

Which brings me back to the father in the Best Buy store. While I abhor his apparent lack of responsibility as a living, breathing citizen of the planet, what I find so profoundly disturbing is his lack of accountability toward his own child. We are all accountable.

2007 will long be remembered in the history books. What remains to be seen is whether it will be remembered as the year that we finally jumped out of the pot and tried to turn down the heat, or whether it was the year that we sat back and consciously made the decision to let the experiment run its course. Our children shall judge us.


For more information on how to reduce your energy consumption, visit The Office of Energy Efficiency. The site has information about appliances, windows, home building as well as transportation.

You can also check out the fuel efficiency of your car at the (US site).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Carbon Offsetting

The advent of relatively cheap, safe air travel has literally shrunk the globe. Journeys to distant lands that would have taken months to traverse only a century ago can now be completed in several hours. With the exception of the highest mountains and the most remote corners of the Earth, there is virtually nowhere left on the surface of the planet that we can't reach by air.

The result is that fantastic journeys, once reserved for the very rich and the very brave, are now commonplace. Hundreds of millions of eager adventurers travel internationally every year. We hop onto jet planes almost as easily as we jump into our cars. For almost the same amount of time that it takes to drive through our most congested cities in rush hour, we can be relaxing on a sunny beach somewhere, visiting friends and family on the other side of the country, or taking care of business.

Air travel may be the fastest way to reach our destinations, but it's also the most carbon intensive. For example, a flight between London, England and Paris, France would load the atmosphere with 348 kilograms of carbon dioxide. The same distance, traveled by high-speed train, would release a mere 75 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Combining rail with boat travel, whenever possible, is even less carbon intensive. All tolled, a whopping 75 percent of the world's traded goods are shipped by a combination of rail and water, but only contribute 1.75 percent to our global greenhouse gas emissions.

Since most of us don't have the time to take a slow boat to China, or any other destination for that matter, the question becomes how do we protect the planet that we're destroying in our attempt to experience it?

An interesting solution is something called carbon offsetting. Simply put, travelers pay a voluntary carbon tax, based on the distance traveled. The money is used to fund projects that absorb, reduce or avoid an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases elsewhere.

Carbon offset programs have been running voluntarily in Britain for at least a decade with some success. Rock fans might remember the Rolling Stones 2003 World Tour that promised to be carbon neutral by subsidizing the planting of trees. Coldplay, another UK band, also pledged to be carbon neutral. The band funded the planting of 10,000 mango trees in India to offset the environmental impact of its 2002 release, A Rush of Blood to the Head.

While these planting projects have caught the public's attention in the UK, tree planting is not the most effective way to reduce our net carbon loading of the atmosphere. In addition, thanks to overhead costs that include salaries, administration fees and Britain's hated VAT tax (something akin to Canada's GST) a little more than half of these voluntary contributions has been used to fund projects.

In light of recent criticism about how carbon offset taxes are being spent, a new initiative is being launched in 2007 by Britain's three largest travel organizations - the Association of Independent Tour Operators, The Association of British Travel Agents, and the Federation of Tour Operators. Known as the Tourism Industry Carbon Offset Service, or TICOS, the goal of this latest organization will be to invest in renewable energy projects. According to the TICOS website,

"Our unique global outreach has been used to establish the scale and nature of potential projects in tourism destinations which will make a significant contribution to reducing and offsetting the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.

These projects from around the world include ideas for new alternative technology; new forms of non-fossil based fuels; the capture and use of natural power such as wind, wave and solar energy and ambitious goals such as a carbon neutral status for some tourism destinations."

In addition, the TICOS projects, "Have socio-economic benefits for local communities. TICOS hopes to improve the lives of those people living in tourism dependent areas."

Given the voluntary nature of TICOS and other initiatives currently operating in the UK, carbon offsetting will likely do more to raise public awareness than lower carbon dioxide emissions. But it's a start in the right direction. Canadian travel industry, please take note.


Check out The TICOS project

Britain's Guardian Newspapers Ltd.offsets all of its business air travel through its Climate Care program and also offers a similar option to readers who book flights through its marketing department.

The CarbonNeutral Company is another British carbon offset initiative. The website offers a carbon calculator for automobiles and homes as well as airline travel.