Friday, March 27, 2009

Thirty Years After

March 28, 2009, marks the 30th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island. For those too young to remember, an incident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middleton, Pennsylvania resulted in the first case of melted fuel in a full-scale commercial nuclear power plant. Although there were no immediate deaths or injuries, the accident triggered major changes in how nuclear power plants are monitored and regulated. More importantly, TMI caused many countries to rethink their growing dependence on nuclear power. It’s worth noting that there has been no nuclear power plants built in the U.S. or Canada since the TMI accident.

The TMI anniversary comes at a very critical time in our history. Climate change has become the bogyman in the closet. As a result, technologies once deemed too dangerous or two expensive are back on the table as an alternative to “anything but” energy sources that produce greenhouse gases.

Specifically, global concerns over the very real threat of climate change have sparked a renewed interest in nuclear power. President Obama has stated that it is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to reach its climate goals without nuclear power.

North of the 49th, Federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is promoting the idea of constructing a nuclear power plant to assist in Alberta’s oil sands production.

In Ontario, the recently unveiled Green Energy Act is focused primarily on the development of renewable energy. However, new nuclear construction is also part of the province’s proposed energy mix. If all goes according to plan, construction on two new reactors at Darlington will begin as soon as 2010.

Here’s the Catch 22. Using nuclear power for meet our base requirements for electricity assumes that the system also has ready access to rapid-fire generation when demand peaks. The key word here is fire. Fossil fuel plants generate power for peak demand, and the most effective of these plants are coal-fired.

The other issue is how we measure the full scope of the nuclear power chain. While nuclear power plants don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, the mining and production of nuclear fuel is very carbon intensive. From extraction, to processing and refining, the creation of nuclear fuel bundles requires large amounts of energy. Once created, nuclear fuel must also be transported using fossil fuels.

With so much at stake, it’s time for some very sober debate.

“Nuclear power creates more problems that it solves,” said Dr. David Suzuki in the preface to Green Power: Today’s Choice for Ontario’s Future. “Not only does it create waste that pollutes the Earth for thousands of years, but it also divest attention and investment capital away from a renewable energy infrastructure.”

According to Jack Gibbons, from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA), Ontario is at a crossroads. The province has committed to shutting down all of the province’s dirty coal generating stations by 2014. In addition, most of Ontario’s nuclear reactors will reach the end of their lives within the next 15 years.

“As a result, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to rebuild our electric power system from the ground up,” said Gibbons. “I’m an economist and I’ve crunched the numbers. The good news is that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the lowest cost options to meet our electricity needs.”

However, he says that Ontario’s energy planners have missed the mark when it comes to the cost estimates associated with new nuclear construction.

“Their cost estimates are less than half those of the experts at Moody’s Investors Service,” said Gibbons, “And we are all on the hook for nuclear's runaway costs, paying a nuclear debt surcharge on every kilowatt of electricity we use.”

As the saying goes, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps that’s why we celebrate anniversaries. They remind us of major milestones – both good and bad – and provide us with an opportunity to choose a new and better future.

(photos: Top - Members of Durham Nuclear Awareness at the gates of the low-level radioactive waste dump at Port Granby. Lower - burying the time capsule at the gates of Darlington in 1989 to mark the start up of the first reactor.)


Ontario’s Green Future is advocating a sustainable, affordable, responsible energy plane for Ontario. Check out

Green Power: Today’s Choice for Ontario’s Future is available for download from the David Suzuki Foundation website at

For more on the history of Three Mile Island and resulting changes to the regulation of nuclear power in the U.S., visit

For an interesting and balanced third party look at nuclear power, visit

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Candle Power

With only days to go before the big event, hundreds of millions of people around the globe are busy planning for Earth Hour. If last year’s festivities are any indication, burning candles will help to illuminate the hour.

There are a number of reasons why this may not necessarily be the best way to celebrate. For starters, the whole idea behind Earth Hour is to raise awareness (and action) on climate change. The primary cause of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In Ontario, power is generated in a variety of ways, including nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and fossil fuel generation. Fossil fuel plants, fired by coal, oil and natural gas are generally only used when the demand for electricity reaches its peak. At this time of year (when air conditioners aren’t running) this peak period is usually recorded on weekdays between 3:00 and 8:00 pm. The rest of the time the bulk of our power is provided by either hydroelectric or nuclear stations, neither of which produces greenhouse gas emissions. This off-peak period would include the time covering Earth Hour, Saturday, March 28th, between 8:30 and 9:30 pm.

Candles, on the other hand, are mostly made from paraffin wax – a petroleum by-product. Burning paraffin candles releases carbon dioxide (and an bunch of other nasty stuff) into the atmosphere. Lighting a fire also produces carbon dioxide and other products of combustion.

As an alternative to burning paraffin candles, there are a number of environmentally responsible options beyond simply sitting in the dark.

Flameless candles are battery operated and provide a natural flicker of light. LED candles are a lot less realistic, but are very energy efficient. Both are available at home specialty stores. Flashlights also provide a safe, greenhouse gas free light. For greater efficiency invest in an LED flashlight. In every case, don’t forget to recycle your batteries when depleted.

If you don’t mind a little exercise, you can eliminate the need for batteries by investing in a hand-powered LED flashlight. Depending on the model, power is generated by either shaking or cranking the flashlight vigorously.

If only the open flame will do, purchase candles that are made from beeswax or soy. While they are more expensive than paraffin candles, both are clean burning and are made from renewable resources.

Whether they are made from beeswax, soy or paraffin, candle safety is paramount during Earth Hour (and any other time you have an open flame in your home.) Here’s a list of candle safety tips from Health Canada:

• First and foremost, make sure that your smoke alarms are in good working condition.
• Always place the candle in a non-combustible container. Be careful with glass containers because they can become overheated and break suddenly.
• Don't use wood or plastic candleholders, they can catch fire. Metal candleholders are safer, but they can get extremely hot.
• Place candle away from other combustibles, such as curtains and furniture.
• Don’t use candles decorated with ribbons, bows or other add-ons. These items are extremely flammable and increase the risk of burns. Since most of them are made from some kind of plastic, they will also release toxic fumes.
• Don't leave burning candles unattended. Never leave a child alone with a lit candle and don’t let kids handle matches or lighters.
• Place candles in a safe location where they cannot be knocked over and keep them out of the reach of children or pets.
• Avoid walking with a lit candle.
• Before lighting, cut the candlewick short to prevent a high flame.
• Candles with more than one wick close to one another are not safe and should not be used.

While on the subject of wicks, it’s important to know that some candles have wicks with a metallic core that may contain lead. Health Canada advises that when burned, these wicks produce lead vapors and dust, which can be harmful, especially for children and pregnant women. To check, separate the fiber strands from the wick to see if there is a metallic core. Look closely. This metallic core can be as thin as a strand of hair. If the strand leaves a gray mark when rubbed on a piece of white paper, it’s probably made out of lead and should not be burned.


For more candle safety tips, visit Health Canada.

Don’t forget to sign up for Earth Hour at

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Deferred Accountability

We have built our society on the idea of deferred accountability. Why pay today when you can defer until tomorrow, next year, or even next generation? It’s that ideology that it is at the heart of the current economic and ecological crisis.

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this too much. Until the beginning of the last century, circumstances held much of humanity absolutely accountable on a daily basis. Untended livestock meant no meat to eat next week, unplanted fields meant no food next season, unfelled trees meant no heat next winter.

The 20th century brought us industrialization and specialization of labor. We no longer had to be immediately accountable for everything. And with that realization came a newfound sense of freedom. We could defer payment until tomorrow and still survive. Like students away from home for the very first time, the sky was the limit. It was a giddy time to be alive.

The problem is that our ability to manipulate nature and machine has grown exponentially and inversely proportional to our ability to manage our impacts. We have become way too good at ignoring the consequences of our actions. We live like today is all we have, and defer payment until whenever.

Recent events are demanding our attention. Our adolescence is over. It’s time learn how to live more sustainably.

The idea of sustainability is a relatively new concept. It was first defined in very moral terms as our ability to continue without impacting future generations. The current economic crisis, coupled with the very real threat of climate change, has many rethinking this definition. Today sustainability is perhaps more accurately described in terms of a very concrete question: Can we continue, business as usual?

The answer, most definitely, is no. Beyond the threats of economic collapse and the very real and present danger of climate change, emerges another fundamental question, “What are we leaving our children?”

At the most visceral level, our purpose is to live long enough to ensure that there is another generation. As banal as this sounds, it’s our biological imperative. It can also drive a new integrity – one that looks at how we live our lives today, and how this will translate into our children’s ability to live tomorrow.

Consider the legacy of our garbage. According to the U.S. National Parks Service, the average plastic bottle can take up to 450 years to degrade, ditto for disposable diapers. Cans will take between 50 and 100 years to break down, plastic bags at least 20. While the batteries from your flashlight will take almost 100 years to disappear, that monofilament fishing line that you bought last summer will take a whopping 600 years to degrade. Glass bottles, on the other hand, will take a million years to return to the Earth. Experts say that Styrofoam may never disappear.

And then there’s the energy that we use to make all this stuff. The carbon dioxide that we throw up in the air today by burning fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, according to researcher David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. The high level radioactive waste from our nuclear power plants will last much longer. Plutonium 242, the longest-lived by-product of nuclear fission has a radioactive half-life of 387,000 years. That’s the time it will take to be half as radioactive as it is today.

We have reached a critical juncture. There is no more deferred payment plans, we can no longer afford not to pay a cent until some future date.

The path ahead will be determined by the decisions that we make today. There is little more to do than to answer the question, “What will be our legacy?” Will we continue to ravage the planet with little regard for our lives, let alone the survival of future generations, or do we choose to live each day with integrity?

It’s really not as difficult or as daunting as it sounds. To quote that great Canadian, Tommy Douglas, “Courage my friend, it's not too late to make a better world.” The first step is to begin.


David Archer’s new book, “The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate” (2009), is published by Princeton University Press.

Nature's Children

When his nephew was a very little boy, my husband Brian took him for a walk in the orchard adjacent to our home in the country. The house and the orchard have been in the family since 1827 – a heritage that Brian loves to share with family and friends.

They talked about the cows in the neighboring field and how their milk was harvested and brought to market, and then Brian invited young Gregory to see the trees where the apples grew. The four year-old expressed his complete disbelief in his uncle’s explanation where of apples originated.

“Of course they grow on trees,” Brian said. “Where did you think they came from?”

“The grocery store,” was Greg’s reply.

I was reminded of this favorite family story when I recently read an article by Richard Louv entitled, “A Walk in the Woods”, (Orion Magazine, March/April 2009). Louv, who is chairman of the Children & Nature Network, retells his own story of a visit to an elementary school he had attended as a child in Missouri. He asked the children about their relationship with nature and not surprisingly discovered that most of the children preferred indoor activities such as playing video games. Those who did play outside preferred organized sports – with the exception of one little girl.

“When I’m in the woods I feel like I’m in my mother’s shoes,” the little girl said. She described how being alone in the woods made her feel happy and peaceful until the day that her woods were cut down.

“It was like they cut down part of me,” she said.

Louv went on to ask various friends if children, in fact, have a right to walk in the woods – to feel a part of nature – and was surprised with the responses that he received. Humans are apart from nature was the general consensus, not a part of it.

To help remedy this situation, The Children & Nature Network has created a wonderful handbook, “Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit: Do It Yourself! Do It Now!” The handbook (which is downloadable from the Network’s website) is designed to provide inspiration and information to create nature clubs that will open the door to the wealth of natural adventures that waits in your own backyard – or orchard!

The booklet offers a host of wonderful ideas for families and communities just in time for March break. Nature Cubs can be as diverse and as interesting as the communities that host them. The goal is to overcome barriers to enjoying nature, such as fear for personal safely, or a lack of parental knowledge about the great outdoors.

The benefits of playing outside go way beyond learning about nature. A recent study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal (Vol. 123 No. 2 February 2009), entitled “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” (Romina M. Barros, et al) found that school aged children who received a daily recess outside achieved a much higher rating on class behavioral tests.

The Pediatrics study confirms a report in Science Daily (February 19, 2009) on work of University of Illinois researcher Frances Kuo. Professor Kuo concluded that children with ADHD had fewer symptoms when they participated in outdoor activities in what are described as “lush environments.” Kuo’s work also indicates that the elderly live longer and college students perform better when they live closer to green spaces.

It’s a logical conclusion. We isolate ourselves from the natural environment in as many ways as possible. We live in thermostatically controlled environments, travel in similarly controlled vehicles, consume genetically altered foods, breathe artificially filtered and scented air and prefer virtual activities over the real thing. And therein lies the heart of the problem.

“We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, wrote Louv, “only if we love ourselves as part of nature, only if we believe that our children have a right to the gifts of nature undestroyed.”


The Children & Nature Network was created to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.

Orion is a bimonthly magazine devoted to the need for ecological awareness and a new relationship between people and nature.

American Academy of Pediatrics publications

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Earth Hour

Earth Hour 2009 is set to become the largest single global action in human history. On Saturday, March 28th, at exactly 8:30 pm local time, people around the world will turn off their lights.

It’s hard to believe that Earth Hour began only two years ago, when 2.2 million residents of Sydney, Australia pledged to turn off their lights for one hour. The collective result was a 10.2 percent reduction in electricity consumption - more than twice the original target of 5 percent – and the birth of an idea whose time has finally come.

One year later in 2008, Earth Hour engaged more than 50 million people in 35 countries. Earth Hour organizers report that many global landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Coliseum and the Coca Cola billboard in Times Square went dark, illuminating the threat of global warming as no neon sign ever could.

This year, the goal is to reach one billion people in more than 1,000 cities around the world. Close to 400 cities have already committed to participate, doubling the number that participated in 2008. According to the Earth Hour website, this year’s event will see the lights go out on some of the most recognized landmarks on the planet, including Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Moscow’s Federation Tower, the Sydney Opera House, and the CN Tower in Toronto.

Cities are a major focus of Earth Hour organizers, because they collectively produce 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and consume 75 percent of the world’s energy. According to the C40 Climate Leadership Group, 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities that cover less than one percent of the Earth’s surface. The C40 Climate Leadership Group is an organization of the world's largest cities committed to tackling climate change. C40’s current chair is Toronto Mayor David Miller.

While one single hour isn’t going to stop the relentless onset of climate change, Earth Hour is a symbolic event designed to create a tipping point in public opinion and drive political and personal action.

Action is precisely what we need – and fast. It’s somewhat ironic that Earth Hour began in Australia – a country so recently devastated by climate extremes. In January, thousands of people were stranded in eastern Australia by some of the worst flooding in twenty years. February’s raging bushfires have claimed nearly 200 lives in the south, and that number is expected to rise.

The idea of a billion people turning off their lights is an appealing one, but what really matters is what happens after Earth Hour.

As the Earth Hour website advises, “Turning the lights off for Earth Hour is a great first step, but if you really want to see a difference, then make Earth Hour part of your everyday life.”

“Think about what else can be done to reduce your footprint like taking transit, unplugging unused electrical appliances and washing your clothes in cold water. The list is endless and your action will make a big difference.”

At home you can switch over as many light bulbs as possible to compact fluorescents, make a habit of turning off anything that doesn’t need to be on, and line dry clothes whenever possible. If you really want to get serious, have a home energy audit and budget to upgrade appliances to more energy efficient models.

At the office you can start by turning off any equipment that isn’t in use. Turn off lights at the end of the day, and find out if your company has a corporate energy policy. If not, ask why not! Encourage your company leaders to have measurable emission reduction targets, switch to green power and reduce traveling to meetings by teleconferencing. For air travel that is unavoidable, recommend that your company adopt a carbon offsetting policy. In other words, donations are made, based on the number of miles flown, to organizations actively working to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

And don’t forget to join in Earth Hour on March 28th at 8:30 pm. The whole world will be watching.


Visit Earth Hour to count yourself, your company or your school in.

The C40 Climate Leadership Group website has great information about how cities can play a major role is tackling climate change.