Hot out, isn't it? At least for some of us, anyway. Southern Ontario is sweltering in temperatures that have soared into the 30s. Toronto has declared an extreme heat alert, and the air conditioners are running at full blast.
Thank god for air conditioning. Or rather, thank nuclear power – that's what's keeping us cool. Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., Ontario's nuclear plants were generating more than half of the province's electricity: 11,148 megawatts. Gas, hydro and coal accounted for another 8,608 MW. Wind power, at 97 MW, barely moved the dial. Those mighty turbines (for which we will be paying dearly for many years to come) contributed less than half of 1 per cent of the total power output.
Of course, wind energy is green. But so is nuclear. Unlike coal and natural gas, nuclear power creates zero greenhouse gas emissions.
"Nuclear energy is the most powerful weapon in the war on global warming," Steve Aplin, an Ottawa-based consultant in energy and the environment, told me in a phone interview. He points out that if Ontario's environmental lobby had succeeded in having nuclear power replaced by natural gas, the province's carbon dioxide emissions would have soared.
But wait! Nuclear plants are dangerous. After the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, surely nobody could seriously argue that nuclear power is the way ahead.
In fact, the peril of nuclear is one of the great myths of our time. Chernobyl, a disastrously designed reactor, has killed just 56 people so far, according to the United Nations. Three Mile Island and Fukushima have killed none. Engineering has taken many leaps ahead. Today, nuclear is the safest form of power that we have, next to wind.
Some of the world's leading environmentalists have taken a good hard look at nuclear and changed their minds. They now believe that nuclear power is the only effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions as the world continues to industrialize.
"Cheap, clean energy is the world's most important development goal," says Michael Schellenberger, an environmental policy expert. He is one of the environmentalists who features in Pandora's Promise, a new documentary that might well make some people think again about nuclear. Unlike every other energy source, it's both cheap and clean.
Mr. Schellenberger, who heads the influential Breakthrough Institute, believes in real solutions, not phony ones. An example of a phony solution is to just have us all cut back on energy use – which is fine only if we're content to leave the rest of the world suffering in abject poverty. "If you can get the one billion richest people in the world to cut their energy consumption in half, to get the other seven or eight billion people up to that standard, you're still going to have to triple or maybe quadruple global energy consumption," he explained in a recent Google talk.
But the conflation of nuclear power with nuclear weapons has been a winner for environmental groups, who have persuaded the public that that atom-splitting, even for benign reasons, is inherently dangerous and probably evil. In the United States, the anti-nuclear lobby has been so successful that it stopped nuclear expansion cold. So the U.S. built hundreds of carbon-spewing coal plants instead. "The environmental movement has made the world safe for coal," added Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist who now advocates for nuclear.
Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, also appears in Pandora's Promise. "My fellow environmentalists have this romantic attachment to a certain view of the world which does not fit with actually dealing with the engineering problem," he said at Google. "… This is the difference between evidence-driven and ideology-driven. You double down on your theory of the world, even if it's wrong."
North America isn't the only place where opposition to nuclear power has produced perverse results. After Fukushima, Germany's powerful Green Party insisted that the country pull the plug on nuclear. Germany is now massively investing in wind and solar. But the Germans, facing massive price hikes, are revolting, and the resulting energy shortfalls are being made up by … coal.
Wind, solar and other renewables still supply less than 1 per cent of the world's energy requirements, and that's not likely to change much any time soon. People who've looked at the facts, such as Mark Lynas, have concluded that if we want to avoid catastrophic global warming, nuclear energy is essential.
It's worked in Ontario. Mr. Aplin says that since the province refurbished its nuclear plants a decade ago, greenhouse gases have plummeted from 40 million tonnes to 16 million tonnes a year – with virtually no help from the Liberal government's vastly expensive green energy schemes. "That is a stunning achievement," he says. "No other jurisdiction has done this without shutting down industries."