France’s mass transportation system, based on electric-powered urban and national rail—the Paris metro and the Train Grande Vitesse (TGV) being the most spectacular examples—is the model the whole world should emulate. If you’ve never had the pleasure to ride the TGV, it is an amazing experience. The line running from Lyon to Avignon is next to a highway; you rocket past cars that are doing 140 kilometers an hour in the same direction like they are going backwards. The ride is quiet and smooth as silk, and that is because it is electric. And it is clean: most of France’s electricity comes from nuclear plants. We are almost there in Ontario, with our stellar nuclear fleet and the mostly electric-powered Toronto mass transit system.
The Train Grande Vitesse, France’s amazing high speed electric train, which routinely travels upwards of 320 kilometers an hour. It, and France’s nuclear power generating fleet, were developed after the oil crisis of 1973. It is the cleanest way to travel. It is also fast and fun. A TGV-like line between Quebec City and Toronto would not only improve transportation efficiency in Canada, it would also be a quantum leap in cutting transportation-related air emissions.
There is a crushing need to upgrade Toronto’s mass transit system. Vehicle traffic at street level is ridiculously crammed. New subway and surface lines are imperative and there are a number of proposals, which will be settled in some real ding-dong political battles. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, electric transit in Toronto is, on a passenger by passenger basis, more than twenty times cleaner than car transportation—even in peak hours when there is more fossil generation feeding the provincial grid, and even when the gasoline-powered car is full of passengers.
However Toronto’s mass transit is expanded, one thing is certain: it will require more electricity. The city’s subways and streetcars used roughly 4.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010, for traction power. Expanding the system will increase that demand by—what?—ten to fifteen percent? My hometown, Ottawa, is building an electric light rail line (after, I am embarrassed to say, cancelling, for crass political reasons, an earlier, excellent line proposed by former Mayor Chiarelli). That will increase electricity demand.
So, where will all this power come from? It must come from affordable non-emitting sources. And as I have argued since beginning this blog, the only viable large scale source of zero-emitting power is nuclear. Which means we Ontarians have to get cracking on resolving the great nuclear issues before us.
The most pressing of these are the Pickering B Life Extension and of course the Darlington refurbishment. The latter is an enormous and complex undertaking, the risks of which have been somewhat overblown. These risks are to a great extent political: how will the inevitable glitches that arise in every large capital project be explained to the politicians who represent the ultimate owners of the plant, the people of Ontario? By saying these risks are somewhat overblown, I am not trying to imply that these are trivial considerations. Politicians are in the business of defending projects like this when they are in government, and criticizing them when they are in opposition. In our adversarial political system, that is just life in the Big City, and why you get the big bucks. So beyond achieving mastery of the technical and financial aspects of this enormous project, the project proponents’ job, in part, is to help their political masters manage the communications flow in those times when unexpected things pop up as they always do.
The basic message is, the game is worth the candle. Darlington, when its four units are running at capacity, which they have done in most of the twenty-five years they have been in service, is one of Ontario’s most important power sources. The station is worth refurbishing. Without it, we would get its 30 billion annual kilowatt-hours from gas-fired plants, which would dump 16 million extra tons of carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas, into our air. And we would be paying far, far more for gas-fired replacement power than the 5.5 cents per kWh we pay for Darlington’s power—even if we did not charge the gas generators for the privilege of dumping those 16 million tons of waste.
So you just do it, and you live with, and plan for, the inconvenience while the project is in progress.
The great Japanese swordsman and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi described these situations as “crossing at a ford.” In his famous Book of Five Rings, he said the following, which encapsulates the Darlington situation:
“Crossing at a ford” means, for example, crossing the sea at a strait, or crossing over a hundred miles of broad sea at a crossing place. I believe this “crossing at a ford” occurs often in a man’s lifetime. . It means setting sail even though you friends stay in harbour, knowing the route, knowing the soundness of your ship and the favour of the day. When all the conditions are meet, and there is perhaps a favourable wind, or a tailwind, then set sail. If the wind changes within a few miles of your destination, you must row across the remaining distance without sail. If you attain this spirit, it applies to everyday life. You must always think of crossing at a ford.
Refurbishing Darlington may represent to some the “hard crossing of the big water”—a significant hardship the nuclear industry must endure in its odyssey. But I like Miyamoto Musashi’s practical approach. You realize the project is necessary, so you do it. It’s part of the game.
Ontario, in case anyone has forgotten, has a formal plan to build new nuclear reactors. That new capacity would make Toronto transit even cleaner, and would keep TTC fares, and OC Transpo fares in Ottawa, and fares anywhere in Ontario that adopts electric transit, affordable. Nobody should shy away from this project either.