My environmental awakening occurred sometime in my early childhood when I became aware of a crushing, aching love for the natural world. On family camping trips I just sopped up the experiences like a sponge, and back in the city I devoured every book I could get my hands on covering reptiles, amphibians, insects, mammals, mushrooms, and trees. By the time I was ten I guess the general mainstream environmental awareness of the time had seeped in and I embraced the helpless outrage many felt at the putative spectacle of environmental degradation in the name of “progress.” This sentiment was perfectly encapsulated in Murray Mclauchlan’s “Sixteen Lanes of Highway,” released in 1971 on Songs from the Street. Sixteen Lanes hit me like a locomotive; it is still one of my all-time favourite songs of any genre, and to this day it gives me goosebumps when I hear it. If you have a minute, put on some headphones and give it a listen. It’s a great tune.
But the helpless outrage of my childhood of course grew more nuanced as I put the years and then decades under my belt. Like all creatures on earth, humans use the natural world to their advantage. The difference is that we have the power, through knowledge and technology, to alter it in ways that most plants and animals cannot. The modern city, for example, bears no resemblance to the original patch of land upon which it stands.
And though creating a modern city does involve doing violence to that particular patch of land, thereby giving rise to the emotions Murray Mclauchlan expresses in “Sixteen Lanes,” that single act of violence is considerably less than the innumerable acts that would occur if the human inhabitants of that city were to individually settle over a spread-out area.
And as it is with cities, so is it with electric power generation. If you are wrestling with the problem of how to create a sustainable power system, your Number One criterion should be to select the power source that does the least amount of damage to the environment. That should immediately rule out the politically correct sources like wind and solar. There are eighteen wind generation farms in Ontario, collectively capable of generating around 1,800 megawatts of electric power—if the wind conditions are perfect for all of them at the same time. That almost never happens.
The amazing thing, though, is that wind farms occupy enormous tracts of land. The Amaranth-Melanchton wind farm, near Shelburne Ontario, occupies 4,860 hectares (over 12,000 acres). That is, 48 square kilometers (18.75 square miles).
All three Ontario nuclear plants could easily fit into the tract of land optioned for Amaranth. All three Ontario nuclear plants are current generating more than 11,000 megawatts of electric power; Amaranth is generating 101 megawatts.
Wind is incredibly inefficient, not only in its enormous land requirement but in its inherent unreliability when it comes to making power. Because wind cannot ever be relied upon to produce electricity on demand, its supporters call for the construction of natural gas-fired generating plants to cover for the times when wind is not blowing. Those gas-fired plants cannot run without an extensive network of their own highways, a.k.a. fuel pipelines.
All of which is to say, there are a lot more kids in Ontario who watched the destruction of landscape in the case of wind farms and gas-fired generating plants than nuclear plants. If those kids felt the way Murray McLaughlan felt when he wrote “Sixteen Lanes,” they were absolutely justified in their helpless anger over something so destructive and so unnecessary. Gas plants don’t just require massive violence to the landscape because of their dedicated fuel-transportation highways. They also dump half a kilogram of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas, into the air for every kilowatt-hour they generate.
And if that is the case, then Ontario’s only option is to build more nuclear plants to keep us all living cleanly with a small environmental footprint.
There is a lot of talk about the low-hanging fruit when it comes to power generation. Nuclear fits that definition perfectly. It is proven, and we Ontarians and Canadians know how to build and operate it. We’ve been doing it for more than a generation.