Thursday, March 31, 2011

Learning From Events In Japan

I have a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, and I worked in the electric power industry for over ten years.

The amount of misinformation and outright wrong information that has appeared daily in the various media since the earthquake and tidal wave hit the nuclear power plants in Japan is startling. These people really ought to either keep quiet or get it right. To cite just a few examples, I heard a TV newscaster say that the control rods in the reactor were spinning (they don’t); another one was standing in front of a display board waving his arms around saying the heat from the reactor is applied to the turbine (it isn’t); one of them said a nuclear cloud was heading toward Tokyo (it wasn’t); one reporter who is apparently a kook said, right there on the radio, that millions and millions of people in Japan will die of leukemia and thyroid cancer (they won’t); then it was reported that radiation has been detected on the West Coast of the U.S. (a billion times lower than any danger level, we later learned), etc. etc. etc. All of this, and more, was right there on major networks and in major newspapers. How do these people have any remaining credibility?

Let’s review the technical basics of generating electricity and how electric power plants work. When we get through this information, you will know more about this subject than most of the talking heads on TV.

Electricity is generated in two ways: 1) When a conductor (a wire) passes through a magnetic field, and 2) by means of a chemical reaction, i.e., batteries. We will discuss the first method, since it is the one used in electric power plants.

I am excluding static electricity from this discussion, since only small amounts can be produced in that form.

To generate electricity by moving a conductor through a magnetic field, we need first to create the magnetic field. This is easily done with magnets. You probably did the little experiment in science class where you put a piece of paper over a magnet, sprinkled iron filings on the paper, and observed the interesting lines that the filings aligned themselves in. That was the effect of the magnetic field emanating from the magnet.

OK, so now we know where to get the magnetic field. Next we need to get some conductors, or wires, moving through it. This is most readily done by wrapping the wires around a rod (a “rotor”), and then causing the rotor to spin in close proximity to the magnets. When this happens, electricity will be generated in the wires that are wound around the spinning rotor. This is how a “generator” works.

We will also connect some other wires (transmission and distribution lines) to the generator to get the electricity to wherever we want it.

We won’t go into transformers.

OK, so somehow we must get the rotor of the generator to spin. We could do this by connecting a diesel (or gasoline) engine to it, and this is sometimes done in special situations. In most large scale electric power plants, though, we connect a steam turbine to the generator to get the rotor to spin. A water turbine could also be used (as at the Claytor Lake dam).

A steam turbine is another device that spins on an axis. A steam turbine contains a series of specially designed blades. Steam is admitted into the turbine and causes it to spin by pushing on the blades. It’s a type of steam engine.

Finally, we have to create steam, and a lot of it. We have to boil water on a large scale. That means we need a heat source that can produce a lot of heat

A large amount of heat is most readily created by burning something. In steam power plants, coal, oil, or natural gas can be used. Over 50% of the electricity in the U.S. is created in coal fired power plants, for example.

Another way to create a lot of heat is through a controlled nuclear reaction. This is what happens in a nuclear power plant. A nuclear reaction creates heat to boil the water to create steam to spin the turbine and generator rotor, thus producing electricity.

Control rods are in the nuclear reactor. They are made out of a special metal and are used to regulate the intensity of the nuclear reaction. This is done by moving them up and down into or out of the reactor core.

The nuclear reactor must also be cooled, since even at its lowest setting, it will create so much heat that it will literally melt itself (a meltdown). The cooling is done with water pumped through the reactor core. If that water flow stops, the reactor will over heat, much like your car engine if the water pump fails.

The cooling water pumps in a nuclear power plant are powered by the electricity network in the plant. There is also a back-up diesel engine and generator to provide electricity to the pumps if the primary power supply fails. Finally, there are usually batteries that can keep the pumps running for a few hours if the diesel generator also fails.

When the tidal wave hit the nuclear power plants in Japan, the primary electrical supply was wiped out, as were the diesel powered generators and the batteries. The crisis at the nuclear power plants was caused by the tidal wave, not the earthquake.

The big problem with nuclear reactors is not the reactor, but the spent nuclear fuel. This material is highly radioactive, and will remain so for thousands of years. Disposing of it is a problem. Generally it is put into lead containers and then stored deep in a mountain in a remote area.

Now that we are armed with this knowledge, amid all of the media hysteria and hype, we can remain cool, calm, and collected. And we can notice some very pertinent questions that the media isn’t informed enough to ask.

1. Why were these nuclear reactors located on the coast in an earthquake prone area?
2. Given that they were on the coast, why did the plant designers not think of a tidal wave when doing their safety analysis?
3. Why were all six of the reactors in the same physical location where they were all susceptible to one natural disaster in that local area? Why weren’t they built in dispersed locations?
4. Why was the spent nuclear fuel stored at the reactor site instead of somewhere else, again to avoid a “single point of failure” problem?

These are the types of lessons we need to learn from the events in Japan as we move forward with nuclear power plants here in the U.S.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Obama Would Rather Be President Of China.

From the current issue of "National Review":

"Is lassitude coming in with Barack Obama's gray hairs? Apropos of the Arab revolt, a friendly story in the New York Times reported that Obama 'has told people that it wold be so much easier to be the president of China.' Not so that he could wield, as per Thomas Friedman, dictatorial powers, but so that he might get less attention. 'No one is scrutinizing Hu Jintao's words in Tahrir Square,' an unnamed official explained. Obama picked the wrong job then, didn't he? Ambition, vanity, and a string of unearned successes may have persuaded Mr. Legislator-Who-Votes-Present to think that he could step up to the most demanding executive position on earth. What explains the troop of flacks, including Obamacons, who praised this man's character as they whooped him into office?"

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Incoherence From Obama

In explaining the U.S. action in Libya, Obama said recently that Qaddafi must go, but that's not the mission of the Coalition forces now in action in Libya.

A few days ago, Obama was defending himself from being responsible for rising gas prices. He said that his policies have not cased gas prices to go up, but rather that his policies have actually resulted in the highest domestic oil production in seven years. His main energy policy has been to ban new offshore drilling and exploration. So he is telling us that banning off shore oil drilling has caused domestic oil production to go up.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Maybe Gov. McDonnell Can Help In Washington

Congress just passed another "continuing resolution", kicking the can of writing a federal budget down the road another three weeks.

Meanwhile, here in Virginia, we are doing just fine, thank you, thanks to Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and the Republicans in the state legislature.

In January of 2010, Bob McDonnell was sworn in as Governor of Virginia.He inherited a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall from his predecessor Democrat Governor Tim Kaine. One of the first things McDonnell did was announce that he would veto any budget sent to him that included any new taxes. With Republicans having an override-proof number of seats in the state legislature, that option was "off the table", as they say. The legislature then got to work and had an adult conversation on how to cut spending in order to balance the state budget. A balanced budget is required by the Virginia Constitution. The cuts were made, and yes, some wee painful, but the legislature did its job by producing a balanced budget with no new taxes.

It all took only six months.

Today our economy in Virginia is rebounding, unemployment is heading down, we remain fiscally solvent, and VIrginians are not saddled with higher taxes.

Because Virginia is governed in a fiscally responsible way and keeps taxes low, companies want to come here. NorthropGrumman, for example, relocated its corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to Richmond a few months ago and brought about 300 new jobs to the state in the process. On a smaller scale, in my own community, VIrginia Casting Industries relocated here from out of state and brought 20 jobs.

Maybe we should send Gov. McDonnell to Washington to help them with their budget problem that they don't seem to be able to solve.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Roanoke Times Is Uninformed - Again

In the editorial “Guilt by association” on Mar. 10, the Roanoke Times rails against the homegrown terror hearings held in Congress recently, calling them “shameful”. What’s truly shameful is the abject ignorance of the RT editorial staff on this issue.

The editorial states that “With no evidence to back him up and no law enforcement witnesses to testify to his central complaint, King is engaging in demonizing an entire community.” This statement is factually false.

Since 9/11, there have been more than 50 known cases, involving about 130 individuals, in which terrorists plots were hatched on American soil. These include plots to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, an office tower in Dallas, a federal court house in Illinois, the Washington DC metro, and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. All but two of the plotters were Muslim, and those two sought to offer their services to al Qaeda.

The witnesses called by Representative Peter King’s committee on Homeland Security included L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca.

There was a time when journalists who, out of ignorance, printed such an accusatory but completely false statement would be fired. Not at today’s Roanoke Times.

Friday, March 11, 2011

National Debt Ceiling

Congress is now engaged in a great debate over whether or not to increase the ceiling for the national debt. That ceiling is currently set at $14 trillion, and federal government spending will soon push the national debt up to the limit. Congress can either increase the ceiling or have the horror of a government shutdown.

But wait, there is one other option: Congress could cut federal spending such that the debt ceiling isn't reached.

Here's my question. What is the point of having a "ceiling" on the national debt if the response every time the ceiling is hit is to raise the ceiling?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Latest reality on the effects of Obamacare

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Thus far, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has granted over a thousand waivers to compliance with Obamacare, most involving the so-called "mini-med plans". Over a thousand. No doubt, many more such waivers will be granted.

If Obamacare is so beneficial, as we were told, why do so many waivers have to be granted?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Federal budget is out of control - more eveidence

The federal budget deficit for 2007 was $161 billion. The federal budget deficit for last month was $223 billion.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More Of The New Civility From Democrats

Democrats in Wisconsin displaying the new civility in public discourse we heard was so needed after the Arizona tragedy.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

News From General Motors

In the financial news recently, we have learned that GM's sales were up dramatically last quarter. This is being trumpeted as evidence that the new GM is heading in the right direction after the government takeover. GM is now "green", building environmentally correct cars, and creating thousands of "green" jobs now and into the future. It's all wonderful!!

There's only one problem with this story line: It's completely false. As you read further into the news about GM's latest results, you learn the truth, buried down there in the story. You see, those latest good results from GM were due to strong sales of Cadillacs and gas-guzzling Silverado trucks!!! Not the Chevy Volt!!

I predict that GM will go bankrupt again. The environmental extremists and government bureaucrats now running the company don't deal in reality. They will continue driving the company off of a cliff by forcing it to build little tinny "green" cars that are very expensive which no one will buy. Once the Cadillacs, Silverados, and their ilk are discontinued or emasculated, which will surely happen because the greenies in charge will insist on it, the company is toast.

Sell your stock.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

No Government Shutdown - Darn!

Yesterday the House passed a a stop-gap measure to keep the federal government going for two more weeks, and today the Senate agreed. Would anybody notice if all of the bureaucrats in Washington were off the job? Can't we just shut the whole thing down for good, and start over?

Well, no, that's not realistic. But we can cut the bloated bureaucracy down to size. I don't mean "trim", I mean take a meat cleaver to it.

Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky has proposed cutting the budget by $500 billion - not over ten years, but immediately. Included in his proposed cuts are foreign aid, farm subsidies, Amtrak subsidies, shrinking the FCC, selling unused federal assets, and others.
Sounds like a good start.