Saturday, August 23, 2003

Moral dilemma?

Imagine this little scenario. Charlie Manson escapes from prison. He calls the Associated Press and says "Do you want a scoop? Follow me to [address withheld] tomorrow night. We'll butcher some people and write slogans on the wall with their blood, just like old times. You can cover it live!"

If you're from the AP, what do you do?

This item from Little Green Footballs hints at the answer.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Public service message

Friends don't let friends wear polyester.

Fun with condoms

This is a recurring theme here at NWA, for which this is the latest inspiration.

Today's exercise is set in a foreign country where a deadly venereal disease is raging. Three horny UN bureaucrats have found themselves a hooker to share, but they don't trust her or each other, and they find that they only have two condoms.

We all know that the UN can't solve problems without American help. Your challenge - show how all of the bureaucrats can get laid using just the two condoms without exposing either themselves or the hooker to "body fluids".

Note - this post is for entertainment purposes only, and does not reflect the personal practices or predilections of any of the editorial staff of NWA.

Thought crime documented by Tim Blair.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Energy infrastructure

Sure, talk about beefing up the grid and generating capacity. But don't forget that we need the manufacturing, management and personnel infrastructure to make the components we want. And these have been withering on the vine for years.

For instance, once a ~15,000HP synchronous motor failed on us at a nuke site where I worked. I can't remember how much it weighed, but it took a special hauler over special roads to get it off the site. Road and bridges that could handle it were few and far between, and its size required special permits. The result was that for about every mile between it and its destination, it had to travel about 5.

But where to take it? Without consistent sales of big generators, the factory space, engineers, shop personnel, fixtures, and other facilities get retired, reassigned or scrapped. In our case we needed to have the windings redone after which the transformer had be be immersed in a tank of some special compound with high resistivity and dielectric strength. As it turned out, only two facilities in North America could handle the job, and one was in Canada.

That's just about replacement parts. What about designing and installing new power plants, distribution lines and other facilities? You need to have a number of companies with the expertise to do this, and a reasonable guarantee of enough volume to justify them hiring, training and deploying their personnel and other resources. These are companies like Bechtel, Stone and Webster, Fluor, Westinghouse, Peter Kiewit, Siemens, GE, ABB, Hitachi,Flowserve, Sargent and Lundy, Black and Veatch, Burns and McDonnell and a few extraordinarily talented electric utilities like Exelon, Entergy and Duke Energy.

Well, so what if some graybeards retired - it's just management, right? After all, I hear that a good manager can manage *anything*. Not so. Compare the performance of William B. Derrickson in getting the St. Lucie nuclear power plant online in comparison to any other site under construction in the same time frame and see the difference. Yes, there is specific management expertise in getting nuclear and other big projects done, and if you think training employees is expensive, wait until you have to train management.

If you really want long lead time, try growing personnel. For the right price I'd go back into nuclear power, but a lot of talent has gone into other fields or retired. And that's not to mention all of the boilermakers, steamfitters, millwrights, electricians, instrument techs, ironworkers, carpenters, operating engineers, laborers and other craftsmen it takes. And that's just for power plants and new transmission lines - other needed energy related infrastructure improvements such as the building of new refineries and pipelines will place demands on the same talent pool.

But why should investors and managers invest the money needed to be able to take on projects like this? How will they know that they can get a return on their capital when regulations never stabilize and funding might disappear tomorrow because somebody thinks one of George Bush's associates is making too much money? We need true commitment from regulators and Congress if anything permanent is to happen.

So don't go thinking that we can just pass some laws and spend some money and everything else will fall into place. We've been dissipating our capital, labor and expertise for years through neglect and lack of investment, and it will take some time to recover.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Acidman is no Choirboy

...but Roscoe Rules! Yes, that's a very obscure reference to an old Joseph Wambaugh book. If you haven't been following the saga, well, let him tell it.

From those people who gave us "The Peter Principle"

Dr. Laurence J. Peter is long gone now, and citing him might qualify as a sign of age. But in his time, around the late 60's or so, he had a very popular book called "The Peter Principle". He was the guy who claimed that people rise in an organization to their "level of incompetence" - until they reach a job they are not qualified to do. Over time, every job is filled this way, and that's why things go down the tubes.

Dr. Peter's original inspiration was from his days as a teacher in Canada. He was frustrated with the incompetence in his local district, so he sent a bundle of application materials to apply for a position with another district. Then they were sent back to him - they could not be accepted because he had not insured them. But if he would send them again, with insurance... It was then that he decided that incompetence was not localized.

Now Instapundit points to Colby Cosh here. Just read it - I can't do it justice.

Of course it's not just the Canucks. The state of IL once refused to license an electric car because it hadn't passed an emissions test. Read about that and more here.

Why did so many nuclear power plants shut down?

I've read various explanations why as many as 22 reactors shut down during the blackout. I haven't verified the number, but I know why they shut down. Because of Federal regulations.

This isn't to question the Federal regulations in this regard - they're heavy-handed, but I don't have any better ideas. And it shows just how much of a safety margin we have with the current generation of nuclear power plants.

It's been a few years, so I don't recall all the details, and these will vary from plant to plant as described in a licensing document known as the "technical specifications". If I recall correctly, a plant had to be in cold shutdown within a fairly short time after the loss of offsite power. Cold shutdown means basically that the plant is not "critical" (no sustained nuclear reaction is taking place) and is depressurized, and essentially is in a state where it requires the minimal amount of effort and power to control it. This is as opposed to a "hot shutdown", in which the reactor isn't delivering any steam to the turbine, but would be ready to if you opened the valves isolating the reactor building.

It's much like the distinction between having your car shut off and having it idle. Except that startup on a nuclear power plant is a much more time-consuming process. Part of this is because it takes time to warm large metal objects several hundred degrees without causing thermal distortion or other problems, and these problems are also found at fossil powered plants. Others are caused by the presence of components unique to nuclear power plants, such as hydrogen recombiners and a boiling water reactor's offgas system. The rest is caused by regulations. It doesn't take too long to come back up after a hot shutdown, but it'll take a day or so to come back up after a cold shutdown.

So why does a nuclear power plant need offsite power? Actually it doesn't, any more than you absolutely need to have a fire extinguisher. Again, regulations require a combination of batteries and other forms of stored energy (diesel fuel and compressed air, for instance) to make sure that the plant can deliver enough power by itself to maintain cold shutdown conditions and support emergency loads. What's more, there are redundant supplies - either of two huge generators per unit can do the job by themselves.

One example was a TVA plant that was never completed, with two 1300MW reactors. It had four 16 cylinder turbocharged diesel generators, (two per unit), each of which was designed to provide about 7.5MW. They were started with compressed air, and enough was stored to start them multiple times. For fuel, they had 4 tanks each embedded in concrete which were on the order of 10 feet in diameter and at least 60' long, and a specified amount of fuel was available in all of them at all times when they were considered available. Because of the compressed air and battery power, the diesels could be started without any offsite power available.

How big is such a beast? The cylinders were 17" across - most of you reading could get inside them.

How much is 7.5MW? Let's say you used 1000 kWh on your last monthly electric bill. A generator that size generates that much energy in 8 minutes, and there were two of them per unit.

If I recall correctly, the source of all these regulations is Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations - see part of it here.

More power stuff

This from Rob Sama about alternative power distribution arrangements is via Instapundit.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Another look at breasts

That was the idea anyway, until he got busted. But let this guy tell it.

What's with women who get hysterical about stuff like this? Fortunately they aren't all that way - here's some wisdom written by a broad.

If a liberal does it, is it still hypocrisy?

I missed this when it was fresh, but it's too good not to post. So via Dodd, I present this example of rich liberals in action.

Blackout catchall

Glenn Reynolds has some data about relaying and metering from an old electrical engineer here.

When I was in engineering school, about all the electrical engineering majors were chipheads. That is, they wanted to do the sexier low-power microprocessor type stuff rather than the big more dangerous power generation, transmission and distribution work. I wonder if we have a shortage of qualified people for that.

Rich Hailey writes some relevant stuff here, and Steven Den Beste writes on blackout recovery here and and why another "great idea" won't work here. Sparkey makes some interesting observations related to power distribution and peak loading here.

Steve Verdon has good stuff here, here and here. They're actually successive posts, so you can hit the last one and work your way down.

Volokh Conspirator Tyler Cowen points us to an analysis of a cascading failure here. It's not light reading.

You should always check Lynne Kiesling about energy related issues, and she has an incredible set of links.

Amy Ridenour notes how some radical greens are simply opposed to power, period, here. Such people simply don't deserve a place at the table when public policy decisions are being made.

This from Central Maine Power might be interesting.

Of course NWA has offered discussions of energy issues many many times, such as here and two more items further down the page, and several others. Consumer energy conservation issues are here and here.

And soon I'll be writing about reactive power and why it takes so long to start up a power plant (with emphasis on nukes). Yippee!