Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Withdrawal from the world?

Yep, that's what's happening with US policy about right now. Read all about it here.

How did our analyst reach this conclusion? President Bush has decided to redeploy some military assets.

Apparently this threatens the writer, who is described as follows:
The writer, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. The views here are his own.
Now things are making sense. He's a Democrat, because he served under Bill Clinton. So of course he'll spew the party line for John Kerry.

He's also highly Eurocentric, because that's the focus of the German Marshall Fund.

And some of those redeployed assets and their corresponding spending will be leaving Germany. Ouch! Despite the high-minded claims, I'm betting that the Germans were expecting an ongoing return on the assets they used to establish the GMF, and although there are differences of opinion on the severity of the impact on the German economy, the transitions will cause some disruption.

Is President Bush doing the right thing? We won't know for some time to come. In the meantime the article cited should be recognized not as honest critique, but as yet another partisan hit piece.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

And this is whose fault exactly?

David Ignatius's editor must have taken the day off, or else surely this column would have been rejected.

He says "don't politicize terrorism". Fine. And then he proceeds to politicize it for the rest of the column. Ignatius writes:
The dangers of politicizing terrorism were clear in this month's announcement about potential attacks on financial centers in the New York area and in Washington. When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disclosed the threats on Aug. 1, he faced immediate skepticism about whether the intelligence was valid. Sadly, the Bush administration had helped create this climate of public suspicion by overusing its elaborate, color-coded system of terrorism warnings.
IIRC after the initial setting the color code has changed 3 times - once up, once down, and now back up again. This, over a couple of years or so since the color system was created. This is overusing? I wonder how often they have fire drills in his building.

Elaborate? There are 5 whole colors. I'd expect a kindergartener to know that many - is this too much of a challenge for Ignatius to keep them straight?

After a terrorism advisory by Attorney General John Ashcroft last spring was pooh-poohed the same day by Ridge, some people wondered whether these warnings were being used for political effect.
Good grief, this past week we've had people talking about the use of hurricanes for political effect - there is nothing Bush could ever do to keep some opponents from projecting their own underhanded motivations onto him.

Bush isn't Bill Clinton. He doesn't conduct polls to see where he should go on vacation. He's willing to take heat for convictions, such as limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He doesn't have a principle-free creep like Dick Morris making suggestions. When his DUI years ago well before his well-known reform was hyped just before the 2000 election, he didn't send his minions out to convince the world that "everybody gets DUIs". He's trustworthy, and the Dems can't stand it - what if the public starts expecting trustworthiness from them too?

Further asininities:
By linking its reelection campaign so closely to the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has eroded its credibility -- to the point that some members of the public are beginning to wonder whether terrorism warnings are all just politics.
Bush's campaign's linkage to the war on terror is entirely appropriate inasmuch as he has no more important task than that, and because it identifies significant differences between him and opponent John Kerry. And Kerry could neutralize it all tomorrow by stating that he approved of Bush's war on terror and if elected, he would give Bush a high position in his govt so Bush could keep running the show.
The administration risks compounding that climate of politicization by nominating a sitting Republican member of Congress, Porter Goss, to be the next CIA director.
What's wrong with having a sitting Republican member of Congress in this role? Shouldn't CIA directors have some knowledge of how Congress runs? And if Bush were a Democrat, does Ignatius doubt for a minute that the nominee would be a Democrat?

If Ignatius has a problem with Porter Goss, he should state it. Better yet, leave all mention out of the column because it's irrelevant. We know what side you're on, Mr. Ignatius - you can quit padding your word count.

And the finale:
Public cynicism about terrorism is dangerous -- and so is the politicization of intelligence that breeds it. The danger is that when the administration warns for real about the next Sept. 11, it won't be believed.
It took some brass-balled effrontery to write that given what preceded it. If Ignatius really believes this, then why would he write a column like the above full of innuendoes that encourage public cynicism?

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Power piping

I really know how to write those titles, eh? What can I say, I'm an engineer, not a marketer. And this item is about piping in power plants, as inspired by Sean Kinsell's post here.

It seems that some steam piping failed and killed some workers in a Japanese nuclear power plant recently. Of course anything that happens at a nuclear power plant attracts media attention, and since they can't be troubled to learn anything the coverage usually is shrill. In my naivete I'll attempt to address some of this.

The plant in question was pressurized water reactor, often abbreviated as PWR. Such a reactor operates by heating water in a nuclear reactor core and then pumping it through a number of steam generators (common designs have 2, 3, or 4). These steam generators are built something like vertically oriented boilers, with tubes running vertically through them containing reactor water. The system also has a "pressurizer", which contains a bubble of steam at the top - this device serves to make sure that no steam forms within the reactor itself.

So what happens outside the steam generator tubes? This volume is filled with water at a bit lower pressure and temperature. Water comes into it at the bottom from the feedwater system. Steam forms around the hot tubes and rises to the top, where it goes through separators and driers and ultimately flows through the turbine to drive it. After passing through the turbine the steam is exhausted into the condenser, where it is cooled enough to recondense it into the condensate system.

At this point the water is at very low pressure and lukewarm. The first step is to clean it in "condensate polishers" to catch any corrosion products or other impurities in the water (initial fill is with "demineralized" water - not quite distilled, but highly purified with ion exchange resins).

After the polishers the water is slowly reheated and repressurized in stages until it is ready to return to the steam generators. By the time it returns it is at a high pressure and several hundred degrees F - if it leaks it will immediately form steam. It was piping in these stages which failed at the Japanese plant.

You might think you know a little about steam. Not under those conditions you don't. The amount of concentrated power is unlike anything you see elsewhere, and if it hits you directly it doesn't just scald you, it more or less eats you. If you inhale it live, bye-bye lungs.

Anyway, this feedwater piping is insulated heavily both to minimize personnel hazards and save the heat. In my experience this insulation usually consists of several inches of chalky calcium silicate covered with sheet metal such that none of the pipe's exterior is visible. Power plants turn heat into electric power they can sell after all - wasted heat is expensive.

(Incidentally, piping is used the same way for the same reasons with the same kind of very clean water in it at coal-burning plants. Actually the pressures and temperatures are even higher because there's no nuclear reactor to protect, which means that the personnel hazard onsite from the steam is even greater.)

You might think that if the steam is so dangerous that personnel are kept out of the area wherever pipe that might leak steam runs. In fact the area will be inhabited regularly by plant operators in their rounds checking pressures and temperatures, inspecting steam traps, and sundry other duties needed to keep the plant running. Likewise fire watch or security people or engineers like me might be around from time to time. In practice failures of such piping are uncommon, and their failure would be expensive even if the human factors were discounted, so they are designed carefully and water chemistry is maintained strictly to avoid problems.

As noted in the original article, no radiation was released. If you've been paying attention, you know why - the pipe didn't have anything radioactive in it, so it couldn't release anything. Minor steam generator leaks' results would be captured in condensate polishers further upstream, and if they can't handle it management will be taking the plant down pronto to keep the crud from spreading throughout the plant and sending maintenance costs through the roof, above and beyond any extra regulatory scrutiny and paperwork they'll suffer.

OK, but what happens to the reactor when such pipes fail? Small failures like what killed the workers are hard to pick up on instrumentation right away because nothing is really looking for them - my guess is that, depending on the design of the plant, some fire protection instrumentation might pick up on the extraordinarily high local temperature. It's possible that an HVAC (heating/ventilating/air conditioning) system would pick it up, but such a failure in the turbine building isn't the kind of thing that would alarm on an operator's console necessarily.

Should it? Definitely, if it were likely to indicate that the reactor would need attention. But small leaks are not threats to the reactor and thus are not worthy of highlighting - the risk of distracting operators can be higher than the value of the information.

Larger breaks OTOH would be unmistakeable. Temperatures would get out of hand, sumps would fill, pressures would drop and the noise would be incredible (turbine buildings are noisy but you ain't heard nothin' yet). Life in the control room would get exciting fast. They'd send operators to investigate if needed, or else they'd conclude that for safety's sake they'd have to shut down the reactor and isolate some valves.

What about the steam generators - will they overheat if their feedwater supply is cut off by a big leak or failure? Not once the reactor has been shut down, and there are numerous automatic sensors that can cause this to happen in case the control room is slow on the trigger (and if they are, they'll hear about it, from management, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the industry's own Institute of Nuclear Power Operations). If feedwater is cut off entirely, there is a backup system designed to much higher QA standards to provide water to the steam generators, and similar high-QA valves would close automatically to isolate the leak from the steam generators so this auxiliary water doesn't just run back out the leak.

That's what happens if the piping *feeding* the steam generator fails (simplistically - the possible accidents are examined in much greater detail in regulatory documentation filed with the USNRC for each commercial US nuclear power plant in existence). What if the pipes coming *out* of the steam generators - the main steam pipes - fail?

That's a bit uglier, because the water escaping has even more energy in it. But this piping is even more physically remote and heavily insulated than the feedwater piping. Failures of this piping in the turbine building will immediately be isolated from the steam generators and the reactor building by the main steam isolation valves (MSIVs), of which there are two per main steam pipe, and each of those has two independent signals to actuate it. (this is for a boiling water reactor (BWR), in which the main steam system is much more significant to radiological safety than it is in a PWR, but similar controls and safeguards will be in place). That action combined with the auxiliary feedwater system mentioned earlier will keep things under control in the reactor building. Operators who are in the area when the problem occurs had better get going pronto to survive, but in fact I know of no such failures in the history of the US commercial nuclear power industry.

Alright, that's enough of a brain dump for a while. Who knows? - if the world comes to its senses and we start building nuclear power plants again, I may be able to use that background again....

In case you need a picture

How to tell if you served with someone, as presented by the Kerry folks.

Link stolen shamelessly from Dean Esmay.

Free security?

I wonder - has building security improved on average since smokers were exiled outside buildings? It seems that there are always a few hanging around outside for a toke where they still can.

And some of them are nosy. I remember having an interview for a job once when an admin stuck her nose in the closed door to interrupt us. Was it *my* car that had the expired tags? In fact it was, lady, and !@#$ you very much for bringing it up right then and there. (What a day - I didn't get the job and I got a flat tire on the interstate on the way home too. Bill Clinton was President, so it must have been *his* fault, right?)

Hmm - it might be nice to have some witnesses like that around 24-7. How might you make that happen - by passing out free cigarettes? That might work, but I'm guessing it might be cheaper just to hire a guard.

Voila! - geeks are up all night. So if a company that wanted to have some witnesses hanging around decided to put up a free wireless hotspot that was available after normal working hours, could that attract help them with their physical security?

Beats me. But I'd like to see more drive-by wireless hotspots. So I'm looking for selling points wherever they might be found.

Reaching the wrong conclusion

Once upon a time there was a preacher inveighing against the Demon Rum. For a demonstration he took a bottle of moonshine and dropped a live worm into it. The worm quickly quit wriggling and died. He asked the congregation what they should conclude from this. And the drunk in the back (all these joke congregations have one) hollered "If you don't want to get worms, drink moonshine!"

IMO we have a similar situation where Glenn Reynolds cites big reductions in atmospheric SO2 and other substances during last year's blackout in the Ohio Valley.

So what does this tell us? That power plants are particularly filthy? Or that the atmosphere recovers rapidly from such influxes?

Always be suspicious when numbers are given in percentages. What is important is whether the typical numbers were dangerous. Were they? We can't tell from GR's cite.

At the end we read:
the spectacular overnight improvements in air quality "may result from underestimation of emission from power plants, inaccurate representation of power plant effluent in emission models or unaccounted-for atomospheric chemical reactions." (Marufu et al., Geophysical Research Letters, vol 31, L13106, 2004.)
There could be other issues too, such as weather in the vicinity - if winds came from a different direction or there was a good rain the results could be skewed significantly also.

So perhaps the most appropriate conclusion to reach is that the atmospheric scientists are wrong again. Remember that the next time we hear about anthropogenic global warming.

Having once worked in TVA country not too far from the Widows Creek generating station, I heard the stories. Supposedly things were done differently at night when it was harder to see the smoke, etc. And experienced dirt-burner engineers know better than to drive nice cars to work - get a beater to absorb the abuse from the pollution.

Things have changed since then so perhaps I'm too harsh. And I have something of a conflict of interest in that I worked in the nuclear power industry for 10 years before I was starved out in the early 1990's. I was one of those guys who'd remind people that in normal operation a coal plant released more radioactive substances into the environment than a nuclear power plant does.

But I'm also one of those guys who knows our alternatives and has worked in the utility industry. I stand to profit from energy technologies regardless of the source of the power or whether demand goes up or down. So while I won't claim I'm a savant on energy issues, I'm more aware of them than the average citizen.

Later GR writes "I've always felt -- as many people who live in TVA country do -- that burning coal to generate power is an absolutely filthy and destructive habit." This is the guy who raves about nanotech and other cutting-edge technologies. Who's to say that we won't someday find technologies for extracting the energy from coal economically without throwing away potentially useful constituents like the sulfur that currently gets dumped into the atmosphere as SO2?

In fact, the cure might involve nanotech....