Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nuclear vs. the World, and DC vs. AC

Here is more from the blitz of Chernobyl press releases.

"Villagers Return to Chernobyl's Shadow - Yahoo! News: "You cannot escape your death,' said 70-year-old Ivan Muzychenko. 'It's better to die of radiation than of hunger.'"

Not sure if I agree with that one, death by radiation sounds pretty nasty, but I'm not the one having to farm glowing chickens to eat because the government won't support me, so what do I know.

Bartolomeyevka's neighboring village, Belyayevka, was recently taken off the list of highly contaminated population centers, stripping its villagers of a $20 monthly supplement for living there. Mothers say the payment is still justified because most of the village's 58 children have health problems and need healthy food and vitamins.

Belarusian workers who participated in the cleanup at Chernobyl have also seen their benefits sharply reduced.

$20 a month = $240 a year. That is sort of like the $400 Alberta tax credit and additional jobs & perks that are driving lots of people from Eastern Canada into tar pits and oil sands, though the money is worth much more in the Eastern Europe part of the world, and it does not involve enticing someone to live on an irradiated toxic site.

However, there has got to be something up with all of these press releases and reports coming out all at the same time... Here is another one from Greenpeace estimating 250k cancer cases and 100k fatal cancers as a result of the Chernobyl accident.

I am not sure why this is a debate. Whether it is 4,000 people or 250,000, it is still a massive tragedy that needs to be addressed. Yes nuclear is not safe.

Nuclear technology is inherently dangerous. Today, thankfully, it is also unnecessary. Our energy needs can be met with safe and efficient renewable energy technologies. So, why are so many politicians peddling nuclear power at the very time we need it least, when we have safe and sustainable sources available to power the world?

Unfortunately this is skewed too. What is funny (not funny ha-ha but funny sad) is that coal is probably a larger contributor to deaths and medical illness in the hundreds of years it has been in use than nuclear power. The other sad thing is that wind power supposedly requires up to 95% of its generating power in reserve forms. (eg for 100W of wind you need 95W of coal, nuclear or some other backup generator for the times when the windmills don't run).

The saddest thing is that the Ontario government is shutting down our coal plants and forcing us to reply on "alternative" energy solutions (coal energy imported from the US, and nuclear technology). Apparently there are alternatives (zero-emission coal plants) that could supplement our energy needs safely and with less byproducts than glowing fuel core rods with a half-life of 250 years.

Of course I read that information in a presentation last February by one of the coal mining companies execs to the Teacher's Pension Fund, so it's probably a bit on the skewed side. :)

Googling more information, I encountered this listing of minutes from the BC Government. I thought it was recent since it mentioned topics of the day (inflation, nuclear power), until I saw the date at the top.

Tuesday, February 27, 1973.

In terms of energy studies, we have instructed B.C. Hydro to determine in the British Columbia framework what best route we can go in attempting to meet the growth and energy demands.

I don't accept the energy growth patterns that have been shown to us. That's why I made the initial statement about turning lights out. A lot of people were amused at that suggestion. But in actual fact there are a number of significant programmes going on right now in other jurisdictions to that very end. The City of Seattle has an excellent pamphlet out urging people to cut down on the use of power. I've shown that pamphlet to the two Members we have on the board of directors of Hydro.

Con-Edison of New York has an excellent programme known as "Save a watt, " where the whole question of attempting to significantly reduce the energy demand is being looked at.

The California pattern is one that I am afraid that we will either learn by or perish by. The California demands of electricity are astronomical. It has been predicted by that the year 2000 California will need a nuclear plant every 8 miles on its coast just to meet their demand at the present growth of power.

The only significant decrease in power use in California was during wartime. Interestingly enough, when there were heavy industrial demands, there was an actual, relatively speaking - not an overall figure - but an actual, relatively speaking, lessening of demand for hydro power. Perhaps it could have been the blackouts on the coast during the scare years. In 1942, just before the Battle of Midway took place, there was the impression that the particular Japanese fleet that was about in the middle of the Pacific was going to invade California. They had a series of blackouts.

After the Aleutian invasion and the Midway battle, it went on for another 18 months. During that period of time there was a method of actually controlling the use of electricity on a domestic basis. They showed a relative decrease so in terms of state control there was an example.

The energy demands of California are being looked at by a California legislative committee. It would be worthwhile for Members of this House, perhaps, to correspond with some of those committee members. The amount of research that's available by the Rand Corporation would make very worthwhile reading to every Member. It cost about $5.5 million. We've ordered two copies of the research volumes. I went through all three volumes during ...

Interjection by an Hon. Member.

HON. MR. BARRETT: $5.5 million worth of research and we have it for nothing - well, it cost us $15 for a set of the volumes. I took the volumes with me on my recent vacation.

AN HON. MEMBER: How far did you get'?

HON. MR. BARRETT: How far did I get? I got through all three volumes, much to my surprise. I want to tell you that I was very, very proud of the fact that I got through all three volumes, till I opened the back at the flyleaf and read that these three volumes are a condensation especially prepared for Members of the California Legislature. So the technical data was obviously removed. But the patterns were there and they were clearly outlined.

California is faced with decisions on the use of nuclear power. We don't have the wherewithal to duplicate the research necessary in terms of fission. We hope that either the Soviet Union or the United States, or perhaps even Canada, makes a breakthrough. But for my own part, certainly in terms of the foreseeable future with B.C. Hydro, we don't anticipate nuclear power in the Province of British Columbia.

And they still don't have any. And I'm pretty sure California doesn't have nuclear power plants every 8 miles along its coastline.

Nuclear energy in California (and imported from outside the state) accounted for 36,970 gigwatt-hours, represents 12.8 perecent of electricity from all sources in 2004. The total dependable capacity of California's nuclear-supplied power is more than 5,300 megawatts, including the two operating nuclear power facilities in California and portions of nuclear facilities located in other states that are owned by California electricity companies.

This is really fascinating to read that in the 1973 oil crisis the same arguments about energy conservation and renewable resources were brought up. It's too bad most of it was talk at that time, or we wouldn't be in this situation again. I wonder how it all played out back then, and why the average birthday of most of the world's nuclear reactors is 1982.

In Australia, recent disagreement over nuclear technology has centred on the replacement of the HIFAR at ANSTO. Australia's only nuclear reactor has reached the end of its life after over 45 years of operation. The need for a replacement reactor has been accepted by the Australian government and many Australian scientists, and construction of the replacement research reactor has begun. The new reactor will continue providing hospitals, research institutions and industry with a reliable supply of fresh radioisotopes, and a powerful neutron source for research. It will also expand and improve on some of these functions.

The decision to replace HIFAR was not without argument. Critics acknowledge that at present some medical radioisotopes must be produced fresh in a nuclear reactor (not a cyclotron). However, they have wondered whether further research might solve this problem without the need for a very expensive reactor. At a cost of over $286 million, the replacement research reactor will be Australia's most expensive technological investment! Many groups also oppose the new reactor because of the radioactive waste it will generate, and the risks associated with running a nuclear facility, as discussed above.

I bought a book last weekend on Thomas Edison. According to it, if it weren't for his defrauding investors to IPO his company and raise capital for his lightbulb idea, we would still be burning coal or hydrogen for light. He announced his invention over a year before it was actually invented, which caused his stock prices to explode against gas and other fuels. He used the funds to hire the best and brightest staff, and worked them long into the night to harness their ideas and release them as patents with his name. One of his former employees, Tesla, invented AC power, and after a costly battle with Edison's DC vs. Tesla's AC, Edison lost.

Edison went on to carry out a campaign to discourage the use of alternating current. Edison personally presided over several executions of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs, to demonstrate to the press that his system of direct current was safer than that of alternating current. Edison's series of animal executions peaked with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant. He also tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being "Westinghoused".

After over 100 years, not a whole lot has changed. You still have a light bulb with a filament that runs on AC power.

Low frequency (50 - 60 Hz) AC currents are actually more dangerous than similar levels of DC current since the alternating fluctuations can cause the heart to lose coordination, inducing ventricular fibrillation, which then rapidly leads to death. However any practical distribution system will use voltage levels quite sufficient to ensure a dangerous amount of current will flow, whether it uses alternating or direct current. Since the precautions against electrocution are similar, ultimately, the advantages of AC power transmission outweighed this theoretical risk, and it was eventually adopted as the standard.

I wonder how many people found out the hard way that AC power is dangerous over the years? And actually, with solar, wind power, and efficient DC current, Edison may have been able to win the battle today, though he still sounds like a nasty guy.

Transmission of electric power by direct current became commercially significant again in the context of high voltage direct current systems, used for bulk transmission of energy from distant generating stations or for interconnection of separate alternating-current systems. These HVDC systems use solid-state devices that were unavailable during the War of the Currents era. Power is still converted to and from alternating current at each side of a HVDC link. The advantages of HVDC over AC for bulk transmission include higher power ratings for a given line (important since installing new lines and even upgrading old ones is extremely expensive) and better control of power flows, especially in transient and emergency conditions that often lead to blackouts. Had modern HVDC technology been available to Edison, he might well have won the War of the Currents.

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