Fail of the Week: A Candle Caused Browns Ferry Nuclear Incident

A colleague of mine used to say he juggled a lot of balls; steel balls, plastic balls, glass balls, and paper balls. The trick was not to drop the glass balls. How do you know which is which? For example, suppose you were tasked with making sure a nuclear power plant was safe. What would be important? A fail-safe way to drop the control rods into the pile, maybe? A thick containment wall? Two loops of cooling so that only the inner loop gets radioactive? I’m not a nuclear engineer, so I don’t know, but ensuring electricians at a nuclear plant aren’t using open flames wouldn’t be high on my list of concerns. You might think that’s really obvious, but it turns out if you look at history that was a glass ball that got dropped.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a lot of optimism in the United States about nuclear power. Browns Ferry — a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) nuclear plant — broke ground in 1966 on two plants. Unit 1 began operations in 1974, and Unit 2 the following year. By 1975, the two units were producing about 2,200 megawatts of electricity.

That same year, an electrical inspector and an electrician were checking for air leaks in the spreading room — a space where control cables split to go to the two different units from a single control room.  To find the air drafts they used a lit candle and would observe the flame as it was sucked in with the draft. In the process, they accidentally started a fire that nearly led to a massive nuclear disaster.

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Your BOM is not your COGS

“The prototype was $12 in parts, so I’ll sell it for $15.” That is your recipe for disaster, and why so many Kickstarter projects fail. The Bill of Materials (BOM) is just a subset of the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), and if you aren’t selling your product for more than your COGS, you will lose money and go out of business.

We’ve all been there; we throw together a project using parts we have laying around, and in our writeup we list the major components and their price. We ignore all the little bits of wire and screws and hot glue and time, and we aren’t shipping it, so there’s no packaging to consider. Someone asks how much it cost, and you throw out a ballpark number. They say “hey, that’s pretty reasonable” and now you’re imagining making it in volume and selling it for slightly higher than your BOM. Stop right there. Here’s how pricing really works, and how to avoid sinking time into an untenable business.

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Daphne Oram and the Birth of Electronic Music

For most of human history, musical instruments were strictly mechanical devices. The musician either plucked something, blew into or across something, or banged on something to produce the sounds the occasion called for. All musical instruments, the human voice included, worked by vibrating air more or less directly as a result of these mechanical manipulations.

But if one thing can be said of musicians at any point in history, it’s that they’ll use anything and everything to create just the right sound. The dawn of the electronic age presented opportunities galore for musicians by giving them new tools to create sounds that nobody had ever dreamed of before. No longer would musicians be constrained by the limitations of traditional instruments; sounds could now be synthesized, recorded, modified, filtered, and amplified to create something completely new.

Few composers took to the new opportunities offered by electronics like Daphne Oram. From earliest days, Daphne lived at the intersection of music and electronics, and her passion for pursuing “the sound” lead to one of the earliest and hackiest synthesizers, and a totally unique way of making music.

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Hackaday Visits the Electric City

Much to the chagrin of local historians, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania is today best known as the setting for the American version of The Office. But while the exploits of Dunder Mifflin’s best and brightest might make for a good Netflix binge, there’s a lot more to the historic city than the fictional paper company. From its beginnings as a major supplier of anthracite coal to the introduction of America’s first electrically operated trolley system on its streets, Scranton earned its nickname “The Electric City” by being a major technological hub from the Industrial Revolution through to the Second World War.

Today, the mines and furnaces of Scranton lie silent but not forgotten. In the 1980’s, the city started turning what remained of their industrial sites into historic landmarks and museums with the help of State and Federal grants. I recently got a chance to tour some of these locations, and came away very impressed. They’re an exceptional look into the early technology and processes which helped turn America into an industrial juggernaut.

While no substitute for visiting these museums and parks for yourself, hopefully the following images and descriptions will give you an idea of what kind of attractions await visitors to the modern day Electric City.

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Why is Continuous Glucose Monitoring So Hard?

Everyone starts their day with a routine, and like most people these days, mine starts by checking my phone. But where most people look for the weather update, local traffic, or even check Twitter or Facebook, I use my phone to peer an inch inside my daughter’s abdomen. There, a tiny electrochemical sensor continuously samples the fluid between her cells, measuring the concentration of glucose so that we can control the amount of insulin she’s receiving through her insulin pump.

Type 1 diabetes is a nasty disease, usually sprung on the victim early in life and making every day a series of medical procedures – calculating the correct amount of insulin to use for each morsel of food consumed, dealing with the inevitable high and low blood glucose readings, and pinprick after pinprick to test the blood. Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) has been a godsend to us and millions of diabetic families, as it gives us the freedom to let our kids be kids and go on sleepovers and have one more slice of pizza without turning it into a major project. Plus, good control of blood glucose means less chance of the dire consequences of diabetes later in life, like blindness, heart disease, and amputations. And I have to say I think it’s pretty neat that I have telemetry on my child; we like to call her our “cyborg kid.”

But for all the benefits of CGM, it’s not without its downsides. It’s wickedly expensive in terms of consumables and electronics, it requires an invasive procedure to place sensors, and even in this age of tiny electronics, it’s still comparatively bulky. It seems like we should be a lot further along with the technology than we are, but as it turns out, CGM is actually pretty hard to do, and there are some pretty solid reasons why the technology seems stuck.

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Collecting, Repairing, and Wearing Vintage Digital Watches

Electronics enthusiasts have the opportunity to be on the very cusp of a trend with vintage digital watches (VDW). Vintage digital watches are those watches that from the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s. They’re unlike any watch style today, and for anyone around when they made their debut these deliver a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Monetarily speaking, it is not worth the money to pay a watch maker to restore a digital watch but for those of us with basic electronics skills we can put the time and effort into making them run again and be one of the few in possession of functioning VDW. It’s a statement as well as a sign of your own aptitude.

Earlier this year, Steven Dufresne walked us through the history of the digital watch. In this article we will dive into the world of vintage digital watch repair.

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Sci-Hub: Breaking Down The Paywalls

There’s a battle going on in academia between the scientific journal publishing companies that have long served as the main platform for peer review and spreading information, and scientists themselves who just want to share and have access to the work of their fellows. arxiv.org launched the first salvo, allowing researchers in physics to self-publish their own papers, and has gained some traction in mathematics and computer science. The Public Library of Science journals focus on biology and medicine and offer peer review services. There are many others, and even the big firms have been forced to recognize the importance of open science publication.

But for many, that’s still not enough. The high prestige journals, and most past works, are stuck behind paywalls. Since 2011, Sci-Hub has taken science publishing open by force, illegally obtaining papers and publishing them in violation of copyright, but at the same time facilitating scientific research and providing researchers in poorer countries with access that their rich-world colleagues take for granted. The big publishing firms naturally fought back in court and won, and with roughly $20 million of damages, drove Sci-Hub’s founder underground.

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