Psst – Wanna Buy A Control Panel From A Nuclear Power Station?

Doing the rounds today is an interesting lot in an otherwise unexciting industrial dispersal auction in Lincolnshire, UK. On sale is an “Ex nuclear plant reactor control/monitoring system“, at the time of writing attracting the low low bid of £220 ($270), but we guess it will rise. Everyone who has watched Chernobyl (or maybe The Simpsons) is now gazing awestruck at a crescent of metal consoles covered in screens, buttons, and joysticks just waiting for a staff of white-coated technicians to pore over them.

Chernobyl Unit 3 control room (still active). [Source: IAEA Imagebank on Flickr CC-SA 2.0]
It’s a very cool lot indeed, but it raises more questions than it answers. The auction house has very little information indeed, so we’re left guessing, where did it come from? From this image showing the unit 3 control room at Chernobyl it’s obvious didn’t come from there (/s). Since it is for sale in the UK, and the country has decommissioned the majority of its first-generation reactors by now, so there is no shortage of candidates. But that intriguing possibility raises another question. Is it even a reactor control panel in the first place?

British civilian nuclear plants have tight security but they are hardly a secret, so plenty of photos are online showing their interiors. And in studying those we hit a problem, this panel doesn’t resemble any of the control panel images we can find. The first generation of Magnox (Magnetic Oxide Magnesium Non Oxidising) plants had panels covered in analogue dials and chart recorders so it’s unlikely to be one of those. The second-generation AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor) stations had similarly complex panels, and it’s evidently not one of them.

Looking closely at the photos it becomes apparent that there are a lot of camera controls and monitors, and even what looks like a uMatic video recorder. It’s definitely nuclear-related and the 1980s look of it suggests maybe it could have come from an Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor (AGR) station, but could it be a little closer to Sector 7G than the centre of the action? Is it a video monitoring console used to keep a physical eye on its operation?

Be careful if you bid, you could end up with a rather cool but absurdly large 1980s CCTV system. Can any of our readers shed any light on the matter?

Thanks [Gregg “Cabe” Bond] for the tip.

Nuclear Fusion Power Without Regular Tokamaks Or Stellarators

When it comes to nuclear fusion, the most well-known reactor type today is no doubt the tokamak, due to its relatively straight-forward concept of plasma containment. That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to accomplish nuclear fusion in a way that could conceivably be used in a commercial power plant in the near future.

As we covered previously, another fairly well-known type of fusion reactor is the stellarator, which much like the tokamak, has been around since the 1950s. There are other reactor types from that era, like the Z-pinch, but they seem to have all fallen into obscurity. That is not to say that research on Z-pinch reactors has ceased, or that other reactor concepts — some involving massive lasers — haven’t been investigated or even built since then.

In this article we’ll take a look at a range of nuclear fusion reactor types that definitely deserve a bit more time in the limelight.

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Floating Power Plants; The Coastal City Solution Sure To Be Increasingly Popular

Building new things in an existing city is hard. Usually, new development means tearing down existing structures. Doing so for apartment complexes or new skyscrapers is one thing, but infrastructure is much more complicated, both from an engineering perspective and an economical one. Not only do people not want to foot the tax bill for things they may not see an immediate benefit from, but it can be difficult to find the space for bigger roads, more pipelines, or subway tunnels in a crowded urban area. It’s even harder for infrastructure that most consider an eyesore, like a power plant or electric substation. It’s no surprise then that some of the largest cities in the world have been making use of floating power plants rather than constructing them on dry land.

The latest city to entertain a bid for a new floating power plant (FPP) is New York, which is seeking to augment its current fleet of barge-based power stations already in operation. It already operates the largest FPP in the world at Gowanus in Brooklyn, which is able to output 640 MW of electricity. There’s also a 320 MW plant nearby as well, and the new plants would add eight 76 MW generators to New York City’s grid.

Let’s take a look at what goes into these barge-based generator designs.

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Atomic Power Gets Small

There was a time when nuclear power plants were going to save the world. Barring accidents, the plants are clean and generate a lot of power. However, a few high-profile accidents and increased public awareness of some key issues have made nuclear power a hard sell, at least in the United States. The fastest growing nuclear power-related business in the US — according to sources — is companies decommissioning nuclear power plants. However, there’s a move afoot to make nuclear power a viable solution again. The company behind it says their plants will be cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, and are much safer than conventional plants. Are those claims reasonable?

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Make Your Own Nuclear Battery

miami_nano
A commercial nuclear battery from City Labs.

A Betavoltaic cell is a device that uses a radioactive source of beta particles and a semiconductor p-n junction to generate electricity. Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is often used as the radioactive element. You may think that tritium is hard to obtain or even forbidden, however, recently you can find tritium in self-lightning key chains, and it is also used in watches and firearm night sights. The beta particles (electrons) from the tritium radioactive process causes phosphors in the device to glow, giving a light that can last for years.

[NurdRage] has just created a nuclear battery using tritium vials from key chains. After getting rid of the plastic containers, he sandwiches the vials between two small solar panels. That’s all! Instant power for the next 15 years. Of course, the amount of power you can get from this device is on the order of microwatts. The battery produces around 1.6 volts at 800 nano amps. He gets 1.23 microwatts, not much, but it is in fact more than the output of commercial units at 0.84 microwatts, for a ten percent of the cost. That minuscule amount of power is actually not easy to measure, and he does a great job explaining the circuit he used to measure the current.

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Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prospects for a future powered by nuclear energy were bright. There had been accidents at nuclear reactors, but they had not penetrated the public consciousness, or had conveniently happened far away. This was the age of “Too cheap to meter“, and The Jetsons, in which a future driven by technologies as yet undreamed of would free mankind from its problems. Names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were unheard of, and it seemed that nuclear reactors would become the miracle power source for the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The first generation of nuclear power stations were thus accompanied by extremely optimistic public relations and news coverage. At the opening of the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, UK in 1956, the [Queen] gave a speech in which she praised it as for the common good of the community, and on the other side of the Atlantic the American nuclear industry commissioned slick public relations films to promote their work. Such a film is the subject of this piece, and though unlike the British they could not muster a monarch, had they but known it at the time they did employ the services of a President.

The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant was completed in 1962 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its owners, Consumers Power Company, were proud of their new facility, and commissioned a short film about it. The reactor had been supplied by General Electric, and fronting the film was General Electric’s established spokesman and host of their General Electric Theater TV show, the Hollywood actor and future President [Ronald Reagan].

The film below the break starts by explaining nuclear power as a new heat source powering a conventional steam-driven generator, and stresses the safety aspect of reactor control rods. We are then treated to a fascinating view of the assembly of an early-1960s nuclear reactor, starting with the arrival of the pressure vessel and showing the assemblies within it that held the fuel and control rods. Fuel rods are shown at their factory in California, and being loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the continent, seemingly without the massive security that would nowadays accompany such an undertaking. The rods are loaded and the reactor is started, as [Reagan] puts it: “The atom has been put to work, on schedule”.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Nuclear Powered Random Number Generator

Random number generators come in all shapes and sizes. Some are software based while others, known as true random number generators, are hardware based. These can be created from thermal noise, the photoelectric effect and other methods. But none of these were good enough for [M.daSilva]. He would base his off of the radioactive decay of Uranium 238, and construct a working nuclear powered random number generator.

diagram

Because radioactive decay is unpredictable by nature, it makes for an excellent source for truly random data. The process is fairly simple. A piece of old fiestaware plate is used for the radioactive source. Put it in a lead enclosure along with a Geiger tube. Then wire in some pulse shaping circuitry and a microcontroller to count the alpha particles. And that’s about it. [M.daSilva] still has to do some statistical analysis to ensure the numbers are truly random, along with making a nice case for his project. But all in all, it seems to be working quite well.

Be sure to check out the video for quick rundown of [M.daSilva’s] project. If randomness is your thing, make sure you check out entropy harvested from uninitialized RAM, and the story behind the NIST randomness beacon.

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