Category Archives: Harris Educational

Identify It Challenge for 7-26-2012 Answer

Sorry for the delay in posting this, its been a very busy late summer for Harris Educational!  Mostly good stuff, but enough of that, on to the answer.

Here is the original video “Identify It Challenge” as posted on 7-26-2012

And now here is the answer:

Read/Write Head Assembly from Diablo Systems Series 30 Disk Drive

Read/Write Head Assembly from Diablo Systems Series 30 Disk Drive
Shown with late 1990’s Iomega Zip Disk for Comparison

This assembly is the read/write head from a Diablo Systems Series 30 Disk Drive manufactured around 1976.  The drive was not a traditional Hard Drive (or fixed disk) but instead took IBM 2315 disk cartridges that were about one foot in diameter and could hold a grand total of 1.25 MB!  (the later series 31 model used a disk that could hold 2.5 MB).   A photo of these disks can be found here.

The mechanism has a synchronous drive motor (with run capacitor) built into the bottom of its cast housing.  This motor drives a shaft with integral pinion gears that engage a rack gear that can move the drive’s double sided read/write heads back and forth along the disk surface.  The large solenoid and damper open and close the read/write head around the cartridge after it has been inserted into the drive.  The green marked disk on top  corresponds to the tracks on the disk itself and was used to mechanically orient the drive heads in order to synchronize them to a standard disk during manual alignment.  The green disk also contains a kind of rotational position sensor that sends pulses back to the controller based on its movement.  The micro-switches act as end-stops to keep the heads from being sent past their absolute physical end-stops.  The whole drive head assembly weighs in at about six and a half pounds.

You can see a pictures of the whole drive AND read about how it works through repair and maintenance manuals at the following links:

This drive (and two others) came into my possession around 1990.  My high school electronics lab received them as a junk donation much earlier in the mid 1980’s and they’d sit in storage taking up space until then.  My electronics teacher gave them to me when I helped him clean out the storage and I then dissected them to learn how they worked and for parts.  They were much too large and heavy for me to keep intact at the time, though I did keep the read/write mechanism intact knowing that one day it might come in handy for some kind of display, and sure enough it fits into the Identify It Challenge nicely!

This assembly (or rather the disk drive that it came from) has some significance in the history of computing because:

  • It is a predecessor to the Floppy Drive
  • It helped to show the value of removable random access storage (not just linear access storage like tape)
  • It was a peripheral for mini-computers and as such was an add on (not necessarily manufactured by the mini-computer maker) and as such helped to bring in the idea of standards and interchangeability.
  • It was used as storage for the Xerox Parc computer, the first computer with a graphical user interface and a predecessor to modern PC’s

Thanks to everyone who made guesses over on Facebook.  The  first person to make a correct guess was Duffy Toler, guessing it was a read/write head assembly.  John Sucilla came closer by guessing it was from a DEC RK-05 disk drive.  (in reality Diablo Systems was bought out and became a part of Xerox and then later Xerox sold these drives to Digital Equipment Corporation where they were used as peripherals for their PDP line of computers.)

Stay Tuned for the Next Identify It Challenge!


Making Nails with the Alamance Makers Guild

On Saturday March 3rd 2012 Dick Snow, Blacksmith and member of the Alamance Makers Guild graciously invited several members from the Guild to his home in Efland NC for a lesson in blacksmithing. The topic was nail making and I have to say I doubt I’ll have a more educational, entertaining, or humbling day for quite a while!


Nails… we take them for granted and in many ways they are probably the simplest fastener devised by man. Today they are mass produced by computer controlled machines far from the view of most people but there was a time not that long ago in human history that if you needed a nail, you’d either need to make one yourself, or go to the local blacksmith. In reality the actual act of nail making was beneath a skilled blacksmith and instead the production of nails was work for women or children. Looking at how simple a nail is, and knowing that it was children’s work its easy to think “sure I can make a nail, easy!” But you would be very wrong! (at least for your first many times)

The Tools of the Blacksmith

The Tools of the Blacksmith, hammer and anvil

Nail Making is often an introductory lesson in the art of the blacksmith because it illustrates several of the tasks of a blacksmith; forging (or hammering), drawing out, cutting, and upsetting (heading). It is also a relatively economical task for learning hammer control. Dick was a great teacher. First he demonstrated the task at hand a few times, the first time he just gave a general overview, and the second time he demonstrated the less-than-a-minute task over a 20 minute talk that leveraged his knowledge and emphasized the fact that our first nails would not be quite what we might hope or expect. He repeated that only time and practice would improve our technique. In addition to the knowledge behind blacksmithing (which was often passed down not as scientific theory and mathematics but rather a word-of-mouth tradition) there is a great deal of technique and body kinesthetics that are required. In some ways learning about hammer control reminded me of a tennis lesson!

Most of the folks who took part agreed that even though the process seems straight forward, the first time is fairly intimidating (even for folks used to working with their hands and being around potentially dangerous equipment.) As in any work, there are always things to be aware of and to respect. At first the thought of 1800 degree hot metal seemed daunting but then I learned that since iron and steel are such poor conductors of heat, that its possible to heat one end of an 18 inch rod to 1800 degrees while the other end remains at room temperature. By far the biggest danger for a novice is probably just awareness of surroundings and being safe around others who are working. After a time the fear gave way to a focus on all of the things I should be doing in a different or better controlled way! As I say, its a very humbling experience!

To make a cut nail:

First a small diameter rod (around 1/4” in diameter) of low carbon steel is heated in a forge to a orange to yellow heat (around 1800 to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Blacksmiths don’t generally measure temperature by exact number, but rather rely upon the color of the metal to determine the working temperature. The forge can be a more modern propane gas forge for an even regulated heat. We used, a charcoal burning forced air forge. Its possible to use real hardwood charcoal as fuel, but in our case we used a metallurgical grade of bituminous coal. To regulate the temperature of the fire its necessary to operate a bellows or in our case a hand-cranked air blower. More oxygen to the fire means more fire and more heat.

The Forge (Coal Fired)

The Forge (Coal Fired)

Cut nails are square and taper to a point. To achieve this, the hot rod is removed from the fire and brought to the anvil where it is carefully hammered to draw it out to a point. It is important not to hammer too far up the rod and also to make sure to rotate the rod by 90 degrees as you hammer. The hammer flattens and draws out one side while the dead mass of the anvil underneath flattens and draws out the opposite side. Hammering can be done so long as the metal is hot enough, but once it cools down to a “red hot” then it must be re-heated in the fire in order to continue working. Dick, thanks to years of practice can make a nail (including all the following steps) in one heating and he says that some really serious blacksmiths can make multiple nails from one rod in one heating! For our efforts it took several trips to the fire to complete our nails.

Tapering the Rod by Hammering to Form a Square Point

Tapering the Rod by Hammering to Form a Square Point

Interesting fact that I learned: Every time you heat steel in a fire some of the carbon inside the steel is burned away. At the same time, every time the steel is removed from the fire and exposed to oxygen the surface of the metal rapidly oxidizes (or rusts) and produces “slag.” As you hammer the metal this slag chips off the surface and the net result is that the overall diameter and mass of the workpiece is reduced. Its also possible to over-heat a piece of steel and remove enough carbon and other material that the workpiece becomes pitted just like my first nail!

Once the taper of the nail has been established the next step is to partially cut the nail from the rod. Every anvil has a square hole called a “Hardy Hole” that can be used to hold “Hardy Tools.” The most common Hardy Tool is a Hardy Cutter, a wedge shaped cutter that pinches a workpiece when it is hammered from above and separates metal into a V-shaped cut. The heated rod is placed over the cutter and hammered over the cutter until a cut is made at least 2/3 of the way through the piece. If you hammer too many times you’ll cut through the complete rod and send a hot piece of shrapnel flying through the workshop!

Cutting Through the Rod with a Hardy Cutter and Hammer

Cutting Through the Rod with a Hardy Cutter and Hammer

After heating the rod again, the next step is to remove the partially cut nail from the rod. To do this the square tapered end of the nail is placed into a nail heading tool and then the nail is broken off by twisting back and forth. The metal is hot and in a plastic state so this action is kind of like breaking off a piece of licorice candy (if the licorice was around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit at the time!)

Forming the Head by Upsetting with a Headset Tool, Hammer, and Pritchel Hole

Forming the Head by Upsetting with a Headset Tool, Hammer, and Pritchel Hole on the Anvil

Immediately after breaking off the nail in the nail heading tool, the nail is brought over the “Pritchel Hole” on the anvil and before it has a chance to cool the head of the nail is formed by “upsetting.” To do this you have to land a heavy, square blow to the top of the nail. There is time for maybe four hits to the nail before it cools too much to continue. (An experienced nail maker can make a faceted head with four offset blows after the main blow, we were not experience nail makers!) Once this is done the nail (still in the nail setting tool) is dipped into water to quench it. This causes the nail to rapidly cool and in so doing it contracts so that it can be removed from the nail setting tool. All that is left is to bring it to the anvil, tap it to release it from the nail setting tool, and then re-quench it in the water to take care of remaining heat underneath the nail head. Then you’ve got a finished nail!

Angi Parrish from the Alamance Makers Guild Inspects her First Nail

Angi Parrish from the Alamance Makers Guild Inspects her First Nail

Another interesting fact that I learned: Blacksmiths may make horse shoes and nails, but in general they do not shoe horses. The job of shoeing a horse is left to the Farrier. Farriers have specialized training in anatomy and know how to properly, safely, and healthily shoe a horse.

A Horseshoe and Some Cut Nails

A Horseshoe and Some Cut Nails

Stemming from that interesting fact comes the story of horse shoes and good luck. Have you ever wondered why Horse Shoes are supposed to bring good luck? There has long been a tradition that iron was somehow magical and mystical, but the tradition that horse shoes bring good luck comes from around the 10th century in England. It was said that the patron saint of blacksmiths “Dunstan” was visited by the devil because he needed a new shoe for one of his split hooves. Dunstan, being a good smith recognized who this customer was, grabbed him with his hot tongs, and tied him to the wall. He then applied the horse shoes with such force and causing such pain that the devil promised to never again enter a building that displayed a horseshoe! It was also said that the ringing of a blacksmith’s anvil kept away demons and witches and so at closing time on Saturday evenings the blacksmith would traditionally hit his anvil a final three times to keep evil away from his shop while he was away on Sunday.

The trade of the blacksmith is just as much art as it is science. As metal heats and cools it expands and contracts, and in most cases its not possible to exactly measure lengths or angles as metal is being worked. Each hammer blow changes the shape and size of the material and so making something like you want is very much a question of experience and a good eye. Dick explained that if you want to make two items (like a candlestick for instance) that are alike, its an easy task… just make 100 candle sticks and then find the two from the bunch that are most alike! Alternately, if two objects are separated by enough distance then they will look more alike than they really are!

I’ve seen nails being made by blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg in Virgina and at the North Carolina State Fair in the past but I’d never had the chance to try my own hand at the skill of nail making. Something as simple as a nail requires a lot of thought, planning, and skill. And all of that comes after the fact that someone worked out all of the science and technology, made the anvil, built the forge, made the hammers and other tools, and created a supply of steel rod after someone else mined the iron ore! We truly stand on the shoulders of giants! In our world of high speed communications, smart phones, and throw-away technology that just 100 years ago would have seemed like magic its easy to get out of touch with how, where, and why things are made. Personally I think every high school student should spend at least one hour of their comprehensive educational career making a few nails. Its very interesting to see how such a fundamental building block of our world is made, and very humbling to see the skill and thought process that goes into it. I’m even more impressed with the products of a highly skilled blacksmith’s work now that I’ve had a chance to try my own hand at something that would be considered child’s work!

Eric Hart of the Alamance Makers Guild Concentrates on Hammer Technique

Eric Hart of the Alamance Makers Guild Concentrates on Hammer Technique

I’m very thankful for Dick Snow, and for opportunities for learning that come out of Maker Spaces and Maker Groups like the Alamance Makers Guild!

I’ve put an annotated photo gallery up from my day making nails at the Alamance Makers Guild’s page on Facebook at this link.

Also, Eric Hart, talented prop maker and fellow Alamance Makers Guild member was also one of the participants at Dick’s tutorial on nail making. He’s written a blog about his experience that can be found here.

Learn More and Get Involved:

Thanks for Reading!


2011 was a Great Year for Harris Educational

2011 was a fairly trying year for the world as a whole with man-made problems of economic turmoil and political strife, as well as natural disasters and bad weather. But in spite of the environment Harris Educational had a wonderful year in 2011. I’m attributing this to hard work and dumb luck on our part but I know the biggest reason for our success was due to our readers, our fans, our customers, the good folks at ShopBot, Make Magazine, and all the wonderful resellers of our Reinventing Science kits.

Our year started out with an upgrade to our science kit production capabilities in the form of a new CNC Router. Our goal was to automate the production of some of the parts of our Reinventing Science kits and also to allow for new product development of parts that would not be easy to achieve using other more traditional methods. To learn how to use the new router my first project was to build a custom computer case and a new computer that we could use to edit and produce more video. The Ingenematic Visitron was born and I’m proud to say that the story was picked up by Hack-a-day sending quite a few visitors to our blog and making us a few new fans.

2011 saw my first trip to Maker Faire in California. In May my nephew Brian and I traveled to California to exhibit the Reinventing Science kits to throngs of people at the Maker Shed inside Maker Faire. We met a lot of interesting people, made some new friends, and caught the attention of Popular Mechanics who mentioned Harris Educational and the Reinventing Edison kit by name as one of the reasons that the Maker Shed was one of the top ten coolest things to do at Maker Faire! (TONS of photos from Maker Faire are on our fan page here, here, here, and don’t forget the video we posted “The Motion of Maker Faire” below)

One of the big events at Maker Faire in California was the Hackerspace Challenge, and I met a lot of interesting people from different maker spaces from around the country. On my flight back to North Carolina I kept thinking how great it would be to have such a place here in my home town of Burlington. I started brainstorming for ways to make this happen by expanding Harris Educational (a project I’m still working on)

In June my nephew Brian helped me again and we exhibited Harris Educational and the Reinventing Science kits at Maker Faire NC in Raleigh. (Tons of Photographs Here, Here, and Here) Maker Faire NC was in its second year and it was great to meet and become involved with all of the folks responsible for making this faire a reality. Two other great things came out of this mini maker faire. Thanks to a sign in our booth asking Alamance County people to say hey to us I met a couple of folks who have become founding members of our new Alamance Makers Guild. The second thing to come out of MFNC is our new relationship with ShopBot tools of Durham NC. Harris Educational is now working with ShopBot to create STEM based curriculum materials around Digital Fabrication technologies such as their CNC Routers. The second half of our year has seen quite a bit of development on this project, not to mention the addition of a ShopBot desktop CNC Router to our list of tools.

In July and August more people learned about Harris Educational thanks to some local news stories. The first was a full page article written about us in the Burlington Newspaper, “The Times News.” This story then got the attention of WGHP Fox 8 news out of Greensboro NC who interviewed me for the evening news segment “Made in NC” You can see the video above.

In August I set up a “Meeting of the NC Makers” including the folks from ShopBot Tools, Roy Underhill from PBS’s Longest Running DIY Show “The Woodwright’s Shop”, the folks from Maker Faire NC, and some others for a fun day of woodworking in high tech and in historical contexts. In the morning Roy Underhill visited ShopBot tools to see CNC Routers in action, and after a great lunch at Ted Hall’s house in Durham, everyone visited Roy Underhill’s Woodworking School in Pittsboro NC. While there I shot put together the following videos.

With support from the folks I met at Maker Faire NC I’ve officially launched “The Alamance Makers Guild” through a group, a fan page on facebook, and a twitter feed. We’re now holding regular monthly meetings and members have shared their talents and their creations including some really cool wood turnings, steam punk art pieces, and even a home made tesla coil! Much more with the Alamance Makers guild in 2012.

This year also saw our first international sale of Reinventing Science kits with the addition of a new reseller in the Republic of Korea.  The year also saw the addition of Pasco Scientific as a dealer, and Educational Innovations adding our Reinventing Morse kit.  We’ve also laid some groundwork for the setup of some more new resellers for 2012. Sales for the kits continue to increase, a great accomplishment for such a flat economy.

The year finished out with some very positive recognition of our Reinventing Science kits! The Surprising Science blog at the Smithsonian picked our Reinventing Edison: Build your own Light Bulb science kit as one of the top 10 best gifts for Science lovers. We were also highly honored to have been picked by Make Magazine as one of 12 Science Kits reviewed in their “Ultimate Kit Guide” special edition. We received a 5 out of 5 for the quality of our instructions and our materials! I was also very happy to read all of the comments about the kit when they gave one away at their blog.

2011 was a great year for Harris Educational and I’m sure 2012 will bring all new challenges and opportunities.  Thanks to everyone who supports us!


Harris Educational and Reinventing Science Kits in the News!

Thanks to my involvement with Maker Faire, my efforts in Social Media, and some other projects I am starting to get a little attention from the local news media for Harris Educational and the Reinventing Science kits.

On July 10th I was featured in a full page article in the “Accent” section of the Sunday edition of “The Times News” here in Burlington NC. The article “A Science Hobby becomes a career” by reporter Molly McGowan tells some of the story behind how and why I started Harris Educational and how I make the Reinventing Science kits here in Burlington (proudly hand made in the USA!). The article is online and can be found at the Times News website HERE.

That article lead to an interview with Brad Jones of WGHP Fox 8 News (of Greensboro NC) for their “Made in NC” segment. “Made in NC” features new, innovative, and interesting companies in North Carolina that make products here in NC. It was an honor to be included in this segment and I’m glad to be able to get the word out about what I’m doing. I’m very happy at how the interview turned out and feel it was a good mix of my philosophy behind Reinventing Science kits, a look at the kits themselves in action, and some good footage of me making parts for the kits. They even managed to get some focus for my new ShopBot Desktop CNC router.

The interview aired on the evening news on August 26th. I’ve uploaded my off-air recording of the interview to YouTube (see above) but a higher quality version can be found at the Fox 8 “Made in NC” site HERE (along with links to all of the other interesting companies and products they’ve featured).

They say everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame. By my calculations I’ve now used up about three of mine. I wonder where my adventures with Harris Educational, Maker Faire, ShopBot, and my other projects will lead me next? Its always great to make more people aware of the kits and help improve sales a little, but really I’ll be happiest if these stories (and hopefully future ones) lead to more fans for the community I’ve been developing on Facebook on the Harris Educational fan page.

If you are interested you can learn more about the Reinventing Science kits check out the Science Kits tab here on this blog or visit my website:

If you are interested in purchasing a Reinventing Science kit please visit:

Announcing a New Partnership between Harris Educational and ShopBot Tools

It is with great pleasure that I announce a new partnership between Harris Educational and ShopBot tools of Durham NC. I will be applying my skills and experience in instructional design, educational development, and K-12 science and technology education to help ShopBot create a unified, modular STEM curriculum about Digital Fabrication related to their popular and successful CNC routers and other tools.

ShopBot Desktop CNC Router Digital Fabrication Tool

The New ShopBot Desktop CNC Router Digital Fabrication Tool

ShopBot Tools of Durham NC designs, manufactures, and supplies digital fabrication tools such as 2D/3D CNC Routers, 5-axis CNC routers, and related equipment. They are committed to making these tools at a very high quality but also at a very affordable price. I’ve met the folks from ShopBot, toured their facilities, sat in on some of their training, and observed them at two Maker Faires and I can tell you they are a different kind of company! I’ve found them to be very open and very forward thinking. Every employee is enthusiastic and committed to what they are doing. As one of their motto’s says, they build the tools for building the future!

Digital Fabrication covers a wide range of technologies that have evolved from expensive specialized industrial machines and processes to affordable and flexible solutions that are now well within the reach of individuals, students, schools, and small businesses. These tools and techniques allow a person to go from a digital design created on a computer and translate that it into a real working physical object.

ShopBot Buddy Mills out 3D Replicas of attendees of the San Mateo Maker Faire

ShopBot Buddy Mills out 3D copies of attendees of the San Mateo Maker Faire

Digital Fabrication tools can be subtractive (like CNC routers, milling machines, or laser cutters) or additive (like plastic extruders and deposition printers) or even a combination of the two. Just as the PC and then the Internet have revolutionized how we create and share information digital fabrication technologies are revolutionizing how we create and distribute physical objects and products. To translate an idea into reality in the past would have require a workshop full of tools as well as a great deal of experience, skill, and patience. These new tools such as ShopBot’s CNC machines free anyone to focus on design while the machine does the work.

President Obama views a ShopBot in Action at Loraine County Community College

President Obama views a ShopBot in Action making wind turbine parts at Loraine County Community College in Ohio

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America… then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”              … President Obama (State of the Union Address, January 2011)

STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” and is a new way of looking at education. Instead of teaching concepts like science and math separately in a vacuum or without real world application or reference STEM seeks to integrate other disciplines including Engineering and Technology with Science and Math. STEM tends to be more hands-on and draws from other areas to create learning experiences that are closer to what a person might expect to find in the real world.

The U.S. now ranks 60th in the world in producing scientist and engineers; it has fallen 22% in just the last decade. Our high school students rank 23rd in science and 30th in math. To continue to thrive in a modern world and to prepare our children for lives, jobs, and a culture which increasingly depend on an understanding of science and math, we need to be making a stronger investment in education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)” … Quoted from the ShopBot Website (ShopBot in Education)

Harris Educational shares ShopBot’s views on Education and the need to improve skills and knowledge, and make more young people aware of and enthusiastic about STEM related career paths. Every person does not necessarily have talents in any given area, but every human being is creative! We are all innate problem solvers and we all invent and create the world around us every day. Digital Fabrication is a great platform to unleash the creative side of every person. Through their ideas and designs young people can build a desire to go a bit further and investigate “how does that work?” and “how can I improve that?” and “how can I share that?” To go further they can learn the geometry and science and other “hard stuff” that helps them get to their goals.

ShopBot Tools are already in use in schools around the world serving a wide range of rolls from educational platforms to job training to tools for art and architecture projects. Many teachers, students, and others have already shared lesson plans, information, instructions, projects, and designs with each other and with ShopBot. ShopBot’s and Harris Educational’s goal is to leverage this material and add to it in order to create a complete modular curriculum that meets the needs of STEM educators for students in Middle School, High School, and College.

Harris Educational will be producing educational materials and publishing them through ShopBot for free distribution and use by anyone that desires to teach Digital Fabrication as part of their STEM educational program. At first we’ll be producing PDF materials that educators can download and use. As time goes on we’ll be producing videos, animations, e-learning modules, and other materials. I’ll be creating teach-the-teacher materials, teacher classroom materials, and student materials. We’ll also leverage the extensive training materials and actual projects that are available through ShopBot for users of their tools.

Work on this project is beginning now and we’ll be publishing materials as they are available so that teachers can begin working with them as soon as possible. This is an ongoing, evolving, and living project! We’ll be working with educators for suggestions, peer review, and feedback. We’ll then improve and add to the content as time goes on. If you use a ShopBot in your school (or are considering it) you can contact us to help with our project! You can contact Harris Educational at or through our website at You can contact ShopBot tools at (for questions about ShopBots or Purchasing a ShopBot please contact them, to be a part of the curriculum project please contact Harris Educational)

Stay tuned to our blog for further information and updates. We’ll make announcements as we publish and make new materials available.

If you are a STEM educator reading this blog, then please also consider “liking” us on Facebook (… we are building a community of people who are interested in STEM including students, teachers, and every day people including some leading figures in the worlds of Science and Technology. We also have a LOT of free resources for educators available at our website at:

Harris Educational’s New Computer

With the purchase of my new CNC Router added to the fact that my old workstation had developed a mother board problem and the fact that I want to create and edit more video for Harris Educational it was clear that it was time to build a new workstation. To that end I’ve created a new computer from scratch including the custom case and component selection. I’ll use this new computer to help design and produce new Reinventing Science Kits as well as new video and other creative projects. (I’m writing this blog with it right now!) Stay tuned for another blog related to this custom PC showing how I built it and the CNC and Design lessons I learned. In the mean while here is my new creation the “Ingenematic Visitron” by Bennett M. Harris of Harris Educational.

Front View of the Ingenematic Visitron our new custom PC

The Ingenematic Visitron designed and built by Harris Educational


  • Processor: Intel i7 2600K (unlocked) 3.4Ghz Quad Core (hyperthreading) Sandy Bridge LGA1155 with stock Intel cooler
  • Motherboard: Asus P8P67 Deluxe with EFI Bios, DIGI VRM Voltage Control, 4 USB 3.0, 8 USB 2.0, 4 6 GB/s SATA 4 3 GB/s SATA, Dual Ethernet, 4 memory slots, built in bluetooth, and on board diagnostic LED display.
  • Memory: 8 GB (2x4GB) Corsair Dominator Dual Channel DDR3 PC12800 1600Mhz (includes heat sinks)
  • Power Supply: 850 Watt Corsair HX850W Modular Power Supply
  • Video Card: Asus GeForce 560 Ti overclocked with 1GB 256-bit GDDR5 Memory dual DVI output and HDMI out (Nvidia Graphics with CUDA engine, with cooling block and dual fans)
  • Monitors: 2 Asus VE247H Black 23.6” 16:9 Widescreen LED Backlit Monitors (with Splendid)
  • Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB 7200 RPM 6GB/s 64MB cache SATA
  • Optical Drive: Asus 24X DVDRW Multi-format SATA
  • Card Reader/Front Ports: Ultra USB2.0 MD3 Multi Function Panel (with LCD and Fan Control) with Multi Card Reader, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 Firewire port, 2 powered eSATA ports, and headphone/microphone jacks. Also: Asus front panel USB 3.0 with 2 ports (part of the mother board package)
  • Sound: On-board Sound via Realtek Adapter, Speakers are recycled Boston Acoustics Digital 2.1 with sub-woofer.
  • Cooling: Air Cooled, 2 80mm blue-led lit top cooling fans (controlled via the Multi-Function panel), Power Supply Fan, and backup 80mm bottom fan. Ultra Hard Drive Aluminium Cooler.
  • Keyboard: Microsoft Natural Ergonomic (USB 2.0)
  • Mouse: Logitech Cordless Optical Trackman
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit dual boot along with Ubuntu Linux 10.10
  • Spare Bays: 1 full size drive bay, 1 mid size drive bay, 3 HD slots, and extra room for expansion.
  • Case: Custom Case built with my CNC machine, metal work by hand, and some recycled ATX case parts, Aquarium style with transparent front and rear panels. Front/Side facing drive bays and custom power controls and power/hd light. 1 inch bottom air gap and bottom air vents, top mounted fans with custom cutout grills, and built in carry handles. Dimensions: 24” wide x 9.75” thick x 21” tall.
  • Software: Mostly Open Source (Open Office, The Gimp, Inkscape, Audacity, Notepad ++, VLC, and many more) Closed Source includes SwishMax, Microsoft Visio, and Sony Vegas.

Closeup of the PC Installed on my desk

Closeup of the PC Installed on my desk

The Intel Chipset Problem

Literally two days after I ordered my motherboard online news came out that the first revision Intel chipset used for the new Sandybridge processors has a design flaw. Data corruption was likely over time on the 3GB/s SATA ports. I ordered my motherboard via Newegg and I was very pleased with their reaction to this problem. They gave the option of returning the motherboard with no questions asked for a full refund OR keeping the motherboard and then replacing it with a revised model once they were available via RMA. Initial assumptions were that new boards wouldn’t be available until April (maybe late April) however I got word late last week that mine was available. This weekend I’ll be installing the board that just came via UPS this afternoon! (all in all great customer service from Newegg, great reaction time, and good options to fix a problem that wasn’t really of their making)

Closeup view of the inside of the case

Closeup view of the inside of the case

About the Case

The Case is constructed from one piece of high density solid core extruded PVC Lumber (8 feet long by 3/4” thick by 9-1/2” wide) {available via most home centers}. Its a material that is meant for replacing wood trim lumber in exterior home applications. I’ve checked with the manufacturer and the plastic does not contain softening agents or plasticizers that include lead or lead compounds. The front and back panels are made from 24” x 18” x 0.080” clear plexiglass also machined with the CNC Router.

Down shot of the case showing the top air vents and carry handles
Down shot of the case showing the top air vents and carry handles

The PVC Lumber was cut to length (two side pieces, two cross beams, and one remaining piece used for the front drive bay bezel) on an ordinary sliding miter saw. Each piece was then machined via my CNC Router based on designs I created on my old workstation. The top and bottom cross beams fit as mortise and tenon joints that extend half way into each side piece. I did this instead of a rabbit joint to maintain some of the structural integrity of the plastic lumber and also for aesthetics so that from the front/back the joints look more like butt-joints.

Front 3/4 view of the Custom PC case

Front 3/4 view of the Custom PC case

The ATX Motherboard Tray and the Drive Cage for the Optical Drive were salvaged from an old ATX computer case. Harvesting them simply required drilling out the rivets that held them in place. The drive cage for the hard drive(s) was made from a piece of recycled galvanized sheet metal. I didn’t have a bending brake so instead I used two clamps, my bench-top, and a 2×4 to bend all hand-made metal components. These also included the strap that holds the power supply, a bracket that holds the drive bezel, and a trim piece on one corner of the exterior of the case. Holes in the sheet metal were done with a step bit in my drill press. The drill press was also used for a few other hand-drilling operations.

Rear View of the custom PC Case showing the ATX MB Tray

Rear View of the custom PC Case showing the ATX MB Tray

Left side view of the case showing the Power Supply

Left side view of the case showing the Power Supply

The CNC Router was capable of doing quite detailed work and so I created a slot to hold the power supply on the left top side of the case. The slot is machined down leaving less than 1/8” of material as a lip for mounting the supply. The back side of the supply is supported by a sheet metal strap. The power supply vents hot air out of the left side of the case. For additional cooling (and for case lighting) I included two additional 80mm LED lit fans in the top of the case. One is centered in the case and the other is set above the hard drive cage to assist with hard drive cooling. Each fan is mounted inside a pocket and has custom grills machined into the cross beams.

Closeup of the Top Fan Vent Detail

Closeup of the Top Fan Vent Detail

Fans Lit in Operation, sorry for the blurry photo

Fans Lit in Operation, sorry for the blurry photo

I knew my computer project needed a name, and that I had to use the CNC Machine’s capabilities to engrave that name. I also wanted it to have a retro style to it. I finally settled upon “Ingenematic Visitron” for “Ingenious Ideas made Automatic” and Vision/Video – tron (as vacuum tubes often in in “tron” names) since it will be used for a lot of video editing.

Closeup of the Name Plaque: Ingenematic Visitron

Closeup of the Name Plaque: Ingenematic Visitron

Closeup of the Drive Bay Bezel with name Plaque

Closeup of the Drive Bay Bezel with name Plaque

The Power and Reset Switch are simple momentary contact push buttons from Radio Shack (they were actually recycled from an old science project). They are mounted into recessed holes. The front bezel was machined on both sides in order to accomplish this. The Hard Drive and Power Lights are mounted behind a Fresnel style lens that was scavenged from a Sylvania Console radio from the late 1960’s (the radio and its case had too much water damage to be salvageable otherwise). I really like the effect of having multiple lights behind this one lens.

Closeup of the user controls

Closeup of the user controls

Overall I’m very pleased with my new PC and its design. Creating the case was a great way to learn the capabilities and quirks of my CNC machine and its related software. If you would like to see more photographs of the PC (including photographs of the CNC machine in operation) check out our fan page on Facebook and check out the photos section. Feel free to become a fan while you are at it, or leave comments or questions. Here are a few more shots of the PC in action.

A view of the custom PC In operation above my desk

A view of the custom PC In operation above my desk

The Whole Computer Desk with PC on Display (I built the desk too)

The Whole Computer Desk with PC on Display (I built the desk too)

A closeup of the front of the case showing the piping detail in plexiglass

A closeup of the front of the case showing the piping detail in plexiglass

Stay Tuned for more CNC Router Information in a future Blog.

Thanks for reading!

Understanding the Nuclear Disaster in Japan: An Interview with a Nuclear Engineer

Here at Harris Educational our thoughts, hopes, and prayers go out to the people of Japan and to heroic engineers and other staff that are fighting to improve the odds in a very desperate situation caused by the recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

I’m a fairly technologically literate person. I spend all my spare time reading about science and math and technology. I’ve done this all my life. Even so the Nuclear crisis that currently faces Japan has really driven home to me how little I know about Nuclear Energy and the practical technology that makes it a reality. Sure I understand that Uranium is an unstable atom that can be made to split in a process called fission that produces neutrons, radiation, and lots of heat that can then boil water, make steam, and rotate a turbine to power an electrical generator. But there are lots of questions that I don’t know the answers to. Luckily for me I have an old college friend who spent his time in college studying to become a Nuclear Engineer. His name is Garrett Gilley and he has most graciously volunteered to answer some of my questions and to share his knowledge with Harris Educational’s audience.

H.E.: Thank you for your time and for helping me better understand some of the things I’m hearing in the news about the Nuclear disaster facing Japan. Here are my questions:

H.E.: Its my understanding that “melt down” is not a technical term used by Nuclear Engineers but rather a catch phrase started by the media during the 3 Mile Island incident in the 1970’s. Can you explain what a “Melt Down” means and how that relates to what is going on in Japan right now? Are the reactors there melting down or are there other problems also going on? i.e. what is the biggest threat… release of radiation, release of radioactive materials into the environment, explosion?

G.G.: A “melt down” basically means that a part of the fuel core becomes hot enough to melt. The fuel is made up of cylindrical pellets, typically made with Uranium or Plutonium, inserted into a Zirconium rod. Several of these rods are put together with spacers to form a fuel assembly and the core of a reactor is made up of lots of these assemblies depending on the design and size. Since water is the main form of cooling when water can no longer be circulated or the fuel core becomes uncovered the heat produced from the fission reaction can no longer be removed and the fuel core will begin to reach the melting point of the various materials involved. The 1,2, and 3 reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi (“ichi” means one) lost the ability to circulate water because of the earthquake and the tsunami so the water already in the system continued to boil off until the cores have become uncovered and it is believed that the cores have begun to melt. As a last resort they have tried to pump sea water into the system, but my understanding is that it was only partially successful because of other things happening. A melt down does create an increased amount of radiation and radioactive particles, but as long as the containment holds the most of it should stay localized to the site. I should point out that a “china syndrome” has never happened, which is where the core melts down into a slag and burns through the containment vessel and the floor of the containment building and into the earth itself which theoretically would release a large amount of radiation and deadly particles into the water table. The fact is that the potential melt downs of these reactors is probably the greatest test of the old containment units that has ever occurred. In my opinion the fire in the spent fuel pool at reactor 4 is a much bigger problem because that is an immediate release of radiation and particles into the immediate surroundings of the plant. There have also been several explosions as seen and reported. So far they have all been related to either a pressure build up or a hydrogen bubble that became heated and exploded. I won’t say that the chance of a nuclear explosion is 0% but its about as close as you can get. Nuclear plants and the fuel they use are not designed the same way as a nuclear bomb.

H.E.: My understanding is that there are five reactors at the effected plant. At the time of the earthquake three were in operation. Automatic shutdown was triggered by the earthquake but it seems that any system as potentially dangerous as a nuclear reactor would have many layers of protections built in. What kinds of things likely happened to make these layers fail? What can you tell us about the design and operation of a nuclear reactor and its safety mechanisms?

G.G.: Actually the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has 6 reactors on site and they were actually planning to begin building 2 more in the next 5yrs. There are 4 reactors right next to each other that we are seeing on tv and there are 2 more about a mile up from reactor 1. All 6 of these reactors are what we call BWR or Boiling Water Reactors and they were designed by G.E. back in the 60’s and all of these reactors went online between 1970 and 1978. As you have probably guessed these plants are old and were built at the beginning of the nuclear energy age and they did not benefit from the lessons we learned with TMI (Three Mile Island) or Chernobyl. A BWR is basically what it implies, the fission reaction in the reactor vessel boils water just like a pot on the stove, except that the source of heat is inside the pot instead of underneath. The water boils and creates steam which rises through a series of baffles before leaving the reactor vessel. The baffles are used to help remove as much excess water particles from the steam as possible, you want the steam to be dry and not wet. If you put your hand over a boiling pot the steam will feel wet and will burn you, this is because there are still some liquid water atoms in with the steam. I know the concept of dry and wet steam being different things boggled our little engineering minds as well but there is a reason for it. The steam goes from the reactor vessel to the turbine and is used to spin the turbine blades. Turbine blades are very delicate, and pressure is increased on the steam before it gets to the turbine in order to increase its velocity so that it can spin the turbine blade. If your steam is wet its the same as firing a Gatling gun off a Blackhawk at those blades and it will do just as much damage. Of course the turbine(s) spins a generator(s) and electricity is produced and sold. After the steam passes through the turbine it passes into a condenser where it is cooled back into water and is then pumped using recirculating pumps back into the reactor vessel. This entire loop is obviously irradiated and in a BWR is housed inside of containment buildings in case there is an accident.

There are lots of safety systems and mechanisms in a nuclear plant and in most cases they are not only redundant, but sometimes triple and quadruple redundant. But the reactors at Fukushima did not benefit from safety design changes that occurred after they were built since you can’t exactly retrofit the key parts of the loop. However, those plants still had the main safety systems that are required above all else to provide for containment and cooling. A fission reaction is created when a fast neutron splits a Uranium atom which produces a couple of elements, heat energy, and more fast neutrons. (I won’t go any further on that cause just remembering those calculations makes my head hurt). The first safety step is to insert control rods in between groups of fuel assemblies in order to stop or slow down the fission process. Control rods are made from materials that absorb fast neutrons. But you can’t completely stop the reaction right away, most reactors can still produce 1-7% of their power capacity even after the control rods are inserted. The reactor vessel itself that house the fuel is also made of materials that can absorb, shield, and reflect fast neutrons and other radioactive particles. The vessel is usually surrounded by a shielding material then a containment housing (usually concrete mixed with absorption materials). All of that plus other things sit inside an outer containment building. The outer containment building is usually slightly pressurized in order to keep any leaks or wandering particles in the inner containment housing. The other main safety concern is keeping the fuel inside the reactor cool which is done with water. The water that is used to generate steam is also used for cooling especially when the reactor is shut down so that means the key safety point here is the recirculation pump. Now in most designs there are 2 recirculating pumps and a 3rd one kept as redundancy in case one of the others breaks. Any one pump is supposed to be enough to maintain water flow to cool the core when the reactor is shut down. I’m not sure how many pumps each reactor at Fukushima has but it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer was one. These pumps as well as anything else at the plant that requires electricity depends on power to run so in the event of a shutdown everything switches over to off site power. If offsite power is lost then there are diesel generators and if those are lost then there are battery backups to be used until options one and two are available again, preferably within 8-12 hrs. Most power plants also have a tank of boric acid that can be fed into the system as well in order to get the fission reaction under control. Water used in the main reactor loop is called light water and is very very clean. Any introduction of external ‘dirty’ water or even sea water basically means that reactor can never be used for power production again.

HE: I’ve seen in the news that each reactor building has somewhere between 70 and 90 tons of spent fuel rods stored in water tanks above the reactor vessel itself. Why store the spent fuel at the power station (is it performing some function even though its spent?) and what is the danger if this spent fuel looses its cooling water? I’ve heard some news outlets using words like “fears of the stored fuel going critical” is there a possibility of a nuclear explosion? Or is the fear just a breakdown of the storage system and fires or conventional explosions from heat that might spread radioactive materials into the surrounding environment?

G.G.: Nuclear fuel is only effective for about 6yrs, after that its ability to effectively produce the right amounts of heat and neutrons is outweighed by the other elements that a split Uranium atom breaks down into. A buildup of those elements elements across the core work as a negative to power production so you have to remove the spent fuel assemblies that now contain some uranium but also those leftover elements and replace them with newer fuel. The standard is to replace a third of the core every 18-24 months. Those fuel assemblies are still highly radioactive and will continue to be radioactive for many many decades after and you have to put them somewhere but you can’t exactly truck them anywhere when they first come out of the reactor. The spent fuel pool was created for this reason. The spent fuel pool allows for the fuel assemblies to be stored, cooled, and monitored. Even though they are no longer a part of the reactor core, they are still producing some fast neutrons which continue to split uranium atoms, fission is a chain reaction after all. And as long as water is continually circulated in the spent fuel pool to remove the residual heat that is produced from the spent fuel, then everything is fine. The top of the spent fuel pool is also either not covered or may be lightly covered depending on the design. The only reason I can think of for it being that way is because the spent fuel is constantly monitored for various things including radiation and particles and sometimes assemblies need to be shuffled around to prevent hot zones in the pool. The design of the particular reactors at Fukushima had the spent fuel pools above and beside the reactor containment area primarily for easy access when taking out the spent fuel and putting in the new. You really don’t want those hot assemblies to be exposed to the air for to long. It was determined at some point in the 80’s the location of that pool was poor design and most later designs put the pool in a different building with varying ways to transport the spent rods from the reactor to the pool. If the spent fuel pool loses its ability to provide cooling water, there is still enough heat produced to boil off the water in the pool which is storing decades worth of spent fuel. As the water temperature increases in the pool and it boils, the irradiated zirconium housing will basically oxidize and breach. The product of oxidization is H2 which rises and potentially creates a very flammable bubble inside of the structure. With enough heat and pressure that bubble will explode which is what happened at reactor 4. At the same time the fuel rods are breaking down, the water is being boiled off and the assemblies are being uncovered which means they are no longer being cooled so now we have a “melt down” affect on the spent fuel. This would most definitely release an immediate high if not lethal amount of radiation and radioactive particles on site but this release should decay over time. There was a theory when I was in school that if you allowed a “hot zone” to fester in a spent fuel pool and you lost cooling then they could go critical or supercritical meaning they would act like the core of a reactor and the rate of neutron production would sore and could potentially lead to a nuclear explosion. But that was all based off of theoretical calculations. Personally I don’t think that could happen for the express reason that the fuel is spent and is no longer used because of its lack of neutron production rates required to overcome the negatives to power production. But the spent fuel burning and spreading radioactive particles is very real and more dangerous because it does not have the same type of containment as the reactor core.

HE: I’ve heard that there were “hydrogen explosions” in the various reactor buildings. How does hydrogen factor into a nuclear reactor? Is it hydrogen that is being liberated in some way from water or produced by nuclear fission? Or is it something used by the reactor. (I was surprised to hear so much about Hydrogen in the news)

G.G.: I don’t recall hydrogen itself being used in any component of the reactor building itself where these explosions occur except for possibly the pressurizing that is used between the inner and outer containment. I know that the air in there is breathable but it is slightly tweaked in order to maintain the small pressure difference. The most likely occurrence in my mind comes from the oxidization of the zirconium fuel rods. Because of the fission reaction combined with the heat the zirconium will actually remove the oxygen from the water molecules and this breakdown leaves hydrogen bubbles mixed in with the steam which is flowing out of the reactor vessel. In order to relieve pressure on the system some of this steam has to be release into the outer containment area which is a prime opportunity for a hydrogen bubble to be created. The reason for the release of steam is because if you don’t and pressure builds up in the reactor vessel, it’ll pop like a pressure cooker and spew lots of radioactive material much worse than the spent fuel pool. So releasing a small amount of radiated steam outweighs popping that reactor vessel by a long shot. If you go back and look at the video of the explosion at reactor 1, even though there was a hydrogen bubble, that explosion was more a result of increased pressure in the outer containment building and it sorta popped like a balloon which is why 2/3 of the building remained intact. The explosion at reactor 3 was most definitely the ignition of a hydrogen bubble and the damage and video show it. The explosion at reactor 4 was also as a result of ignited hydrogen which was produced by the overheated spent fuel pool. These are just my analysis based on my observation of the videos and my knowledge of how and where the hydrogen was produced, the only people that really know for sure are on site at Fukushima.

HE: What can you tell me about the risks the workers at the nuclear plant are taking by working there to fix these problems? I know they’ve evacuated civilians within a 12 mile radius of the plant and the US Government has issued orders that any US citizens within a 50 mile radius of the plant should leave. Tonight the news media is using phrases like “suicide mission” to describe the job these people must perform. Is their life span shortened? Have they already been exposed to enough radiation that they can not survive?

G.G.: Without a doubt anyone that works at a nuclear facility is taking a risk. You are told when you enter any nuclear engineering program how dangerous the things are that you are playing with. You’re not just trying to control things you can see, you’re trying to control things you can’t see. If something major happens you know that you have to do everything you possibly can to bring it under control and to an end in order to prevent something from happening to the environment and to potentially millions of people. Those guys that are staying there to work on this runaway event are doing so knowing full well that their lives will most likely be shortened if not lost. If there is even a 1% chance to get this event under control, those workers will stay there and try it. I knew the first day when they initially vented some of the steam in reactor one and there was a slight increase in radiation that these workers were more concerned with bringing things under control and not with themselves. I can only imagine how they are feeling now in what seems to us to be an impossible situation but yet they are still there and still trying to come up with ways to bring it under control. We have to also remember that on top of the obvious doses of radiation that they have already received, they have also lost their homes and friends, family, and co-workers from the earthquake and tsunami that hit the nearby town where most of them stayed. I read one report on the first night where after the tsunami one worker rushed into the town to find anyone from the next shift who may have been at home sleeping at the time and he was only able to find a few. To me no matter how this turns out those guys are all heroes. And pretty soon there are going to have to be some even tougher decisions. There are some pretty extreme measures that are probably going to have to be taken especially at reactors 3 and 4 that will basically be suicide missions. I just hope that things can somehow be turned around before that point is reached but they truly are running out of time.

I think the Japanese did an excellent job evacuating the civilians to a 12 mile or more radius and it will probably increase one more time. I think the U.S. government making the 50 mile suggestion for its citizens living there is probably just being overly cautious but not a bad idea either.

H.E.: Based on any information you can find can you tell us how this disaster compares to 3 Mile Island and to Chernobyl? What are the best and worst case scenarios going forward.

G.G.: Comparing this to Chernobyl is like apples and oranges. Two completely different types of reactors in every way and at Chernobyl they were attempting to perform a test and they purposely turned off their redundant safety systems. Instead of stopping the experiment when the test conditions were not met, they tried to force the reactor to produce those conditions, which caused the reactor to ramp up and run out of control with no safety mechanisms in place and leading to a hydrogen explosion the exposed the core and spewed radioactive material making thousands of acres uninhabitable for several lifetimes. TMI’s incident is a little closer even though it also is a different type of reactor and design from Fukushima. Its similar in that the coolant pumps failed and the reactor shutdown, but TMI also had a pressure operated relief valve which was stuck closed not allowing coolant from the emergency tank into the reactor vessel which allowed half the core to become uncovered and to melt. The radiation released from that incident however didn’t even get close to the amount you would normally receive annually from nature. So the reality is that the situation at Fukushima Dai-ishi is entirely unique. The best we can hope for is that they are somehow able to put out the fire and be able to get cooling water into the reactor vessels and spent fuel pools and bring the temperatures back under control. Worst case scenario would be a Chernobyl type event where containment is breached and there is a massive release of radioactive particles into the environment for miles and into the natural water table.

H.E.: What is the end game here? If the existing reactors can be kept cool can the other reactors at the facility still be used in the future or is the site too contaminated to be used?

G.G.: I don’t think the entire site is too contaminated just yet, at least not around reactors 5 and 6. And as long as there is not a massive release of particles into the air and into the natural surroundings the radiation levels will decay in a relatively short amount of time. But even if we get the best case scenario the functionality of reactors 1-4 are over. Those explosions combined with melted fuel and the addition of sea water have pretty much ended the lives of those reactors. In reality they were all entering an end of life cycle anyway but going out like this is not really good. Whether or not they are able to use 5 and 6 or even build the two new ones that were planned we will just have to wait and see.

H.E.: Given that we’ve seen reports tonight that one of the reactor buildings has lost its roof and is on fire and that helicopters are making water drops on the building is there any hope that things can be contained or is this now a loosing battle?

G.G.: As long as the primary containment and the reactor vessel remain intact its never a losing battle. As I’ve said earlier, it is only assumed that the core can melt through the vessel and containment floor but there has never been a situation where it could really happen like this. TMI was close but they had the luxury of on site power and backup pumps and external water tanks. However dropping water on those buildings runs the risk of jostling the fuel assemblies around inside the pools which are pretty much open to the atmosphere and creating more problems, but given the alternative of doing nothing there’s not really any other choice right now.

H.E.: Have or Will radioactive materials be released into the environment and if so will they get into the food chain? How will it effect the oceans? Will airborne particles reach the U.S.?

G.G.: There has been some release into the area surrounding the site and into the air but dispersion increases greatly the farther away you get from the site. And radiation from a particle decays over time as its energy is absorbed by the atmosphere and whatever else it touches which is why they have seen spikes of radiation on site after an explosion but then it goes back down. So there is not a consistent output of high radiation at this point in time. A massive consistent release would effect the ocean near the plant the most but just like air the father away it gets the more diluted and less effective it becomes. Plus we’re dealing with heavy metals which tend to sink in water. Will airborne particles reach the U.S.? Maybe 1 googlezilianth (like that, I made it up) of a particle sometime down the road. I mean if you made a detector sensitive enough you could probably still detect particles left over from testing in world war 2 but getting a sun tan is more dangerous than that. I actually laughed when they reported on the news last night that people on the west coast were making a run on pharmacies buying up iodine and other things. Its okay if you just wanna be prepared for something to happen here, but going overboard because of something happening 7000 miles away will just make you broke.

H.E.: These plants in Japan were designed and built prior to 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl. How are the nuclear power plants that are in service in the US today different or safer than the plants in Japan, and what other lessons are potentially being built into future plants to keep these kinds of problems from happening. Are plants as safe as they can be and this was just a “perfect storm” of bad conditions, or are we able to reduce risks in current and future nuclear power plants?

G.G.: Well, in reality we have 23 plants here that have the exact same design as the Fukushima plants, they were designed by G.E. after all. Several have already been mothballed after reaching their end of life cycle according to our standards. Personally I always felt that the BWR design was a higher risk than the PWR design mainly because it’s a single loop system which increases the safety concerns and design issues. But the BWR only makes up about 1/3 of our total nuclear plants. We did learn lots of things from TMI and Chernobyl however. When it comes to safety the plant designs were changed accordingly and some older plants were retrofitted with newer safety systems. One of the newer BWR designs actually has water powered recirculation pumps inside the reactor vessel itself which can be used to provided temporary cooling control if needed. So a lot of changes have been made towards containment and cooling over the last 20yrs. Spent fuel is also a major concern so all new plants built will actually have covered containment for the spent fuel pools. There are also several new plant designs utilizing spent fuel as a source for power instead of just storing it, in fact the Chinese are building the first reactor of that type. Current plant safety always comes into question when a big event happens, just like right after 9/11. Whether our plants here are safer or not than Japan’s, I don’t know. I like to think our’s probably are just because our watchdog is a bit more active than theirs. Here in the U.S. there is an Nuclear Regulatory official on site 24/7 at every plant constantly making safety reports and evaluations. But when you have such an unthinkable event like what happened in Japan you just can’t say with 100% certainty that nothing that bad will ever happen. I had a coach in high school that always said “When you least expect it, expect it”. We expected and prepared plans for an earthquake, we’ve never expected that to be followed immediately by a 30ft tall wave of water.

H.E.: Much time has been given in the media to radioactive iodine. What causes Radioactive Iodine (is it a byproduct of fission?) and what other chemicals or contaminants are released by a “melt down”?

G.G.: I-131 is a large byproduct of fission. And if ingested it will do tissue damage especially to your thyroid. The good news is it has a half life of about 8 days so it doesn’t last very long. After that it releases a beta ray and turns into Xenon. Xenon is bad for producing nuclear power cause it sucks up neutrons. I’m not really sure how to answer the melt down question because the particles created depend on how the uranium atom splits and also on the half life of that particle and what it decays into. Iodine is one possibility but it only happens about 5% of the time. There are several different possible combinations. And if they use Plutonium fuel it changes. Plutonium is what is in reactor 3 at Fukushima. I know that the news has mentioned detecting Cesium which is an indicator of a meltdown and I think that is because of what happens when the zirconium breaks down. There may be some documents at the site that can give some details of this. I know they have a teaching section with documents for would-be engineers and professors.

H.E.: Anything else that you want to say or tell us?

G.G.: I just hope that everyone will try to step back and learn a few things about this event and not be quick to make judgments solely based on what the media is reporting. Having grown up through TMI and Chernobyl I will admit that I was very afraid of anything nuclear until I actually chose Nuclear Engineering as my major in college. I learned a lot about the industry and how the plants are designed and their differences from the bombs. Safety was drilled into us for 4 solid years and using the reactor on campus gave us first hand knowledge and experience. Right about the time that we were all comfortable with the safety and design of nuclear power, they took us to a simulation control room at an actual commercial plant and put us through the smaller version of control room training that employees get. And the night they hit us with a “double whammy” it was a humbling experience and you realize the weight of that job. Those reactors in Japan are old and were nearing the end of life cycle and I would bet had some unreported issues and probably some equipment that was on the decline long before the earthquake and tsunami hit. When that earthquake hit I can just about picture what the inside of that control room was like with the red lights popping across the board and the alarms going off and the reactors hitting SCRAM conditions. After it was over those guys probably checked to make sure the control rods were all in and the turbine and generators had shut down and began checking the hundreds of gauges to look for any indication of damage from the earthquake across the entire facility. When they didn’t have off site power right away the diesel generators would have kicked in and someone would have been checking to make sure the recirc pumps were still working. Then the tsunami hit and wiped out the generators, turned the secondary cooling intakes into a debris field and did so much more damage. Now your generators are junk, the battery backup to the pumps on reactor 1 won’t switch on and everything outside is a mess. The nearby town is gone, the roads are partially washed away, and any hope of getting offsite power right away is gone. You just can’t fully prepare yourself for that kind craziness. As a Nuclear Engineer I am conflicted because I know that this type of thing happening is so rare that its an opportunity to learn something that may have never been tried or considered before, but at the same time I hope they regain control as quickly as possible and end this event. We will just have to wait and watch as this continues to unfold and hope that this will inspire new breakthroughs in the nuclear industry. Who knows, maybe someone will figure out a way to completely neutralize the effects of radiation or a way to produce a viable fission reaction without all the nasty by-products.

I hope I was able to answer your questions make things a little more clear, although I may have been a little long winded. 🙂

H.E.: Not longwinded at all. I thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. You’ve definitely helped me better understand what is going on and how that relates to our safety, the situation in Japan, and the future of Nuclear Power Plants. You’ve also given me a very deep respect for what the workers at these plants are going through. I share your hopes that this situation can be brought under control quickly.

If anyone reading this article would like to learn more, there is an excellent resource at: