Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

The challenges of that crisis are the same Fukushima presents

5 min read

26 April 2011—Twenty-five years ago, the day the commentary of the Chernobyl catastrophe reached the West, I was in Washington, D.C., covering one of the annual meetings of the American Physical Society. A leading nuclear physicist was dragooned to speculate in front of a hushed audience about what could have gone so terribly wrong. His tentative explanation had to do with an obscure phenomenon called ”Wigner energy,” which I had never heard of and which I found hard to understand.  Evidently it was an undesirable energy release that can occur in reactors containing a lot of graphite.

That night, sitting at the bar of the funky little hotel I like to stay at when I’m in D.C., I discovered that the man sitting next to me was none other than Walter S. Sullivan, at that time the most eminent science journalist in the United States—considered by some to be the ”Dean” of science journalism. Sullivan, a charming fellow, was able to explain to me what Wigner energy was all about.

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How to Prevent Blackouts by Packetizing the Power Grid

The rules of the Internet can also balance electricity supply and demand

13 min read
How to Prevent Blackouts by Packetizing the Power Grid
Dan Page

Bad things happen when demand outstrips supply. We learned that lesson too well at the start of the pandemic, when demand for toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, masks, and ventilators outstripped the available supply. Today, chip shortages continue to disrupt the consumer electronics, automobile, and other sectors. Clearly, balancing the supply and demand of goods is critical for a stable, normal, functional society.

That need for balance is true of electric power grids, too. We got a heartrending reminder of this fact in February 2021, when Texas experienced an unprecedented and deadly winter freeze. Spiking demand for electric heat collided with supply problems created by frozen natural-gas equipment and below-average wind-power production. The resulting imbalance left more than 2 million households without power for days, caused at least 210 deaths, and led to economic losses of up to US $130 billion.

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