Tag Archives: electricity

What Does “Fail-Safe” Mean?

The term “fail-safe” is often-used to refer to an object or a device, but it more properly refers to a condition. In this post I hope to explain what “fail-safe” actually actually means, with reference to how nuclear power station stay safe.

To “fail safe” means that in the event of a failure, the failure causes the device to fail in such a way that the device is rendered safe. In terms of deaths per gigawatt year nuclear power comes second only to hydroelectric power in terms of safety (Source: ExternE Externalities of Energy Project, European Commission). This is due to the incredible emphasis that is put on safety in nuclear power stations, and is a testament to nuclear power stations’ defence in depth concept.

Control Rods

One of the key parts of a nuclear reactor is the control rod assembly. When fission occurs in a fuel rod, neutrons are released and these neutrons go on to cause further fissions. The purpose of control rods is to “soak up” excess neutrons and prevent further fissions. Control rods are made of materials such as boron, cadmium and hafnium that have a large capture cross section, meaning that they have a high probability of capturing and absorbing neutrons.


The control rod assembly for the CROCUS research reactor.

If the control rods are raised out of the reactor the excess neutrons are not absorbed and further fission occurs and the reactor releases more thermal energy. If the control rods are lowered into the reactor the neutrons are absorbed, fission does not occur and the amount of thermal energy released is decreased.

Control rods fail safe by being held up by electromagnets. In the event of a power failure the electromagnets are no longer powered and thus the control rods will fall into the reactor, shutting it down. Whilst we cannot be sure that the power supply to the reactor will not fail, we can be sure that gravity won’t fail. If the control rods weren’t held up by electromagnets then we’d run the risk of a fail dangerous situation, with the control rods raised up out of the reactor and no way for them to be reinserted to shut down the reactor.

Moderator and Coolant

The neutrons released in each fission process are travelling too fast to cause further fissions. (Imagine trying to putt a golf ball – hit it too hard and it will just skip over the hole.) The job of the moderator is to slow these neutrons down so that they are travelling at the correct speed to continue the chain reaction process.

The moderators used in nuclear reactors vary between different designs, but graphite and light- and heavy-water are common.

The job of the coolant in the reactor is to take thermal energy away from the nuclear fuel and transfer it (via a heat exchanger) to a steam generator that then drives a turbine and generates electricity. If coolant leaks from a reactor whilst the nuclear fission process continues this leads to thermal energy not being removed from the fuel, and the fuel heating up to the point at which is gets so hot that it melts – a meltdown.

In some reactors (e.g. PWRs, BWRs, SCWRs) the coolant is the moderator, and the reactor will fail safe in the event of a coolant leak because a coolant leak is a moderator leak and the reactor cannot continue the fission process without a moderator. Other reactor designs, that do not use a combined moderator-coolant, have different safety features in place to cope with a coolant leak.

Standby power

We are constantly being bombarded with messages to turn devices off at the mains, rather than leaving them on standby. But is it worth it? How much energy does this actually save?


According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory a television left on standby uses about one-and-a-half watts. For comparison purposes, a power shower uses between 7500 and 10800 watts. That means that for one fewer ten-minute (9 kW) shower you can leave your TV on standby for another forty-one days and still have used less electricity than you would have.

A study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that people were far more likely to select curtailment activities (turning things off) rather than efficiency savings (like cutting a minute off your shower), despite efficiency savings being more likely to reduce energy consumption. Turning devices off at the mains, rather than making choices that would save far more energy, is another example of this.


Why kettles boil slowly in the US

I saw a tweet recently that intrigued me:


The voltage of mains electricity varies from country to country: the majority of countries use between 200 and 240 volts, but a small minority (most notably the US, Canada and Japan) use between 100 and 127 volts.

Countries using 100-127 volts are shown in red; countries using 200-240 volts are shown in blue. Countries with a mixture of the two systems are shown in purple.

The voltage* of an electrical supply is what pushes electrons around in a circuit. The higher the voltage, the faster the electrons move and thus the higher the current (one amp is equivalent to about six billion billion electrons flowing past a point per second). With a low voltage the rate of transfer of electrical energy is therefore much slower. In the UK, with a mains voltage of 230 V and a limit of 13 A per socket the maximum possible power to one appliance is 2990 watts (2990 joules per second). In the USA, with a mains voltage of 120 V and a limit of 15 A per outlet the maximum possible power is reduced to only 1800 watts, which is why in the US many large appliances (e.g. washing machines, tumble dryers) have to be connected to a separate high-voltage circuit.

To raise the temperature of one litre of water from 15°C to boiling at 100°C requires a little bit over 355 kilojoules of energy. An “average” kettle in the UK runs at about 2800 W and in the US at about 1500 W; if we assume that both kettles are 100% efficient† than a UK kettle supplying 2800 joules per second will take 127 seconds to boil and a US kettle supplying 1500 J/s will take 237 seconds, more than a minute and a half longer. This is such a problem that many households in the US still use an old-fashioned stove-top kettle.

* As a physicist I would normally use the term “potential difference” in place of “voltage” but voltage is better understood by the general public. Looks like the engineers (who prefer “voltage”) won that battle.

† As electric kettles actually use the joule heating effect that is responsible for most of the energy wasted in other electrical devices this isn’t a terribly unfair assumption.

Plug wiring colour scheme

UK plugs use brown insulation for the live wire, blue insulation for the neutral wire and green with yellow stripes insulation for the earth wire.

But why this particular combination of colours? The answer is deceptively simple: there is no type of colour blindness that will result in these wires becoming confused.

Above: how a UK plug looks to someone who is red-green colourblind.

Above: how a UK plug looks to someone who is blue-yellow colourblind.

One of the lesser-known safety features of a UK plug is the extra distance that the neutral wire has to travel when compared to the live wire. If someone pulls on the mains cable the live wire will disconnect first, making the plug safer.

Under the IEC 60446 standard only black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, grey, white, pink and turquoise are acceptable colours for labelling wires. Countries must choose an appropriate selection of colours that eliminates the possibility of confusion.

IEC 60446 colours. From top to bottom: normal vision, deuteranopic vision, tritanopic vision.

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UK electricity import and export

The UK doesn’t have enough electricity.

The amount of electricity that the UK produces (from various sources) is not enough to meet demand, and the UK relies heavily* on imports from France and the Netherlands in order to meet its needs. This energy gap is due to the closure of coal-fired power stations that cannot meet emission standards and the shutdown of aging nuclear power stations.

The import and export of electricty uses submarine high voltage direct current (HVDC) cables. HVDC cables waste less electricity than AC cables (about 3% per 1000km) and are simpler to construct and operate. A 73 km cable connects Bonningues-lès-Calais in France to Sellindge in Kent; a 55 km cable connects Auchencrosh in Scotland and Ballycronan More in Ireland; and a 260 km cable connects Maasvlakte in the Netherlands to Grain in Kent.

The graph below shows electricity import and export (in GWh) for the eight months since February†, when the Britned Interconnector began operating. When the value is positive (when the line is above the origin) the UK is importing electricity and when it is negative electricity is being exported.

One of the most interesting features of the graph is the change in the import/export to Ireland via the Moyle Interconnector. On 26th June at 0417 one of the 250 megawatt cables failed, halving the cable’s capacity, and at 1409 on 24th August the cable failed entirely and has not transferred any electricity since.

The cause of the failure is unknown and the MV North Sea Giant, the world’s longest offshore construction vessel, is currently moored in the Irish Sea investigating the fault. The cable has been dug out of the seabed 200m below the surface, cut in half, and both ends raised to the surface so the cause of the fault can be investigated. The fault is expected to take up to six months to fix and were a similar fate to befall the Cross-Channel or Britned interconnector the UK would have a very serious energy problem.

If it is to close the growing energy gap the UK must accelerate the pace of construction of energy infrastructure, in particular the construction of safe, zero-carbon nuclear power stations.

* The UK is the world’s sixth largest importer of electricity despite being eleventh in terms of electricity production and twenty-second in terms of population.

† The graph shows a seven day moving average of import/export values. For half-hourly data you can download the full dataset as an Excel spreadsheet.