We arrived at our local electric power plant just as a herd of Cub Scouts were leaving.
Pilgrim Power Station is a nuclear power plant located in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It sticks out like a sore thumb in the otherwise attractive landscape.
A large tea kettle
From our slightly-nerdy looking tour guide with his well rehearsed speech to the arrays of security cameras and fresh coats of institutional green paint, everything about Pilgrim had a tight, professional, all-business feeling.
"Don't let appearances fool you, we're really just a large tea kettle built to spin a pinwheel," he explained. To illustrate his point he produced a child's pinwheel from his back pocket.
"Power plants work pretty much the same way. We make electricity by getting the blades of a turbine to spin," he said, blowing on the brightly colored paddles of the pinwheel.
"Now, there're a lotta ways I can get this thing to spin. I could use wind, moving water, or steam. Steam is the most popular method because it can be created anywhere you have a source of fuel and water. That's why most of the world's power plants rely on steam to spin the turbines."
Getting the heat needed to transform water into steam essentially boils down to two choices (pun intended). A facility can burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, or gas -- or it can harness the atomic power of uranium in a process called fission. Pilgrim's power source comes from fission.
A nuclear plant uses steam from boiling water to spin the blades of giant turbines. The blades in turn are connected to the shafts of huge generators, and inside each generator, coils of wire and magnetic fields interact to produce electricity.
I noticed that the kids, despite a slightly glassy-eyed look, were impressed. My son turned to me and whispered, "No wonder Mom wants us to turn the lights out when they're not in use. It would be a shame to see all this work go to waste."
Some questions worth asking on your energy tour:
- How does the electricity get from the plant to our house?
- What can we do to save energy?
- Can electricity be recycled?
- What makes electricity dangerous to touch?