Historically the first electric power plants delivering large quantities of electric energy were hydro-electric. In 1895, Westinghouse built the first AC electric power generator in Niagara Falls by passing waterflow from the Falls through a turbine that induced electric currents in copper windings. General Electric built high-power grid lines that took the 1.1MW(e) of electricity to Buffalo, New York, where it lighted the city's streetlights and powered streetcars. The technical brains behind this were Nikola Tesla who worked with Westinghouse and Elihu Thomson who was employed by General Electric (Section 3.4). Tesla who invented today's ubiquitous AC electric motor, was a Serb born in Croatia. He had studied electro-magnetics at universities in Austria, Tsjechoslovakia, and Hungary before coming to America in 1884.
Following the success in Niagara Falls, ambitious programs were started worldwide to dam up rivers and build hydro-electric power plants. Because suitable waterflow was not available everywhere, the alternative coal-fired steam turbine (invented by Parsons in 1884) was adapted for electricity generation: high-pressure steam instead of dropping water was used to turn a turbine's rotors which induce electric currents. Many coal-burning steam power plants were thus built in the early 1900's. Today (2004), 52% of all US electric power still comes from coal-fired power plants as illustrated in Brief 8.
After the discovery and demonstration of uranium fission in WW-II, heat from nuclear fission of uranium was used to replace the heat produced by burning coal. The same technique of generating high-pressure steam by heating water in a confined space is employed to drive the blades of an electricity generating steam turbine. The only difference between a coal and nuclear power plant is in the steam generation system and a coal-plant's air pollution. Everything beyond steam production is essentially the same for coal and uranium power plants. Since the central theme of this book is nuclear power, in what follows we focus on major aspects of nuclear electricity generation. Where appropriate, comparisons will be made between nuclear and coal or other power generating plants.
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