Birmingham Celebrates 50 Years of Nuclear Education

Posted on Wednesday 28th June 2006

Key names from the world of nuclear power will come together to discuss the future of this much debated topic at a conference at the University of Birmingham on Friday 30 June, which will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Birmingham’s Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors MSc programme.

Currently about 20% of our energy comes from nuclear power, but that amount is slowly decreasing as existing stations come to the end of their lives. Renewable sources can be used to some extent, but even the most optimistic estimates predict they are likely to provide us with, at most, 20% of our energy demand in future.

This still leaves another 80% that must be provided by something other than renewables, and so that fact, combined with the contribution to global warming caused by coal and gas, has recently seen the government put nuclear power firmly back on the energy agenda, floating the idea of up to 15 new power stations to be built in the UK by 2020 – many as replacements to current stations.

This would produce a significant proportion of Britain’s electricity, which would not only reduce our increasing dependence on imports of foreign gas, something which is very sensitive to cost increases, but also combine with the renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as running a nuclear plant emits no CO2.

Some facts about nuclear power and radiation:

Food, our bodies, and even the air itself contains natural radioactivity

As human beings living on this planet, we are struck by about a million particles of radiation every minute from purely natural sources.

One 1cm pellet of uranium oxide will produce 80 Watts of electricity for 4 years, and is equivalent in output to 1.5 tonnes of coal. This amount of coal releases more radioactivity than this small amount of uranium.

Natural radioactivity makes up 99.8% of the radioactivity in the environment. Nuclear power, Chernobyl, and 1960s weapons tests all add up to only 0.2%.

The Chernobyl accident was due to the operators carrying out a variety of unsafe procedures, but mainly due to a design fault in the Russian reactor design, something which has never been present in British reactors

Nowadays safety features are ‘hardwired’ into the design of a power station and new operating regulations mean that such an accident will never happen.

Although it would never happen again, it is predicted Chernobyl has killed 4,000 people in total over a 20 year period. However, it is estimated that global warming already kills 160,000 people worldwide every single year.

The MSc programme is the longest running course of its kind in the country and has an associated research group. It began a few weeks before the Queen opened the UK’s first nuclear power station and since then has graduated over 500 students, many of whom have gone on to work in the nuclear industry.

Dr Paul Norman, course supervisor from the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, says, ‘Next year looks like it will see the highest number of students ever on the course, which will help meet the demand from employers for postgraduates with nuclear expertise. Because of the renewed interest in nuclear power, this demand will now inevitably increase and we look forward to producing the nuclear technologists of the future, just as we have done for the past half a century.’

Speakers at the conference include Alun Williams who has led the Research and Strategy Division of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Nuclear Safety Directorate since 2001 and Professor Sir Chris Lewellyn-Smith, Director of UKAEA Culham Division, which is responsible for the UK’s fusion programme, leading the UK’s contribution to the development of this new technology. In the afternoon, the speakers are all former students from the MSc course who are now working in high profile positions in the nuclear industry.

For further information

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164.