• The Open University

Understanding Nuclear Power

Learn more about nuclear power, from the risks and benefits to the technology and its future, with this free online course.

7,873 enrolled on this course

The image is of a Nuclear power station at night, two cooling towers are in shot.
  • Duration

    5 weeks
  • Weekly study

    4 hours

Nuclear power remains a contentious issue - does it offer our best chance at sustainable energy future? Or do the risks outweigh the benefits? This course will answer some of these questions and is aimed at a broad audience - whether you’re an engineer or scientist thinking of working in the nuclear industry; a policy adviser working in energy or technology; a technical journalist; a teacher or lecturer; concerned with how infrastructure is financed or simply keep to develop your understanding of nuclear power.

Why do we use nuclear power?

Despite accidents like Fukushima Daiichi, countries around the world are keen to build new nuclear power plants. In the UK, a ‘nuclear renaissance’ is under way, while in other countries, like Poland, there is a lot of interest in building nuclear power plants for the first time. China and India have pressed ahead almost without interruption. In this course you’ll learn why the world has such an enthusiasm for nuclear power.

How does nuclear power work?

This course introduces the engineering aspects of nuclear power and asks how developers can finance these large infrastructures. You’ll learn about the technologies involved and explore how fuels and radioactive waste should be managed. Nuclear safety and the safety culture of organisations are vital issues.

What’s the future of nuclear power?

This course will also examine the future of nuclear power: exploring the challenges that lie ahead for companies and countries alike and whether these challenges can be overcome.

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What topics will you cover?

  • The drivers for nuclear energy as a power option, the ‘Energy Policy Trilemma’.
  • Nuclear fission, how a nuclear chain reaction is started and controlled.
  • The features of a pressurised water reactor, the dominant design for nuclear power generation.
  • Fuel cycles, from extraction to disposal, and the implications for proliferation and waste management.
  • The nature of a nuclear safety culture and how past incidents inform present practice.
  • The role of nuclear in a mixed mode power solution, and the achievement of governmental environmental policy.
  • The business risks of developing new nuclear capacity and the necessary conditions in a liberalised energy market to promote new builds.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Evaluate the key policy, environmental and economic dimensions of building new civil nuclear power capacity.
  • Explore the scientific and engineering dimensions of generating nuclear.
  • Evaluate nuclear power’s contribution to the climate control debate and current EU policy.
  • Explore the management of waste produced by operating nuclear reactors.
  • Debate the role of nuclear power in a modern energy mix.

Who is the course for?

This course is intended for those with a basic understanding of nuclear energy. You’ll need to be familiar with the following concepts: protons, neutrons, elements, isotopes; the difference between nuclear fission energy and nuclear fusion energy; alpha, beta and gamma radiation; radioactive decay; the difference between momentum and kinetic energy; the separate roles played by conduction and convection in heat transfer; the basic concept of a nuclear reactor; and finally the probability of four coin tosses yielding four ‘heads’ results.

If you’re new to this area we’d suggest trying The Science of Nuclear Energy course first.

Who will you learn with?

Mark Wenman is a Lecturer in Nuclear Engineering with a specific interest in engineering materials used in reactor systems.

I am Professor of Energy at The Open University. My main focus is on energy technology and policy and a major part of my work relates to nuclear power. My original background was in physics.

Who developed the course?

The Open University

As the UK’s largest university, The Open University (OU) supports thousands of students to achieve their goals and ambitions via supported distance learning, helping to fit learning around professional and personal life commitments.

  • Established

  • Location

    Milton Keynes, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 510Source: Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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