Nuclear Revival, University of Birmingham Edition

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/26/2009 08:28:00 AM
The much-vaunted nuclear revival is in full swing as any number of countries have searched for alternative power sources that are both reasonably cost-efficient and non-carbon emitting. Yes, I'm talking about you, fossil fuels! Current sentiment for nuclear power is driven by a number of factors. Improvements in the design of nuclear power plants have largely removed Homer Simpson-esque fears of imminent catastrophe by bungling operators. Many years without a high-profile incident have bolstered this sentiment. Consequently, longstanding green opposition over the safety of nukes has since been outbalanced by its non-carbon-emitting nature. Meanwhile, the Great Oil Heist of 2008 when crude reached over $140 a barrel also made oil-importing countries aware of the perils of relying too much on this kind of fuel whose price may reach such heights again in the near future. While global recession has put a damper on these concerns for now, healthy debate continues on, well, the health of remaining oil reserves and whether more advanced technologies can expand the quantity of usable fuels.

My alma mater is alike many others in emphasizing hard sciences over social sciences, despite the greater concentration of students in the latter disciplines. Why this is so should be fairly obvious. For the world's leading universities (international surveys such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the Times Higher Education Supplement and the both place us in the world's top 100), prestigious accolades for research as well as funding usually come from hard sciences. In a way, I share this old-fashioned bias: why the heck does the world need more smart alecks writing nasty blogs when it could have people devoted to combating global warming and similarly useful stuff (did I really write that)? In academic research at least, social sciences are for the boys while hard sciences are for the men.

Aside from continuing success in global university league tables, this emphasis may be finally paying off for us in the long-neglected nuclear arena. Despite the long lean years, our nuclear program has been kept intact. Contrast this to the national controversy over the fate of the internationally well-known Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCC). As you'd expect, sympathy for a left-leaning, administration-hating outpost in the social sciences stood a far lesser chance of surviving a lean period. Heck, there's even a fairly lengthy Wikipedia entry about its demise.

Returning to the nukes, it's a more straightforward story as would-be students are reacting to unequivocal signals about the supply-and-demand situation for those who know a thing or two about buidling and running plants. Indeed, the program is heavily funded by the industry. While this master's level program has a very pithy description on the university website in contrast to more heavily marketed courses, it turns out that ours is one of Britain's better established ones. The following comes from p. 6 of the May 2009 University of Birmingham Newsletter. Enrollments are at all time-highs:
More students that ever are studying for an MsC in the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors at the University this year. The UK's most long-established course in the subject has enrolled a total of 40 students, the highest number in its 52-year history, making it the biggest course of its kind in the country. Almost 600 students have graduated from the MsC program, which started three weeks before the opening of the UK's first power station, Calder Hall, in 1956.

Dr. Paul Norman, Head of Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors, says: 'I think the huge demand is due to the government stance now being more in favor of nuclear, and because nuclear seems now to be a good way forward in a world threatened by global warming, increasing gas and oil prices and security of supply issues.

'Students now see a future career in industry which they wouldn't have done even just a handful of years ago. It's early days yet, but it looks like we may break the record again this coming year.'
Factor in the depletion of the North Sea oil fields and the writing on the wall for Britain is clear: Nuke 'em if you got 'em. And if you're studying to enter this field, well, come to Brum.