Educating the world

1 October 2003

The World Nuclear University was launched at last month's World Nuclear Association annual symposium. Will the new virtual enterprise be able to help revive the nuclear industry?

The main event at this year's World Nuclear Association (WNA) annual symposium, held in London, UK on 3-5 September, was the inauguration ceremony of the World Nuclear University (WNU). In many industry meetings, speakers have warned of the nuclear skills shortage, and WNA director general John Ritch should be commended for actually doing something aimed at addressing the problem. But what exactly is the WNU, and how will it contribute to the nuclear renaissance that is so often talked about in industry meetings? To help answer these questions, below are extracts from some of the presentations made during the WNU inauguration ceremony.

John Ritch,

WNA director general

Nuclear energy is about knowledge and about the people who have been educated and trained to use that knowledge. Looking ahead, this industry has strong reason for optimism in the steadily growing public acceptance of nuclear and in the inevitable recognition that renewables, valuable as they may be, simply cannot fulfil the expectations of environmental utopians. But these favourable factors will prove no more than academic, if this industry itself is not infused with the next generation of nuclear professionals.

This is our purpose in founding the WNU: to unify the world's leading institutions of nuclear learning in a coherent partnership; to use that partnership to attract, inspire and educate this new generation of nuclear scientists, technicians and engineers; and to equip that new generation with credentials applicable to a global marketplace. With a modest investment, we can build the WNU into an institution to which the entire nuclear industry can look and point with confidence and pride.

The WNU is essentially an ongoing search for constructive cooperation. Its agenda will include: sharing faculty and facilities; preserving and managing nuclear knowledge; exchanging students; strengthening course content; harmonising standards and credentials; and eventually establishing a recognised WNU diploma or degree.

A central goal will be to incorporate links with the four organisations that are the founding supporters (the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and the WNA). We expect the WNU to be coordinated from a London headquarters that will be staffed by a small cadre of experienced nuclear professionals. This core faculty will be the hub. It will provide both the secretariat services and the substantive leadership in promoting cooperation within the network and working to strengthen course content.

At the outset, the WNU will be little more than a framework. At present, no organised opportunity exists for cooperation among such institutions at the global level. So simply assembling the WNU partnership represents an important first step. But it is only a first step. Realising the WNU's potential will depend on investments of resources, and personal and institutional commitment by the participants, by the founding supporters, and by the companies and governments they represent. This undertaking will rise or fall on the basis of those investments.

Sig Berg,

managing director WANO

This last spring I had the opportunity to visit the Qinshan phase III unit 1 Candu unit in China and I must tell you it was an eye-opening experience. In my conversation with the plant manager, I learned that the average age of the people working at that plant was only 26. It's quite a contrast to many of our plants worldwide, where the average age is nearly twice that of Qinshan.

Over the years, we have learned many lessons in how to best operate commercial nuclear power plants. But in far too many cases, we have had to learn our lessons from what some call the 'school of hard knocks' significant events and the painful experiences of chronic poor performance. In the next few years, the future success of the nuclear industry will depend on our ability to pass this knowledge and experience to the next generation in a much more positive way, and that certainly must be a crucial function of the WNU.

We have many new talented CEOs and CFOs coming into our industry. But unfortunately many have little or no background in nuclear, and little or no understanding of nuclear safety. In far too many places nuclear safety and good sound business practices are seen to be mutually exclusive. WNU must provide the leaders of this industry an opportunity to see how nuclear safety and solid financial management together make solid business sense.

Frankly, our industry does not do a great job in communicating our business in a very effective way to the public in general. WNU must make a commitment to communications. How do we communicate a sense of openness and transparency to the public at large? It goes without saying, I think, that without public support and understanding, our technology will be left in the backwaters.

When I was at Qinshan, I spent some time with the control room staff. The oldest in the group had been out of university only seven years. They were highly motivated, highly knowledgeable, and highly committed. And I would conclude by saying, those are the same kind of characteristics one would see from the students and faculty of WNU.

Hans Blix, WNU chancellor

I am happy to join in a thoroughly modern university concept that of a network that brings together institutions of learning and research to achieve synergy and more dynamism. The World Nuclear University is perhaps a grandiose name, but as John Ritch says, it is essentially a framework, a concept that can grow a concept for cooperation and stimulation of institutions which already exist in the nuclear sphere.

If more cross-fertilisation, is our first aim, I think stressing cross-examination, or what we used to term in university as critical thinking, is another. When we seek the truth or we seek the most economic or safest solutions we must question and examine each other's results and reasoning. At universities, this critical thinking is established.

Critical thinking/cross examination is demanded as a matter of course when weighing evidence in court. We take that for granted, and we should. I would submit that society will have a need for more critical thinking beyond the spheres like the courts and universities. When it is replaced by spin, society loses. We know that from the nuclear sphere, for example with Chernobyl and the belief that thousands of people had died in the accident, when the reality is horrible, but not as horrible as described through the spin.

Spin is also used in politics. It is true that governments sometimes perhaps often have to act before all the facts are known. All the more reason, then, to examine carefully the facts that you have. In the Iraq case, we cannot avoid the impression that exclamation marks have too often been placed where there should have been question marks. Fortunately, and rightly, the public reacts. It feels misled, or at least not fully informed. We need to be correctly informed about the basis for action and the risks of action, or of inaction, not only where we deploy new technologies, but also in questions of war and peace. We need it when we assess our uses of energy, and the risks connected with the various uses of energy, and the risks of global warming.

For my own part, I wouldn't be the last to underestimate the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. I think the environmental risks we face are even greater. Both must be tackled with critical thinking. So, let cross-fertilisation and critical thinking be at the top of the agenda of the new WNU.

David King,

chief UK scientific adviser

I was very heavily involved in the generation of a white paper on energy from the UK government that was published earlier this year. And of course I'm delighted to be able to say that in that white paper the government has committed itself to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by the year 2050, based on 1990 levels. I do believe we are the first government to come out with a clear statement of this kind.

The focus on meeting the emission reduction targets in that white paper is on renewables, and on energy efficiency gain. But the white paper does recognise in a very important paragraph that the nuclear option needs to be kept open. And while we're aiming to produce 10% of the energy on our grids from renewables by 2010 and 20% by 2020, I think we also have to recognise that currently 25% of our energy is from nuclear. And if current nuclear plant is closed down, by 2020 we'd be down to 3 or 4%.

If we examine the situation of keeping the option open, then quite clearly it is vital that we maintain the skills to exploit that option in the future. And, of course, this is why I very much welcome this venture. The WNU can play a critically important role in seeing that our skills base is there when the realisation from governments of the world of this threat of climate change comes fully through.

So, from a young scientist's point of view, the message to get across is that nuclear energy continues to offer exciting and new challenges with a strong potential to provide a path forward for our future energy problems and the sustainability of our global low carbon economies. It is an industry with a vibrant future that's the message to get across and, let me also say, a critically important future.

We now know sadly from the number of deaths around Europe in this summer which certainly exceed 10,000 arising from the very hot weather that we had, that climate change into the future is quite likely the biggest problem that we will face over the coming century.

Zack Pate,

chairman WNU board

If I were to ask this audience: do you think nuclear energy is important to sustainable development of our civilisation, the answer would be an overwhelming 'yes'. But if I were to walk just a few hundred metres down to the tourist area just outside Buckingham Palace and poll the first 400 people that I encountered, we all know the answer would be quite different, and only a small fraction would express agreement that nuclear energy is important to sustainable development. And even fewer would have any conviction about that statement.

I was involved on the advisory committee of the MIT study of nuclear energy. One aspect of that study was a poll of Americans to test their support of nuclear energy and test their thinking about global warming. The poll was carefully designed to give an unbiased result, and Americans expressed their views about nuclear energy and about global warming, but the important point is that very few Americans saw any correlation between nuclear energy and global warming. They just simply don't understand the link

James Lovelock, author of "The Gaia Theory"

We have few alternatives but greatly to reduce the proportion of energy we take from the unsafe practice of burning carbon fuel. It would be wonderful if we can maintain civilisation by renewable energy sources. But I think it foolish fantasy to think that we could do so soon enough to avoid risking the greenhouse catastrophe. The only sensible and practical option is to use nuclear energy to supplement the meagre supplies of energy from renewable resources.

Disinformation about its dangers persists and sustains a climate of ignorance, which artificially inflates the cost of the energy and the problems of its waste disposal. The fear of nuclear war and the fear of radiation somehow merged in the minds of the public. And it is this fear, and not sensible scientific or economic arguments that changed the public perception of nuclear energy. Because fear provides so good a storyline, the media, Hollywood, fiction writers and others sustain it and profit from it. They have elevated nuclear accidents to the status of religious icons, and present them as the greatest industrial disasters of the 20th century. Even the once truthful BBC and The Times newspaper still persist in spinning the Chernobyl accident by stating that thousands have died there.

If we go on as we are now doing, sometime in the coming century we are likely to experience the first serious effects of global change. Then we will look back and see what a vast disservice the media and our politicians have done by giving in to those false fears and neglecting the one safe large-scale source of energy that we have. And those of the politicians so unwise as to have ordered the closure of working nuclear power plants will have much to answer. So let us keep in mind that the truly dangerous thing that we do is to burn fossil carbon.

Carbon dioxide is one of those insidious, cumulative poisons whose consequences only become apparent when it is too late to stop imbibing it. And, I often think that we are just now behaving like a new variant of that biblical figure, the Galilean swine: we drive our polluting cars down to a sea, that is rising to drown us.

Hugh Collum, chairman BNFL

In view of the current global climate, I believe there's never been a more opportune moment for a global initiative such as the WNU to be launched.

But I would like to set the scene here in the UK. The recent energy white paper focused on ambitious long-term targets for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a commitment to carbon-free energy sources. This we welcome, as in this regard nuclear-renewables are complementary. On nuclear power, however, the white paper fluffed the issue. It said: "While nuclear power is presently an important source of carbon-free electricity, the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity, and there are also important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved. However we do not rule out the possibility that, at some point in the future, new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets."

On present projections however, the UK's nuclear capacity will almost disappear over the next 20 years. And thus the current benefit of zero carbon emissions will largely have been lost. If renewables cannot achieve these targets, a decision on nuclear energy and a balanced energy policy is very urgently required. In parallel to this, there's been a sharp decline over the last fifteen years in the technical underpinning of the UK nuclear programme, in terms of both research and development and the renewal of skills. Historically the UK has had a wealth of valuable experience in design, construction, licensing, commissioning and operation of nuclear plants. But it is failing to maintain any form of government-sponsored work in advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technology.

In recognition of the serious impact on the UK nuclear academic base and in an attempt to reverse this downward trend, in 1997 my company embarked on a strategy of establishing university research alliances, with the aim of underpinning key areas of nuclear technology in the UK. To date, four of these alliances have been established: radiochemistry at Manchester University; particle technology at Leeds; waste immobilisation at Sheffield; and materials performance at UMIST in Manchester.

While an excellent start has been made in establishing these alliances, more needs to be done to support nuclear technology and to encourage regeneration of skills needed to present facilities operational and maintain the option for assessing and deploying future nuclear systems. That is why I am pleased to be presented with an opportunity to contribute to the WNU, which will be complementary to what we've started in a small way here in the UK.

The advent of the WNU is a strong affirmative stance by the industry and indicates that the nuclear industry is already a large market with the potential for further growth. Although primarily a virtual institution, the new WNU mechanism of internal cooperation will serve as very worthwhile powerful worldwide stimulus. Firstly, by providing support to our current nuclear programme. The continued safe and reliable operations of the world's existing nuclear power plants requires a retention of core capabilities in key technical areas such as safety, engineering and design. Secondly, maintaining competence to select, license and operate new reactors. We must ensure that the necessary engineering and analytical skills are in place to make an informed assessment of candidate designs and to operate the plants safely and efficiently thereafter. And thirdly, keeping abreast of international developments in the next generation of nuclear reactors and fuel cycles.

On the international stage, the WNU will help provide focus on existing nuclear knowledge and skills, on international standards and academics, ethics and operational performance, and on enhanced public understanding, as needed to support a global nuclear policy. Equally vital, in my mind, is the technical contributions and experience gained from direct participation in such a programme.

In conclusion, as we look to the future, we must all endeavour to secure funding from our respective governments to maintain the nuclear skills base and the capability for new build as a real viable option. Research and technology investment has to continue for the future of this industry. Without this support, there is a serious risk that the nuclear option will not be effectively available when we need it.

Through a worldwide network that coordinates, supports and draws on the strengths of established institutions of nuclear learning, the WNU will help to maintain skills, capabilities, knowledge and technology to enable global companies to participate in this global market. In most instances, it will serve to complement programmes already established amid many of our countries. I look forward to seeing the WNU flourishing and make its contribution to our energy policy.
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