A poor state of health3 July 2002
A study by the UK's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate concludes that - unless immediate action is taken - nuclear education will not be able to support the industry as it evolves.
Despite the increase in student numbers in British universities, there is a drastic fall-off in engineering, technology and science students. At the same time, a woefully small percentage of these students are experiencing nuclear education.
Aware of the effect this could have on future staffing levels at nuclear installations, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) carried out a survey on the status of nuclear education in British universities. Published in October 2000, this initial study found that nuclear engineering was gradually being left out of university courses. Two years later, a second study concluded that the situation has got worse. However, it's not all doom and gloom - there are many things that industry can do to overcome the problem of declining nuclear education.
Gains and losses
There are over 130 colleges and universities in the UK, of which 22 were found to be teaching nuclear topics.
The introduction of new funding arrangements, noted in the first report, brought predictable changes. The MSc in Applied Radiation Physics at Birmingham and the MSc in Radiation Physics at Queen Mary and Westfield both failed to attract Research Council funding and have closed. The former had 100% nuclear content and the latter 5-10%. In contrast, Liverpool secured a Masters Training Package for the MSc in Radiometrics, as did Surrey for their MSc in Radiation and Environmental Protection; both courses have a 100% nuclear content. Loughborough also obtained a Masters Training Package for their new MSc in Analytical and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, which replaces the two MScs in Analytical Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry. The nuclear content of the new course is about the same, at 5%, as each of the outgoing ones.
On the plus side, 13 universities, including the Ministry of Defence training centre HMS Sultan, were involved in postgraduate teaching, compared to 12 in the 2000 study. Whilst Queen Mary and Westfield College has been lost, Hull and Lancaster have been gained. Also, between the two reports, the number of courses with a nuclear content also increased from 21 to 23.
The total number of students experiencing nuclear education at the postgraduate level remained constant at around 320 a year. The number of those following courses with more than 5% nuclear content has also remained the same at around 165. However, there is a worrying decline in the already small number of students pursuing totally nuclear postgraduate courses. The numbers of those following courses that have a 100% nuclear content have dropped from 82 to 72 a year if all postgraduate courses are considered, and from 56 to 43 a year if only masters courses are considered.
At the undergraduate level, nuclear education has been reduced to the level of taster modules within mainstream science degrees.
Nineteen universities, excluding HMS Sultan, offer a total of 43 undergraduate courses with some nuclear content - an increase of one university and eight courses compared to 2000. However, 22 courses are optional, compared with 17 in 2000. Although the nuclear content of the final degree ranged from <1% to 20%, the higher figure only relates to Hull university and two or three students.
The total number of students attending courses with a nuclear content has increased from around 1300 a year to around 1460. The difference is mainly due to the introduction of nuclear teaching at Leeds and an increase in the popularity of existing courses at Surrey and Manchester. However, the 12% increase in the number of students fails to match the increase in the number of courses (23%).
More importantly, the number of students taking a degree with a nuclear content greater than 5% has increased from about 310 a year to around 360 (not including HMS Sultan).
Facilities for nuclear teaching have remained largely unchanged since the first report. Many are over 25 years old and, although there are some new laboratories and equipment, and some laboratories have been refurbished, many are in their original state. Such an image of decaying elegance is unlikely to attract students.
There are some new facilities, for example the Accelerator Laboratory and Tandetron accelerator at Surrey. There is only one civil research reactor in the country - the Imperial College CONSORT reactor at Silwood Park - and the only two hot cell facilities at universities were closed in the last three years. The Table summarises the expected lifetimes of research facilities at UK universities.
A dim future
Nuclear teaching is anticipated to remain at around the present level over the next few years. Beyond that, it is likely to decline.
• At Strathclyde, nuclear teaching is expected to cease in 2002 or 2003 when the lecturer retires.
• At Swansea and Plymouth, nuclear teaching is dependent upon a visiting lecturer and is likely to last only another three years.
• At Loughborough, nuclear teaching seems dependent upon one professor and, when he retires, it is likely that nuclear teaching will cease.
• At Leeds, the nuclear teaching is dependent upon support from industry and is unlikely to last beyond five years.
• At Bath, undergraduate teaching will decline and finally cease over the next few years following the move of one lecturer to another university, and the retirement of another from undergraduate teaching. Proposals for a new course with a nuclear content have been shelved.
• At other universities, for example Birmingham, Salford and Manchester, nuclear teaching is dependent upon retired staff who continue to work part time.
• At Queen Mary and Westfield, nuclear teaching has ceased not only because of the failure to attract funding but also because of the ill health of the only lecturer with the necessary expertise and enthusiasm to pursue it.
• At De Montfort, nuclear teaching will effectively cease at the end of the academic year 2001-2. All of the radiochemistry teaching laboratories have already been closed and the research laboratories will close shortly. The introduction of a new undergraduate course with a significant nuclear content that was being mooted last year has been shelved. One nuclear physicist and the nuclear chemistry professor have retired.
However, there are some encouraging signs as well:
• At Birmingham, three more companies have joined the Partnering Agreement, taking the total to 11, to support the PTNR MSc and the recently introduced PGCert in Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning.
• At Lancaster, the new MSc in Safety Engineering has a strong nuclear option and in its first year is well supported by industry.
• At Liverpool, the number of students taking the Radiometrics MSc has increased from six in 1998 to fifteen in 2001 and the number of students taking modules has increased by over 40% in the last year.
• At HMS Sultan, a new course has been introduced; the PGCert/Dip in Nuclear Reactor Chemistry, and the total number of students attending courses has increased from 400 to 500 over the last year.
• At Surrey, there has been an increase in the nuclear content of some courses and an increase in the number of students taking them. With new facilities, the university anticipates that nuclear teaching will expand.
• At Manchester, there has been an increase in the number of undergraduate students pursuing the radiochemistry option. This is seen as a direct result of hosting the BNFL Centre for Radiochemistry Research. The university is considering establishing a School of Nuclear Sciences and has funding to establish the feasibility of this.
But overall the NII does not hold out much hope for the medium- to long-term. "If nuclear education were a patient in a hospital," it comments, "it would be in intensive care. Its health seems to depend more on the enthusiasm of individuals than the commitment of institutions."
The NII says that it is up to the nuclear industry to identify what competences it is going to need, and work with universities to ensure that courses are in place to meet those needs.
At the undergraduate level, every effort should be made to preserve, and even expand, nuclear teaching. Help may be given in divers ways, for example through visiting lecturers, assistance with projects or the donation of equipment. Whilst not educationally significant to the industry, these courses are invaluable in alerting students to the possibility of a career in the industry or postgraduate study in a nuclear discipline. Given the image that the industry has and the concerns already being articulated about the quality of applicants, the industry needs all the help it can get, and undergraduate modules should provide some.
However, the focus of nuclear education should be on postgraduate courses as it is at this level that the main specialisation into disciplines of relevance to the nuclear industry occurs. Further, because of the way university funding operates in the UK, it is far easier for industry to support or initiate postgraduate courses than undergraduate ones. The move towards modular postgraduate courses and the introduction of postgraduate certificates and diplomas should broaden the appeal of nuclear subjects and attract more students, but in the move away from masters courses, care needs to be taken to ensure that quality is not compromised at the expense of quantity.
Investment in facilities should be made as this would not only help teaching directly but might also help attract students onto courses. Support should also be given to the concept of a School of Nuclear Sciences. However, it is important to make sure that there is still diversity and choice, and that all the nuclear courses do not end up at one institution.
The NII notes that other countries are facing a similar training problem to the UK, and recommends international collaboration to address the issue. Although governments could help by, for example, moving nuclear a little further up the agenda of research bodies, it is up to industry to take the initiative.