May 122013
Over the last two days I had a pleasant exchange with a 7th grader from California who wanted to know more about nuclear energy for a school project.

He asked me about a dozen questions on nuclear power and I answered them. It was instructive to realize how I needed to formulate my own words to make sure my responses were simple, brief and intelligible to an intelligent middle schooler. Although a few big words have inevitably crept in I think I have kept the majority of answers simple and straightforward; it was certainly a fun thing to do.

One thing that struck me was how cogent and clear the questions are. They are certainly a testament to the thoughtful consideration which my correspondent and his parents have given to the topic. But it also struck me that they are exactly the kinds of questions which curious laymen who know little about nuclear power may ask (another one of those instances where an intelligent 7th grader is quite a match for an intelligent adult layman). So I added a few of my own and answered them too. I think cases like these where you are constrained to give short and simple answers to scientific questions are not only a good exercise in improving your own understanding of topics but are also a good resource for public education. As Niels Bohr used to say, whatever you want to explain you should be able to explain using plain language.

I do hope that more middle schoolers consider science and engineering careers in energy in general and nuclear energy in particular; responsible future citizens who tackle the energy crisis head on are crucial to this country’s development . Here are the questions and answers, in no particular order.

What are reasons that prove nuclear energy is not the best alternative to replace fossil fuel?

A: Nuclear energy is actually a pretty good replacement for fossil fuels. It emits very little CO2 and other pollutants and provides a lot of energy from a very small amount of fuel. It also generates a very small amount of waste. Compared to this, coal and oil produce a lot of air pollution and waste and you also need a lot of them to generate electricity.

Despite the low cost of running a nuclear power plant, will the expensive cost of making the nuclear power plants make people think about not funding for the nuclear power plants? Why?

A: The expensive cost of nuclear power plants comes from the very long time that is needed to build them; one reason they take so much time to build is because you want to ensure that they are safe, which is a good thing. However there are new power plant designs which promise to shorten this time and reduce the expense. There is especially a new and exciting reactor called the “small modular reactor” which is small and quickly built. In addition you have to balance the cost of power plants against the cost of electricity from them (which is quite low), the small amount of pollution that they cause and the other benefits which they provide over fossil fuels.

Read more . . .

via Scientific American –  Ashutosh Jogalekar

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