The science of nuclear energy
The science of nuclear energy

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The science of nuclear energy

Week 1: Into the atom


Welcome to this free course, The science of nuclear energy.

In the following video, course authors Sam Smidt and Gemma Warriner introduce themselves and do some experiments with a Geiger counter to show radioactivity.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_nuclear_energy_vid_1112.mp4
Skip transcript


Hello, and welcome to the course. I’m Sam Smidt.
And I’m Gemma Warriner. Over the next four weeks, you’ll be taking a good look at the issues that surround nuclear energy and energy supply in general.
You’ll also be looking at some of the issues that make nuclear energy more of a difficult choice and the reasons why governments are sometimes more cautious about adopting it. But this first week’s all about the science.
We’re going to be looking at fission and radioactivity. Now, I have a Geiger counter here. You might have seen one of these before. Radioactive materials emit particles, and we’ll be looking at these particles later this week.
When one of these particles enters the tube, it’s registered as a click. So the more clicks you hear, the more radioactive it is nearby. Now, you may hear there’s some clicks going on while I’m talking to you now. Now, that’s to be expected. That’s background radiation, and it’s due to the low level radioactivity that surrounds us all the time.
Now, I have a couple of sources of that radioactivity here. Well, Sam does. We have some bananas. So if I put the Geiger counter next to them, they’re getting a few clicks. So they are contributing to the background.
We’re going to get more clicks if I put the Geiger counter next to Sam’s watch. You can hopefully hear there. We’re getting quite a few more clicks. That’s because Sam’s watch is quite an old watch, and the fluorescent paint actually contains radium, and radium is radioactive.
The other thing we’re going to focus on this week is fission, which is how we get most energy that is produced in nuclear reactors. Fission is when you split nuclei of large unstable elements, usually uranium, into two smaller, more stable nuclei and energy is released in the process. That’s pretty much all there is to it, but you’ll learn about how we measure that energy, and that’s all related to Einstein’s famous equation e equals mc squared. Stay with us and it’ll all become clear.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In Week 1 you’ll learn about the science behind nuclear energy. This learning will set you up for the rest of the course as you consider nuclear energy in context.

Before you start, The Open University would really appreciate a few minutes of your time to tell us about yourself and your expectations of the course. Your input will help to further improve the online learning experience. If you’d like to help, and if you haven’t done so already, please fill in this optional survey [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371