Nuclear Engineering – a bit of personal history

In 1967 I won a student scholarship with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), and went to Queen Mary College (QMC), London University, to study Nuclear Engineering. Over the next three years, during my summer breaks, I spent a total of six months on various projects at different UKAEA research sites. From my studies and experience on UKAEA sites, I gradually came to the conclusion that nuclear power is a really bad idea.

I tried to have reasoned discussions about the issues with my professor (David Leslie, RIP). This was particularly problematic, as one of the projects chosen for me by my UKAEA boss was to investigate major discrepancies between the theoretical model and the full-size physical model of (one fuel channel of) the emergency core cooling system for the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) at the Winfrith Heath UKAEA site in Dorset. The model was heated electrically and used to test the operation of the emergency cooling system, which you don’t want to test on the real thing by allowing the reactor itself to overheat...

I realized what the flaw was in the theoretical model pretty quickly. What I didn’t realize until too late was that before his appointment at QMC Professor Leslie had been the lead theoretician in the team that designed the system.

I also raised the question of disposal of nuclear waste; Professor Leslie countered that nuclear fission was a stop-gap solution until nuclear fusion became a practical reality. I was sceptical, but didn’t say anything until I’d gone away and done some research. It didn’t take me long to work out that a fusion reactor, if feasible at all, could only operate with the support of at least similar (and probably considerably greater) nuclear fission capacity (see Nuclear Fusion?). After my experience trying to tell him about my doubts about SGHWR, I was very nervous about raising this issue with Professor Leslie.

I discussed all these things with the head of Mechanical Engineering (Meredith Thring, RIP), with whom I’d been friends since not long after arriving at QMC – we had a very similar outlook on life*. He said that I had to raise the questions, because they were important, and that he’d back me up if there were any repercussions.

Repercussions? I had a blazing row with Professor Leslie, who threatened me with ‘no degree’ and said ‘there are powerful and unscrupulous people in the industry, don’t open Pandora’s box, young man’. (Those are probably not his exact words, which I honestly don’t remember, but they certainly convey his meaning and tone.) I reported back to Professor Thring – and rapidly transferred to the Mechanical Engineering department. Half-way through my final year was rather late in my undergraduate career to make such a switch! But needs must when the Devil drives...

(This was four years before the murder of Karen Silkwood – you can imagine the effect that had on me at age twenty-five.)

One of the most important things I learned in those three years of nuclear engineering – apart from a solid grounding in nuclear physics, which doesn’t change when the particulars of nuclear reactor design change – was that nuclear engineers are just ordinary human beings, with human failings like everyone else. Grown-up children playing with preternatural fire, blasé about the risks, rationalizing their gung-ho attitude as hard as they can and defending their careers and their pride unmindful of the consequences for the wider community.

As a well-informed opponent of nuclear power, I’ve regarded it as incumbent upon me to ensure that I remain well-informed. That solid grounding in nuclear physics means that I have the theoretical framework that enables me to make sense of the vast amount of information that is available (and to be able to see when someone is bullshitting). Many of my deductions, and the processes I used in making them, are on this website.

For a vision of the future humankind might have, you might like to read my short story, The Temple at Zelalie.

* I attended an open lecture he gave shortly after I first arrived at QMC, possibly even during Freshers’ Week, I don’t remember. It was on Invention, and Ethics in Engineering (that may not have been the exact title, but it was something like that). It matched my own thoughts so well that I sought him out afterwards, and asked if he could be my tutor, although I wasn’t in his department. No, he couldn’t, not officially, but I was welcome to attend some of his tutorials anyway if they fitted into my timetable. I made sure they did! See also Meredith_Thring#Work.

For an example of a human failing of nuclear engineers (a fairly typical failing of anybody, but in this case it matters) see Turbulent Thoughts.
My first realization of the issue of human failings in engineers (nuclear ones in particular) was in the summer of 1968, see Pneumatics & Radioactivity.

In June 2014 I was at a meeting at the nuclear fusion research site at Culham, which was attended by many UKAEA bigwigs. At one point I was chatting with one of the bigwigs – sadly I utterly forget which one – and for some reason I mentioned some particular risk or other, and he simply said, ‘oh, one gets blasé about the risks.’ I don’t know whether he noticed my double-take. I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t think what to say. Drivers get blasé about the risks on the road, too – with predictable consequences. But at least those consequences are relatively minor. Minor? Are an untimely death or a few minor? Well, compared to the potential consequences of a nuclear accident they are.
(Why on Earth I was at such a meeting...)