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Unit information: Environmental Radioactivity in 2015/16

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Unit name Environmental Radioactivity
Unit code EASC30050
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2D (weeks 19 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Tom Scott
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

The unit addresses the presence and impact of radioactivity in the environment, including the likely roles that geologists and environmental scientists may play within the nuclear industry ranging from the mining and mineralogy of radioactive ores, to the environmental remediation of sites contaminated by radioactive pollutants.

The unit will cover all aspects of radioactivity in the environment, starting with the concepts of radioactivity (nuclear theory, radiometric dating, decay series etc) and the cosmic distribution of radioisotopes. This will extend to a detailed examination of the different processes by which uranium ores may form, using specific case studies as examples.

The unit will also briefly cover the basic concepts of nuclear fission and fusion, through the examination of natural analogues. Emphasis will be placed on the wider implications of radionuclides in the geosphere and highlight the environmental impacts of radioactive pollution (including NORM which poses a problem for the oil industry) and the potential effect it may have on human populations. This will include the challenges of (i) intermittent nuclear disasters and (ii) geological disposal and/or indefinite storage of radioactive waste. For this latter aspect of the course we will bring in experts from industry (NDA and Sellafield) that have already agreed involvement with the course. Sellafield site has been recognised as the most significant radiological liability in Europe and as such we will study the aspects of environmental contamination that have been documented, aided by first-hand descriptions from Sellafield staff.

Intended Learning Outcomes

The unit aims to develop a good understanding of geological and environmental issues related to radioactivity in the environment (both natural and anthropogenic). The unit will also instil a balanced understanding of nuclear energy with respect to other methods of energy generation (wind, solar, wave, tidal, hydro, geothermal, gas, coal etc) and the key geo-environmental challenges related to risk/disaster planning and geological disposal of nuclear waste. The aim is to inform rather than to persuade.

On completing the course the students will be able to: • Explain all basic aspects of radioactivity and related aspects of nuclear theory and energy generation • Explain the different major processes by which radioactive ores may accumulate • Explain the impacts/risks or releases of radioactive materials at significant concentrations into the environment – including transport pathways, radio-toxicity and different methods for site clean-up (with no over-emphasis on any one clean-up method). • Describe the role of earth scientists within the nuclear industry • Lead development towards a renewed UK nuclear environmental programme • Discuss and debate the social, economic and environmental consequences related to different methods of energy generation • Discuss and debate the social, economic and environmental consequences related to different possible approaches to radioactive waste management (storage and disposal options) • Understand the legal framework for nuclear decommissioning, waste storage and waste disposal. • To organise and run workshops on topics in this area

Teaching Information

Lectures, discussions and practical sessions, including (as appropriate) a visit to Hinkley Point nuclear power station for a tour of a working facility and a new-build site. Students will also participate in a structured ‘planning debate’ arguing for and against development of a UK geological disposal facility (GDF) for radwaste. Each student will also produce an essay discussing a predefined topic related to radioactivity in the environment (e.g. nuclear waste disposal, geological hazard risks to UK nuclear sites etc). Guest speakers from Sellafield, NDA and NNL will also be enlisted to present detailed case study on both the Sellafield site and the national low level waste repository in Cumbria.

Assessment Information

Final 2 hour examination (65% and Practical assessment (35%)

The practical work will assess skills in reasoning, critical thinking, numerical calculations, environmental geochemistry and mineralogy. For example, the first practical (based on nuclear theory will) will involve radioactive decay calculations and dosage calculations, while other practical work will involve a desk study to identify a suitable site for a radioactive waste repository in the southwest UK and petrologic work examining hand specimens of radioactive ore minerals.

In each practical session the students will produce a piece of work based on answering a number of structured questions. Practical assessment in the following areas is envisaged; Radioactivity and associated health effects from ionising radiation, mining radioactive rocks, waste management, site assessment/remediation and the radioactive waste debate (storage versus disposal).

Examination questions will also be based upon the students’ knowledge of these key subject areas. Knowledge of valid case studies will also be assessed. Questions will typically be essay based, with some sections requiring numerical calculations similar to those covered in practical sessions.

Reading and References

Wilson, P. D. (1996) The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: From Ore to Waste. Oxford University Press

Ojovan, M. I. and Lee, W. E. (2005) An introduction to nuclear waste immobilisation. Elsevier Science Publishing

Bayliss, C. and Langley, K. (2003) Nuclear Decommissioning, Waste Management, and Environmental Site Remediation. Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd