Fuel for debate on the power of the future

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Students can learn how to decommission a power station on a free CD-Rom.

Becky Parker reports

Back to the Future, a new free CD-Rom from BNFL, is an informative package that comes with a poster. It has good illustrations and some simulations, along with background information and detailed physics content about aspects of radioactivity and nuclear power.

The main activity is deciding how to decommission a virtual Magnox power station. The premise is that this process has been done many times already; students are simply being given various options to consider that need to be weighed up against experience.

It is only when discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the three possible decommissioning routes that the future tense is used. The whole exercise is interesting, yet it is presented as being perfectly clean that it feels a bit too much like a computer game.

Users have to put in order various procedures to decommission the power station. They mostly consist of innocuous activities such as "knock down offices and canteen", while one of the few aspects to actually deal with waste is mentioned as "build an intermediate level waste store". According to the poster, it takes one to two years, but it is three years in the CD-Rom activity.

I was surprised that there was no mention of high-level waste, but under that heading it states that power stations in Britain do not produce high-level waste. The explanation is that spent fuel is reprocessed and high-level waste is only, therefore, produced as a product of reprocessing spent fuel at Sellafield and thus not on the Magnox site.

The structure of the decommissioning activity is clear and would be a useful activity for key stage 4 or A-level physics, especially as the expansion of nuclear power is on the political agenda. If I was teaching this activity, I would try to discuss what information students themselves need to make decisions about nuclear power, when such widely differing positions are taken by different stakeholders. Is it possible for them to get value-free information on emotive topics such as radioactive waste?

There are two other sections on this CD-Rom. "New uses for old power stations" looks at the conversion of Bankside to the Tate Modern, and also considers Battersea Power Station and Trawsfynydd Power Station, a nuclear power station in Wales that closed in 1993.

The final section is on the Manchester Ship Canal and examines industrial growth, decline, and change over time. It includes an interactive test and a useful teacher's guide. The section also explains the Back to the Future title, by explaining that students can explore how the land from a decommissioned power station can be returned to other commercial uses.

* Back to the Future CD-Rom is free from BNFL (maximum five copies per school) www.bnfleducation.combacktothefuture

BNFL Stand M1

Becky Parker is head of physics at Simon Langton Boys' School, Canterbury, Kent

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