Pupils add their voice to the national nuclear fuel debate

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Nuclear power is back on the agenda. Burning fossil fuels causes climate change, solar power needs light, waves are hard to harness and wind turbines are erratic and inefficient eyesores.

What's wrong with using a clean, continuous energy source, so concentrated that two power stations currently provide almost half of Scotland's electricity? Radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years is the answer. But, given the shortage of viable options, is this a show-stopper?

At Glasgow Science Centre, pupils from four secondary schools are taking part in a day-long debate about nuclear power and radioactive waste disposal, then linking up with similar groups at two other science centres, in Newcastle and at Sellafield. Their opinions, individual and collective, will be passed to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CORWM), which is currently consulting widely and soon to report to the Government on long-term options for existing radioactive waste.

The warm-up exercises run by Glasgow Science Centre's communicators give a fair indication of pupils' initial mindset, as they create cheery cartoons of cancer patients and wild-eyed radiation workers, and punchy posters with messages such as "Say 'No' to nuclear!" and "The future's bright, the future's radioactive".

Gradually knee-jerk negatives grow more nuanced, as the pupils work through group games, decisions and presentations on the fuel cycle, nuclear reactor construction, the analysis of newspaper reports and the ranking of criteria for disposal of nuclear waste.

All the participating pupils are using two sets of resources, the CORWM discussion guide and a set of activities produced by Ecsite, the European network of science centres and museums.

"We've been pioneering ways of engaging all sorts of audiences in dialogue on scientific questions, especially those that have ethical issues attached," says Ecsite UK's director, Melanie Quin. "So, it is not just about scientific awareness; it's about dialogue and science for citizenship.

"We know science teachers find organising debates hard, so we want to provide them with useful resources and assistance."

The S3-S5 pupils begin to grapple with the core of the nuclear debate by assigning their own rankings to the criteria CORWM will use to assess waste disposal options. Social consciences and youthful idealism are apparent as protection of the environment, security and public safety score high, while cost comes low. Comments include "If the environment dies, we can't survive", "Money will not disappear soon" and "Safety should come before cost".

The event is part of a series of debates at Glasgow Science Centre aimed at helping pupils and teachers to engage with the often controversial ethical and social issues raised by developments in modern science.

"Stem cells debates are popular and we'll be running more of those soon,"

says the centre's education co-ordinator, Jillian Boag. "We are also planning a debate called Premature Babies: Decisions at the Edge of Life, which will, like this one, feed into a national consultation, in that case on the complex ethical and legal issues around prolonging life in premature babies.

"One thing we've learnt is that you shouldn't try to pack too much into a day. Young people need time to think about new information and to talk about it among themselves."

It is a lesson science teachers are also learning. "The great thing about this kind of event is that it gives pupils a chance to share ideas and listen to other people's views," says John Reilly, a physics teacher at Grangemouth High. "That in turn often gives their confidence a boost, where traditional methods of teaching science would not."

The final recommendation of the linked school debates was that existing radioactive waste should be dealt with by "phased deep geological disposal", a method employing underground chambers that are monitored for a lengthy period before being sealed off forever.


Nuclear energy debate resources: www.scizmic.netnuclear1.asp Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, www.corwm.org.ukcontent-769 for discussion guide Glasgow Science Centre, www.glasgowsciencecentre.orgeducation

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