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Inside nuclear energy

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Nuclear energy is back in the news as governments around the world increasingly commit to building new nuclear reactors. Ranging from fission to fusion, this course explores the scientific and technological background to nuclear energy, the biological effects of radiation and the cost of producing electricity. Inside nuclear energy is one of a series of short, five month 10-credit courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It enables you to try out a new area of study before you commit yourself to a longer course, or top up your knowledge and skills between longer courses.

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No current presentation - see Future availability

This course is expected to start for the last time in April 2014.

What you will study

For more than half a century, the science of nuclear energy has been harnessed as a source of low carbon electricity, but public perceptions of the nuclear industry during the 1970s had a big impact on its continued development. Today, acknowledging the need to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions has put nuclear energy back on the scientific and political agenda as a possible major contributor to meeting the world’s energy requirements. The issue of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is likely to remain in the public eye for some time and nuclear energy is likely to have a significant role to play.

Inside nuclear energy explores the scientific and technological concepts relating to atoms, nuclei, radioactivity and energy production in power stations to give an appreciation of the advantages and disadvantages of obtaining energy in this way. Building on these foundations, you will go on to learn more about the role of geology in waste storage and disposal issues, and the difficulties of disposing of highly radioactive waste. The idea of burying nuclear waste deep underground for many years until its radioactivity has reduced to a safe level is being investigated by a number of countries, and a portion of your study will focus on the example of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, USA. You will learn more about the scientific considerations of storing nuclear waste underground and consider other issues, such as the political questions, which make Yucca Mountain’s future uncertain.

You will also explore some of the main issues nuclear energy poses to health and safety, focussing on the biological effects of radiation and how it can be both detrimental and beneficial. You will apply this knowledge to consider the contemporary environment, looking at whether nuclear energy is economically advantageous and also looking forward to potential future developments in nuclear technology.

By the end of this course you will have developed a range of study skills associated with retrieving and interpreting information and data from a variety of sources, including in the form of tables, charts and graphs, as well as from articles, audio and video material.

This course is based on a specially written OU study book, together with a website which will link to online study material covering the economics and future of nuclear energy. The study book will provide questions and answers and activities to help test your understanding, and that you can use for self-assessment throughout the course. A number of activities will only be presented online via the website.

Vocational relevance

The course will be of particular relevance if you are working in the energy supply industry and in particular the nuclear industry. If you have a professional interest in nuclear energy, environmental matters and global warming you will also find this course very relevant.


Please note: this course is only available for standalone study. You cannot count the credits you gain from the course towards any current OU qualification. It may be possible, however, to count the credits gained towards a qualification if you are already studying with us and have declared your qualification intention before September 2012 – see your qualification description in StudentHome for details.

In this course you will meet a wide range of scientific and technological subjects and will have to be prepared to understand some basic science, e.g. physics, biology, chemistry and geology. While it is designed for people who are new to these subject areas, you will probably find that you can move faster through the study materials if you have a little basic knowledge of general science. However all you really need is an interest in the issues involved in nuclear energy and learning more about the science behind it. If you have read popular books and magazines on the subject, you will find that the course develops your understanding and introduces topics that you have not met before.

Mathematically, you should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide positive and negative numbers and understand the use of brackets in numerical calculations. You will meet numbers expressed as fractions, decimals and using simple powers (e.g. 103 for 1000). The structured teaching will take you to a level at which you are happy to use maths as a tool in a range of scientific contexts. A maths skills ebook is provided to help you with, for example, fractions, percentages, reading graphs and tables, and scientific units as required.

You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper, and you should be able to communicate your thoughts clearly and comprehensibly in a written format.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the course, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

A proportion of the course is delivered online via the website, so you will have to spend a considerable amount of time using a personal computer and the internet. If you have severely impaired sight you may find the course challenging, as it relies heavily on coloured images, graphs and video material. Written transcripts of the audio-visual material will be available.

You may be required to draw diagrams or to annotate diagrams that you download, and use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce electronic versions of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessment. Alternatively creating diagrams electronically will be acceptable.

Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and scientific or diagrammatic materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

Study book, online audio and video activities, study guide, website.

You will need

A basic scientific calculator and access to a digital camera or scanner. We recommend that you have broadband access to the internet as the course contains some video-based activities that will be very slow to load on a dial-up internet connection.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course as it includes online activities, which you can access using a web browser.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer since 2007 you should have no problems completing the online activities.
  • If you’ve got a netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you use an Apple Mac you will need OS X 10.6 or later.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Study support

You can contact a team of expert science study advisers through an online discussion forum, and they will be able to help you with academic questions to do with the course and the assessment. There will also be an online discussion forum that you can use to get in touch with other students and study advisers.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this course can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your end-of-module assessment (EMA).

You have to submit the single piece of written work for assessment after 21 weeks. There will be no other opportunity to complete the course.

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that starts in April 2014 when it will be available for the last time.

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

“Really enjoyed this course my favourite by far. Did this as my last Level 1 of my Natural Sciences Degree ...”
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“I just wanted to say how excellent I thought the ST174 course was. I have just received my result (Pass) ...”
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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code ST174
Credits 10
OU Level 1
SCQF level 7
FHEQ level 4
Course work includes:
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

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