Educating engineers to safely steward nuclear systems


Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

The Australian National University (ANU) is introducing new courses to train the next generation of engineers to work safely and securely in and around nuclear systems and shape Australia’s approach toward nuclear stewardship. 

With more than 70 years of work in nuclear science, ANU will offer a Nuclear Systems Major and Nuclear Systems Minor to undergraduate engineering students from 2024. 

Nuclear technologies are widely used in Australia, with applications in health, defence, mining, agriculture, environmental monitoring, space, quantum computing, and more. 

As the national university, ANU has a unique opportunity to help Australia grow its contribution to both national and international work on nuclear stewardship. This includes the responsible planning, management, and leadership of nuclear facilities and technologies – ensuring the highest levels of safety, security, and sustainability. 

Director of the ANU School of Engineering, Professor Chris Kellett, believes that providing systems engineers with a greater understanding of nuclear systems serves national and global interests. 

“The systems we create now to manage Australia’s nuclear technologies, and their impacts, will have consequences from the near to potentially very long term.  These new offerings bring together longstanding expertise in nuclear science with our educational focus on systems engineering, which is designed to provide students with the tools and frameworks to consider the full life-cycle of any system.  This is especially important for nuclear systems.” says Professor Kellett. 

The new program has been designed to help students engage critically with considerations around the entire life cycle of nuclear systems – from design to decommissioning and beyond. 

“Nuclear technology does a number of different and very useful things, all of which require care,” says ANU Senior Lecturer and nuclear physicist Dr Elizabeth Williams. “To use these technologies, you have to develop what’s often referred to as a nuclear mindset – which is really keeping safety and security front of mind across the whole lifecycle.” 

“Australia uses a nuclear reactor to produce most of our medical isotypes. That is, the imaging and treatments we need to diagnose conditions such as heart disease,” says Dr Williams. 

“The Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility at ANU looks at things like soil erosion, which is quite important in Australia. The facility can also conduct experiments to test how technology will operate in high radiation environments such as space.  

“In mining, you can use nuclear technology to decide what ore to process. You can also use non-destructive nuclear techniques for cultural heritage, such as to figure out how a painting or sculpture was made without destroying the object,” says Dr Williams. 

The new courses being rolled out for engineers build upon more than 70 years of work in nuclear science at the ANU.

ANU is home to Australia’s largest ion accelerator, which is part of the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility – research infrastructure that is currently funded by the Department of Education’s NCRIS program due to its importance for a wide range of Australia’s scientific priorities. ANU also has a history of research excellence in nuclear science through the Department of Nuclear Physics & Accelerator Applications. The University also offers the most comprehensive nuclear science research and teaching program in the nation, covering physics, law, regulation, security and defence, and non-proliferation.

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