The programme covers two major educational projects, of which Chalmers will coordinate one and participate as a partner in the other. Both aim to maintain competence in, respectively, reactor physics and nuclear chemistry.
“If we do not maintain a sufficient level of knowledge and expertise, this could be a safety and security risk. There are more than a hundred nuclear reactors currently operating across Europe, which account for more than 25 percent of all electricity generation,” says Christophe Demazière, Professor at the Department of Physics at Chalmers and coordinator of the EU project Great Pioneer.
As nuclear power plants are decommissioned, so interest in nuclear technology education has diminished throughout Europe. This has led several authorities and organisations, including the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to sound the alarm that a new generation of qualified researchers and specialists is needed to ensure nuclear safety. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) and the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste have voiced similar concerns.
A report from SSM makes clear the nuclear industry’s great need for more experts in the next fifteen years. There is also a growing need for radiation science specialists, within areas such as healthcare. Within the Swedish nuclear industry and healthcare, a growing proportion of the expert workforce is expected to retire within a few years.
The same trend is evident throughout Europe. As early as 2012 the Joint Research Center (JRC) warned the European Commission that there would be a shortage of around 7000 reactor physics and nuclear safety specialists by 2020. Since the report was written, several training programmes in the area have disappeared, which has contributed to increasing the shortfall further still.
The teaching of the three-year EU project Great Pioneer is based on innovative and successful methods in active and distance learning. Coordinator Christophe Demazière has developed these methods for many years, in close collaboration with two pedagogical researchers at Chalmers University of Technology’s Department of Communication and Learning in Science: Associate Professors Christian Stöhr and Professor Tom Adawi. Recently, the researchers presented the results of their extensive collaboration in the scientific journal Computers & Education
. Work will continue within the framework of the new EU project as the education models are now being exported.
In the coming years, approximately 600 students at universities across Europe will be able to take courses in reactor physics and reactor safety, looking at both theory and practice, programming principles in nuclear safety and using training reactors. The concept is based on the students preparing outside of lectures, so that the teaching time can then be used for joint activities with the students at the centre – whether they are on site or at a distance. A total of nine courses are planned through Great Pioneer, of which Chalmers will produce six.
The opportunity for distance education is also an important component of the second EU project, in which Chalmers acts a partner.
“Nuclear engineering programmes are being phased out across Europe, as there are not enough students. Instead of each educational institution trying to offer its own programmes, we will merge and create a sustainable, long-term educational network across Europe,” says Teodora Retegan Vollmer, Professor of Nuclear Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Chalmers representative for the EU project A-Cinch.
She has been working on educational projects in the EU since 2010, when she was one of the initiators of the Cinch concept. The new project includes developments such as virtual laboratory exercises that students can perform remotely. Chalmers also offers unique educational opportunities in the safe handling of meaningful quantities of radioactive materials.
“Whether you are building or decommissioning nuclear reactors, this training is crucial for being able to do it safely,” says Teodora Retegan Vollmer.
There has not been a master's degree in nuclear engineering at Chalmers in the last few years, but the two new EU projects evidence how the expertise is in international demand.
“The goal of the educational projects is to create long-term sustainable education, where we can share both teachers and students, and work with pedagogical methods to improve learning. This is crucial in attracting students and ensuring that the reactors currently in operation can continue to operate safely in the long-term,” says Christophe Demazière.
The EU decisions on the funded education projects become official once all participants have signed the agreement, which they have already begun to do.