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Science: nuclear energy

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. Science: nuclear energy is one of a series of 100-hour flexible online courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It allows you to learn about this topic just for interest and enables you to try out a new area of study before you commit yourself to further study. You can register and begin this course at any time and will have at least 6 months to complete it.

Standalone study only

You will not be awarded credits for studying this course. It is available for standalone study only and cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.

Short course

Short course code
This is a non-credit bearing course.
Study method
Distance Learning
Short course cost
See Registration
Entry requirements
See Am I ready?

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.

This course 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.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate general knowledge and understanding of some of the basic facts, concepts and principles relating to nuclear energy and the science and technology underpinning its production, as well as its role in the sustainable energy debate and the issues that arise in connection with nuclear power.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the contribution that science can make to informed debate on environmental and sustainable energy issues.
  • Make sense of information presented in a variety of ways, including textual, numerical, graphical and audio/video-based material and make logical deductions.

This course will require around 80–100 hours of your time in total, which can be spread over at least 6 months.

Register online today and start tomorrow – no need to wait!

The course features the distinctive strengths of The Open University (OU) from its years of expertise in distance learning:

  • The convenience of accessing its clearly presented and sequenced materials, activities and support whenever suits you and wherever you have access to the protected course website – if you prefer, you can print key materials to work on them offline.
  • The support of an expert learning adviser who can clarify study materials, answer questions and help you relate the course to your specific needs.
  • An online interactive quiz that you can attempt as many times as you wish to help you test your own learning.
  • A statement of participation from the OU which you can use to demonstrate your engagement with the course. (N.B. The course does not carry academic credit points.)

Some of the pages within the course contain links to external sites. Accessing these sites is part of the allocated study time for the course. You may also wish to undertake additional background study or reading if some of the concepts introduced are completely unfamiliar to you.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a learning adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, library, dedicated website and computing helpdesk.

Teaching and assessment


There is no formal assessment on the course but you will be able to assess yourself on your factual knowledge through an online quiz that gives detailed feedback to help your learning.


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

    Entry requirements

    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.

    You can study at your own pace and attempt the online quiz at any time before the end date for the course. Information about the end date is available when you register and will be at least six months after registration.

    If you want to see if this material is suitable for you, try a sample of the study material.


    Start End England fee Register
    At anytime Flexible - see Entry requirements for more detail £165.00 Register

    Ways to pay

    Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa/Delta or Visa Electron.

    Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

    What's included

    All learning materials, activities and study support are delivered entirely online.

    You will need

    A basic scientific calculator.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module.  Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

    A desktop or laptop computer with either:

    • Windows 7 or higher
    • macOS 10.7 or higher

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To participate in our online-discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones. 

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students. 

    If you have a disability

    The course is delivered online and makes use of a variety of online resources. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs. If you are a new learner with the OU, make sure that you look at our website