Science and Technology


Nuclear Science and Engineering is more than nuclear energy

Robert Hayes Modified: July 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm •  Published: July 7, 2013

I believe the most exciting of all the engineering and science disciplines is most certainly that of nuclear.  This would be because nuclear science spans all disciplines from the largest scales of cosmology and the origins of the universe to the smallest of the subatomic particles.  It encompasses all the known forces in the universe except perhaps gravity.  A good understanding of nuclear technology requires understanding everything from quantum mechanics and statistics to relativity and thermodynamics, it covers a very broad scope.

Unlike many other engineering and science disciplines, a formal quality education in this field can only be obtained at a limited number of universities such as Texas A&M, University of New Mexico and Kansas State along with a handful of other universities around the nation.  At the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, a bachelors degree in nuclear engineering can be obtained almost next door to two national laboratories there who specialize in nuclear technologies (Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories).  If students start in high school, they can make substantial gains towards this or any engineering discipline.  Taking AP classes and possibly dual credit classes at a Community College can enable students to graduate high school with almost a years worth of college credits already completed.  The rest of the calculus, physics and chemistry can also be done at an accredited community college  (and cheaper to) prior to finishing with a bachelors degree elsewhere.  In fact, UNM now offers an online bachelors degree in radiological sciences (effectively a nuclear engineering type degree whose focus is on medical field applications).

Nuclear science has quite a bit of history in New Mexico,  the first nuclear bomb was tested and designed there back in 1945.  This eventually led to the field of nuclear engineering.  That is not to say that nuclear engineering involves designing bombs, it most certainly does not.  The eventual realization of numerous civil uses for nuclear technology drove and still drives the need for new nuclear engineers.  The short description of nuclear engineering would be the design of anything having to do with ionizing radiation including all radioactivity and nuclear reactions.  This is the field in which radiation shielding, detectors, food sterilization and nuclear power for electricity generation are all designed.  Nuclear engineers design, the systems used to make nuclear medicine, the accelerators and irradiators used by radiation oncologists for killing cancer and of course all the intricate radiological aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle.  The nuclear fuel cycle design issues include radon from mining the uranium, assaying the ore and milled uranium with radiation spectrometers, calculating the work for enriching uranium, ensuring the nuclear criticality safety basis is maintained through to the fuel fabrication manufacture, reactor core physics and finally the back end of the fuel cycle, dealing with the waste.  That of course is only a small sampling of the issues related to the nuclear fuel cycle.  Nuclear engineering also encompasses fusion technology, the process of combining isotopes of hydrogen to generate energy in a similar way as the sun.  Not only can fusion and fission generate electricity but even the process of radioactive decay can be harnessed as a heat source in nuclear batteries to generate electricity for such things as pacemakers and spacecraft (by connecting the radioactive heat source to a thermoelectric generator).

Other things that nuclear engineers do include all forms of radioactivity measurement designs including environmental, medical and industrial applications.  They also serve homeland security and many federal agencies who also have to deal with radiological issues.

I can personally testify from firsthand knowledge that many of the nuclear engineering professors at  UNM are some of the best that are out there.  With the added bonus of various student projects and technical interactions sponsored by the national laboratories in the area, UNM probably offers one of the best opportunities in the nation.

New Mexico may not have been the birthplace of nuclear science but it certainly did contribute greatly to it.  Nuclear science itself may be thought by some to be one of the most complicated out there, although I would not say that, I would say it is the most interesting.

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