Students explore the power of nuclear

Summary

Nuclear experts hope fusion workshops in Antwerp will inspire young minds to consider scientific research

Complex energy issues addressed

Antwerp University recently hosted Plasma’s. Fusie! Energie?, a touring theatrical and interactive workshop on the subject of nuclear fusion. The show attracted more than 3,000 third-year students from 63 secondary schools in Flanders and the southern Netherlands over three days.

Instructors from the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research have been touring the show for 14 years. In 2003, its founder, Professor Nick Lopes Cardozo of the University of Eindhoven, was given the Shell Award for Sustainable Development and Energy for translating the complex process of nuclear fusion into language that appeals to teenagers’ imaginations.

Immediately after the multimedia show, students took part in workshops led by Flemish researcher Jef Ongena, the director of research at the Plasma Physics Lab at Brussels’ Royal Military Academy and the former task force leader of the Joint European Torus – the world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor, which is located in Oxfordshire, England – and Christian Dierick, the Belgian liaison officer for ITER, the international nuclear fusion research project, which is building a reactor in the south of France.

“Nuclear fusion creates ‘positive energy’; it creates no waste, and it’s an inexhaustible source,” explains Dierick. “We want to teach students that fusion is a very simple application of the most fundamental laws of physics. But fusion is an extreme case; before we can produce energy with this method, there are a lot of technological difficulties that have to be solved. Our message is: We have to move forward. We need to innovate, and we need young minds to dedicate themselves to scientific research.”

The show and workshops are not only about nuclear fusion. “We want to discuss broader energy issues,” says Dierick. “Today’s energy issues are much more complex than most people think. It is not black and white. For instance, we teach students that, due to the increase of energy coming from the sun and wind, we rely more than ever on gas power stations. Issues regarding storage of energy from sustainable sources, with high variability and unpredictability, are still not solved. Students have to understand why the world is not switching to sustainable sources all at once. In that way, we are going against the current trend.”

Tomorrow’s decision-makers

Before the show, organisers at Antwerp University made it clear that the intention was not to polarise or promote nuclear energy. “We want to give today’s youngsters the necessary background knowledge to take informed, balanced decisions about complex energy problems instead of acting out of a gut feeling,” explains Rita Van Peteghem, co-ordinator of the Continuing Education Centre at the university. “It is important, because these students are tomorrow’s citizens and policymakers.” 

We want to give youngsters the knowledge to take informed, balanced decisions

- Rita Van Peteghem

The centre, which invited the fusion show to Antwerp in collaboration with the university’s science department, also organised training for secondary school teachers at the end of September. “We developed a total concept on nuclear fusion,” says Van Peteghem. “Teachers go back to class with new lesson materials and teaching aids. They have about two months to teach their students about fusion. Then they come here, and all the information they have gathered in class is summarised during the show, in a lively and entertaining way.”

One thing teachers take back to class is the “minister’s game”. “The teacher plays the role of a minister in politics, and the students have to inform the minister about the best decisions on which sources of energy to use,” Van Peteghem explains, “much in the same way as would happen in parliament. Students learn that democratic decisions should be based on sound science instead of rumours.”

Photo: Universiteit Antwerpen