College has changed me as it changes everyone. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in college was that staying up-to-date with current events was crucial. As a science major, I was expected to be aware of the scientific issues that were present in the world. In high school, I was not always fully aware of what was happening around the globe. This changed when I entered UC Berkeley, and I am quite thankful. One class that helped me along the way was a class called Physics for Future Presidents, which teaches the science of important, relevant topics in politics such as space exploration, nuclear energy, etc.
The course was interesting to say the least. We studied physics, current, and occasionally past events side by side. It was (and probably still is) one of the most popular undergraduate courses on campus and all of the lectures are offered online for the public to view. The course is so desired that similar courses have popped up at other universities. Check out one of the lectures:
I mentioned this course because I’m certain that one of the scientific issues the world is facing today will be covered in its syllabus – the Japanese tsunami that damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. While I may be a scientist, nuclear energy is not my specialty, so I’ve provided an article for you to familiarize yourself with the topic: http://www.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-power.htm.
While you may peruse the article at your own leisure, I will provide a basic summary here. A nuclear reactor contains a nuclear core, containing 2-3% percent more Uranium-235 than a natural sample. U-235 undergoes radioactive decay naturally by emitting an alpha particle (2 neutrons and 2 protons). Nuclear fission can be induced in the plant by firing a free neutron at the core; this neutron makes U-235 unstable and it splits into two lighter atoms. The split also releases a free neutron, keeping the nuclear reaction going (nuclear chain reaction). While the energy from one fission reaction is not that much, there are many many more atoms in the core undergoing fission and releasing a large amount of combined energy. The uranium is arranged into rods, and the rods are arranged into bundles. The bundles are submerged in water, which serves two purposes: it keeps the rods cool and it turns into steam and powers the turbine. At the same time, control rods adjacent to the nuclear rods absorb the free neutrons of the reaction (remember free neutrons are needed to start the reaction). These rods control the rate of the nuclear reaction depending on how many free neutrons they absorb. The nuclear power plant also has layers of protection to prevent radioactive materials from escaping into the environment. The first layer is a concrete liner; the second layer is a steel vessel which surrounds the concrete liner. The last layer is the concrete building which houses the steel layer.
If you want to jump straight to understanding what happened in Japan and Chernobyl: http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-power5.htm
Staying current and understanding what is happening in the world is something you can do to be responsible. The word “nuclear” scares many people, so it’s important to know what nuclear power really is. To illustrate the importance of not being ignorant, here is a true story: doctors used to use a machine called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to scan images of the brain. The word “nuclear” gave the machine a bad rep so the name was changed to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). I heard this anecdote through my course, and it always amazed me how little effort people put into understanding the background of something.