A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology

Larry Foulke, University of Pittsburgh

This course will focus on the theory, design and operation of commercial nuclear power reactors. The course will also touch on contemporary issues regarding nuclear power generation including: the nuclear fuel cycle, the economics of nuclear power, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The course, “A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology” is aimed at scientifically inclined individuals who want to learn more about nuclear energy and the nuclear power industry. It will address subjects such as: What is nuclear energy? What is its history? Who are its heroes? Why is it controversial? How do nuclear power plants work? What about nuclear weapons? What are the stereotypes and misconceptions? We expect many students who finish this class to want to go on for further study in a closely related field.


“A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology” is an overview course that provides broad subject-area coverage to introduce students to application of theory to practical aspects of nuclear science and technology in the world today with special emphasis on commercial nuclear power. The course will begin with a general overview of nuclear physics and the practical applications covered by the field of nuclear engineering. The majority of the course will focus on the theory, design and operation of commercial nuclear power reactors. The course will also touch on contemporary issues regarding nuclear power generation including: the nuclear fuel cycle, the economics of nuclear power, and nuclear non-proliferation.

The course will begin with a grand tour of the commercial nuclear fuel cycle and power reactors so the student will have some perspective before delving into the theory that is important to understanding the unique aspects of nuclear energy. The course then will return to the fundamentals of basic nuclear physics, reactor physics, energy removal and power conversion to prepare students for in-depth looks at the theory and function of commercial nuclear power reactors.

This course is intended for students who have had little to no academic instruction in nuclear engineering. Some of my incentives to teach this class are (1) to stimulate interest and excitement about nuclear science and technology, and (2) to create a more informed citizenry on the subject of nuclear energy utilization in the future.

  1. Introduction – A Grand Tour of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
  2. Atomic and Nuclear Physics – The Einstein Connection
  3. Nuclear Reactions and Radiation – The Life and Trials of Neutrons and the Things They Create
  4. Radiation and Radiation Protection – Radiation and Realism
  5. Fission Reactor Basics – Links in the Chain Reaction
  6. Overview of Power Reactors and Nuclear Systems – Over 440 in the World and Growing
  7. Nuclear Safety –Should I be frightened?
  8. Radiation and Radioisotopes in the World Today

Recommended Background

Students should have had a course in physics and differential equations. Simple, first order ordinary differential equations will be used now and then.

Suggested Readings

Additional readings to be provided

Course Format

This class will consist of lecture videos, which are between 10 and 20 minutes in length, and brief PowerPoint slides, accompanied by narration. Ungraded quiz questions will be provided for each lecture. The overall grade for the course will be based on the student’s performance on a weekly exam.


Although I have a college degree, I don’t have a very strong background in science. Do you think I have a chance at succeeding in this class?
  • Yes. I’ve structured it with you in mind.
Will I get a certificate after completing this class?
  • Students who successfully complete this class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.
What resources will I need for this class?
  • You will need a computer that can access high speed Internet. While it will help to have a copy of the text by Knief (see recommended text listed above), the course materials are mostly self-contained and reading materials can be accessed on the Web or available from within the course.
What are the coolest things I’ll learn if I take this class?
  • You will learn that a tiny fuel pellet less than 0.2 cubic inches will provide the energy equivalent of approximately 2,000 pounds of coal. There will be no CO2 emission from reactor operation and the volume of waste produced will be on the order of the volume of the fuel pellet.
  • You will learn what the real danger of radiation is. You will examine myths and misconceptions about splitting the atom to make energy.
  • You will learn that the old alchemist's dream of transferring one element into another is possible with nuclear transmutations.
What is the format of the class?
  • The course will be essentially recorded lectures of 10 to 30 minutes with assessment material at the end of each segment. You should expect to spend 4 to 6 hours per week viewing the material, doing extra readings, participating in discussions with fellow students and taking the assessments.
What about timing?  Can I take this self-paced?
  • Probably not. There will be due dates for each assessment to keep us moving forward together. So you won’t be able to wait until the last week and do all the material in a day or two. We expect that you will be committed to work on the course each week as you would for any other college class.
Can we contact the professor?
  • The professor will be nearby and monitoring the course. If problems come up, he will address them in the Announcement section or in the discussion forum. The discussion forum is an important part of the course and much of the learning happens when you interact with other students, so I encourage you to do that.


©2013 University of Pittsburgh

  • 3 March 2014, 8 weeks
  • 10 June 2013, 8 weeks
Course properties:
  • Free:
  • Paid:
  • Certificate:
  • MOOC:
  • Video:
  • Audio:
  • Email-course:
  • Language: English Gb


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