Thirty-three students in Jamaica went back to school this fall with a lot to talk about: a five-day “Jamaica Nuclear Engineering Pilot Bootcamp,” where they learned about fission, fusion, the difference between energy and power, how advanced reactors work, and the many problems created by the reliance of Jamaica – and most of the world – on fossil fuels.
The syllabus included a tour of Jamaica’s SLOWPOKE research reactor, the only reactor in the Caribbean. Before the session, half the students did not even know that Jamaica had a nuclear reactor. (It’s for research, not power, and it’s a pool-type reactor, which meant that the students could look right down into the core, something that not many people get to see.)
The boot camp, held at the physics laboratory of St. Catherine High School, welcomed students aged 12 to 18, with a nearly equal gender balance. While the daily schedule was planned from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., eager students often extended the sessions due to their numerous questions and enthusiasm for learning. We talked about the causes of climate change and the impact, the types of energy sources, and the global electricity market.
I took on the roles of organizer and primary lecturer during the boot camp, guiding students through an extensive curriculum. We covered radioactivity and radiation, the basics of fission, neutron capture and criticality, the history of man-made reactors, different types of reactors, reactor safety, social and political challenges, fuel cycle challenges, the design of advanced reactors, and space applications. And there was a capstone assignment: the students developed proposals for a small modular reactor or microreactor for Jamaica. They had to pick a design and explain why it was best, explain how they would get the public on board, how they would recruit employees with the necessary skills, and what social and economic benefits the plant would bring. They used skits to get their message across, and competed for which team could make the best pitch.
The timing was good. Just days before the bootcamp, Jamaica set a new record for energy demand – 692 megawatts. Jamaicans are using more fans and now more air conditioners to beat the heat. This trend will continue, and we should not be meeting it by burning more and more coal and oil, which are dirty and expensive.
Our goal was long term, to encourage the students’ interest in science and especially nuclear science, and to nudge them toward studying these subjects when they go to a university. My personal goal was to do for them what a teacher did for me 20 years ago: spark my interest in carbon-free, reliable nuclear energy.
And we saw immediate results. When we began, 85 percent of the students said that the most reliable source of energy was renewables; by midweek, 100 percent said it was nuclear. They understood that most of Jamaica’s energy comes from fossil fuels, that very little comes from renewables. And they agreed that it’s difficult to run a reliable system on renewables alone, as a full replacement for fossil fuels, because wind and sun are intermittent; nuclear, in contrast, is highly reliable.
Jamaica has a particularly fragile energy system; it is vulnerable to changes in the prices of imported fuel, and to passing hurricanes. And, like the rest of the world, it faces a tremendous task in decarbonizing its energy system, especially as rising prosperity brings rising demand. Nuclear energy will be a large part of the solution. Wherever it is used, it will require local talent to build and operate, and our bootcamp was a first step in that direction.
The students’ reaction was generally positive. They agreed that nuclear energy would be cleaner, safer, and less expensive than what they have now. Most said that they would consider nuclear engineering as a career path, although they would have to leave the country to do it. But among the teenage participants, not everybody gave a favorable reaction. We asked all of them if they would recommend the bootcamp to others, and one replied: “Mi fren dem too lazy fi dem ting ya,” which means, “My friends are too lazy for this kind of thing.”