The primary aim of nuclear chemistry is to understand radioactive substances better and apply them to real world problems, ranging from medical treatments to dealing with waste nuclear material from power stations.
What do nuclear chemists do?
Radioactive material is very powerful but also potentially very dangerous. However, the great benefits that it offers means that it’s important to understand how it works and how we can utilise its properties to our advantage, whilst protecting ourselves from its negative effects.
The two most common uses for radioactive materials are in medicine and the production of energy. If you’re ‘fission for a new career’ (get it?) in this area, then you are likely to find yourself working for the government or a private research firm.
In the medical world, radioactive materials are used in simple procedures such as X-rays and the irradiation of items that need to be sterilised. People that work in this part of nuclear chemistry focus on research that helps to understand how radioactive materials alter living organisms – the changes in their biochemistry – which can then lead to practical developments in medical treatments, such as those used for cancer patients.
The energy sector is a key player in the nuclear chemistry world. In this environment, you might find yourself working out how to dispose of spent fuel rods, how to store them and transport them safely, how to contain potential accidents and how nuclear reactors can be best constructed to deal with the ways that the radiation will react with different surfaces and materials.
There are also industrial uses for nuclear chemistry, such as in the production of polymers. Exposing materials to radioactivity can alter an object’s properties, so further research into this area of nuclear chemistry is likely to continue for some time.
What do I need to get into nuclear chemistry?
To work in this area you will obviously need to have an interest in chemistry. The majority of research posts in this industry are graduate positions, and many people working in this profession will also have an MSc degree, or a PhD.
These careers offer the possibility of foreign travel and the chance to experience life all over the world. Alternatively, you could stay in the UK, where nuclear chemistry careers will give you lots of flexibility to develop throughout your career.
Let’s face it – you’re not going to be the next Spiderman, Incredible Hulk or Radioactive Man, and your experiments probably won’t make a real-life Godzilla. However, if you choose to become a nuclear chemist, your work will truly change the world, save lives and endow you with the intelligence not to do this.