Nuclear Energy - Is it a Friend or Foe?

You can provide your students with content knowledge and hone critical thinking skills with these timely lesson plans on nuclear energy.

By Jennifer Sinsel

Nuclear Energy Activities and Lessons

In March of 2011, the country of Japan experienced one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, resulting in a tsunami that devastated the coastal region. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese people have been displaced, with more than 18,000 listed as dead or missing. To add to this tragedy, one of the nuclear plants that supplies power to many citizens, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, was damaged and is currently experiencing radiation leaks. 

By now, most students have heard about this devastating natural disaster, and many have questions about how radiation from the power plant explosion will affect people in Japan. In order to better understand this issue, students must first understand the need for forms of renewable energy. In the lesson called Renewable Energy(found below), students are given an overview of various types of energy, including coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear. Small groups can discuss the pros and cons of different types of energy, and students can brainstorm cost, environmental impact, and other factors associated with each type.

Nuclear power is produced through a process called fission, which involves splitting an atom into two pieces, producing energy and two new atoms of different masses. Nuclear power plants use uranium as a fuel source. One pound of enriched uranium has the same amount of energy as a million gallons of gasoline, and nuclear power plants use the power stored in the nuclei of uranium atoms to make electricity. When fission occurs, it releases a lot of energy as well as other small particles (called neutrons), which then go out and split other uranium atoms — creating a chain reaction.

To illustrate this process, teams can model the splitting of atoms with clay by finding the mass of an “atom” of uranium (clay ball). One student should randomly stab a straw into the ball, which will mark where the atom should be separated and formed into two new balls. Ask teams to remove the small amount of clay left inside the straw, find its mass, and determine the mass of each of the new atoms. Discussion questions might include:

  • What did the original ball of clay and the two new pieces of clay represent? (the original atom and the two new atoms formed after fission)
  • Are the masses of the two new atoms the same?  Why or why not?
  • What does the clay inside the straw represent? (neutron particles and energy)

Nuclear energy is fairly “clean,” meaning it doesn’t produce many emissions that pollute the environment, which makes it attractive as a power source. However, nuclear power plants do produce waste products that take thousands of years to break down. Because of this, finding a place to store this waste is a huge problem. In addition, there are major health and environmental risks in cases of leaks or a meltdown, which is what Japan has experienced since the recent earthquake and tsunami. Teachers can get students debating the pros and cons of nuclear power using the lesson plan, What’s Wrong with Nuclear Power, Anyway? For more ideas involving energy and nuclear power, you can try one of the following lesson plans.

Nuclear Energy Lesson Plans:

Renewable Energy

Students learn about various types of energy including nuclear, coal, solar and electric. They debate the pros and cons of the use of each type of energy.

The Energy Crisis 

Students analyze the status of the energy crisis around the world. They learn introductory vocabulary, then research the way science and political science come together under OPEC.

Powering Smallsburg 

Students become power engineers for an imaginary town, and are tasked with figuring out which types of power plants to build based on budget, demand, and emissions.

Oh Where, Oh Where, Can My Industry Be? 

Students observe multiple ecosystems around Florida using webcams, then decide which place to build a nuclear power site on.


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Jennifer Sinsel