The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy

By Beckrich, Amanda | The Science Teacher, March 2013 | Go to article overview

The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy


Beckrich, Amanda, The Science Teacher


March 2013, Making Your Teaching More Environmentally Friendly

Most power plants today burn coal, oil, or natural gas to heat water into steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity. An alternative to burning these fossil fuels is nuclear energy. Nothing is burned to create nuclear energy, so no harmful emissions vent into the atmosphere. Nuclear power comes from nuclear fission in which atomic nuclei are split to release energy. According to the Department of Energy, nuclear energy accounts for about 20% of our electricity production (see "On the web"). For more on the subject, see the students' corner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's website and peruse images of a nuclear power plant on the How Stuff Works website (see "On the web").

Nuclear energy has its drawbacks. As the fuel (fissionable uranium, [.sup.235]U) in the rods of a typical nuclear reactor decays, the concentrations of other dangerous radioisotopes rises (Botkin and Keller 2011). Long-term storage of these radioactive waste products, including isotopes of plutonium, iodine, and strontium, is a main concern with nuclear energy, as is safe operation of nuclear power plants. This came into sharp focus in 2011, when a tsunami disabled the cooling systems of three nuclear reactors in Japan, causing their cores to melt, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere and ocean. Although no deaths or cases of radiation sickness have been reported, over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a precaution. Updates on the Fukushima Daiichi accident are available from the World Nuclear Association (see "On the web").

Classroom activities

Nuclear energy--incorporating physics, chemistry, biology, and environmental science--is a great topic for all high school science classrooms. The U.S. Department of Energy's Teachers' Lounge offers plenty of activities (see "On the web"). The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides six classroom activities ranging from having students determine different items' radioactivity using a Geiger counter to identifying/labeling the parts of a nuclear reactor (see "On the web"). The Environmental Literacy Council and NSTA created a resource with activities about radiation and radioactive waste basics (Environmental Literacy Council and NSTA 2007). Finally, from the National Energy Education Development (NEED) project comes the fabulous resource Energy From Uranium and Exploring Nuclear Energy. …

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