Education Standards

Nuclear Chemistry Unit

Nuclear Chemistry Unit


This unit delves into the fundamental science and historical contexts to help students explore the question "How can knowledge gained from the Manhattan Project and the Hanford Site contribute using nuclear technologies to positively impact humanity in the future?."

Nuclear Chemistry is a great capstone unit for a standard high school chemistry course in that it is fantastic opportunity for students to explore the crossroads between scientific knowledge and the societal implications of new discoveries. Students will have the opportunity to Delve deep into the science standards while also connecting their learning to what it means for us as a global society.

Front Material

Unit at a glance, standards, etc.

Lesson 1: Images of Nuclear Technology

The purpose of this lesson is to encourage student conversations around some intriguing images associated with nuclear processes. The images chosen should be familiar enough for most students to have at least a vague association with the general theme. Additionally, students are likely to identify that the images are themed around the release of energy.

Lesson 2: The Manhattan Project

We read a letter that Einstein wrote in 1939 to President Roosevelt, which spoke of uranium as a potentially important source of energy. He spoke specifically of the potential for using uranium to create  “a nuclear chain reaction” that could be used in a bomb. He warned that the Germans were restricting the sale of uranium, which suggested they knew about its potential, too. We build a noticing and wondering chart to capture some of our thinking.

We are introduced to a group of chemists and physicists in the early and mid- 20th century who all worked with a few elements that are radioactive, and that can help us understand part of the context of this letter, particularly about the scientific developments he is describing. We notice that some of them were recognized for their accomplishments with Nobel Prizes, but scientists of color were not; they worked in segregated labs too. We also notice that we’re familiar with only a couple of names as a class. We are introduced to some names of people who played strategic roles in the Manhattan Project and selected Hanford as a site. We try to put together a timeline of events.

Einstein’s letter was effective in its purpose: it helped convince the President to start a massive project, called the Manhattan Project, that would build a nuclear weapon. A nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, that used an amount of uranium the size of a milk jug. The bomb destroyed the city completely.

After Einstein’s letter, we are introduced to a variety of “postcard” communications from a variety of people who played a role in the selection of Hanford as a plutonium enrichment site or had connections to daily life in the Hanford area. We create a timeline as well as a noticings and wondering board for the postcards too.

Lesson 3: Radiation: How Exposed are We?

We read about Marie Curie’s work and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. We learn that the power plant there was no longer able to control the fission reactions and radiation was released into the air. There were a bunch of materials found (cesium, strontium) that are radioactive. How can that be? Radiation got into the water and the soil, but it was radiation in the air that was most worrisome to people. Since it was the radiation in the air that was scaring everyone, we decided that we need to know what radiation is and why people are scared of it. We also notice that Marie Curie and Carolyn Parker died of a condition related to radiation.

Lesson 4: Types of Radiation

Students start off by playing a board game where they will interact with cards that have examples of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation along with fission and fusion. Students will then look at some mathematical equations of decay and try to see patterns in the mass and proton numbers to discover what is happening. Students will watch a video to help them understand what is happening to the nucleus of an atom in each type of decay and then be given a sample equation where they will have to research what type of radiation it is and draw a simple model to share with the class.

Lesson 5: Band of Stability

We learn what a nucleus is made of and how these forces change as neutrons and/or protons are added to the nucleus, and it gets bigger to determine if a nucleus is stable or unstable.  We determine an ideal ratio of protons to neutrons and graph this and later use the graph to predict the type of decay based on the make-up of the nucleus.

Lesson 6: Half-Life

Students will take a stand on how they feel about visiting a nuclear disaster site to assess when students think radioactive material is “safe” to be around. They will then read some supplementary articles to provide some context. Students will follow this up by completing an investigation to mathematically model how we can predict how long it will take for nuclear material to become safe.

Based on our discussion, we figure out that we need to know what this half-life thing is so that we know how long the nuclear material will be dangerous. This simulation provides a simple example of the rate at which a radioactive isotope decays. This investigation demonstrates that half of the nuclear material will “decay” in a certain amount of time to a more stable element. Then this element will also decay into the most stable element in a different amount of time.

Lesson 7: Useful Radiation

Students will be given a choice of topics to research and prepare a short presentation on regarding applications of nuclear technology.

Lesson 8: Fueling the Future

Students will watch a video that cites the need for looking into new sources of energy due to increased demand and increased CO2 emissions. Students will analyze multiple graphs and graphics in order to address some of the criteria and concerns that came up regarding choosing a new source of energy. They will ask questions and evaluate the impact of several energy sources.  The goal is not to necessarily convince students that nuclear is best, but for students to see a transition away from relying so heavily on fossil fuels. 

Lesson 9: Fission

We are concerned about the waste produced during nuclear reactions and by nuclear facilities. We need to find out if the amount of energy created in these facilities is worth the risk of the costly and difficult disposal of the waste products.  Einstein mentioned a “nuclear chain reaction” in his letter. He mentions that vast amounts of power can be created as well as new elements generated. We will dig into this by investigating what is happening during fission and how it can lead to a chain reaction and the production of energy. We need to determine how this energy generated compares to the drawbacks of waste management. We will investigate how this chain reaction might look different for a reactor vs a nuclear bomb. 

Lesson 10: Fusion

We come back to Einstein’s letter.  We remember that Einstein also spoke of energy that could be produced from uranium, and we learn that in 1951, just six years after the end of World War 2, the first nuclear reactor came online. Again, a very small amount of uranium can be used to power a whole city. As a source of fuel, it’s much more powerful per amount than coal or gas, which are fossil fuels.  We learn that 20% of all renewable energy currently comes from nuclear reactors. We learn Einstein was skeptical of nuclear power, too, though, and we wonder why!  

Things we recall:

  • What do we recall about the benefits of using fission for energy? 
  • What have we learned about the downsides or dangers? 
  • What are we wondering now? 

Scientists continue to look for ways to generate energy. Fusion releases massive amounts of energy by combining two smaller elements to make a larger element while releasing massive amounts of energy.  However, we haven’t figured out how to safely initiate and control fusion reactions or fully recreate the conditions on Earth.  The lesson will guide students through the process of fusion using 4 articles as a guide. Students will complete a “jigsaw” activity where they will read one article, becoming the expert, and then share their learning with other students who read a different article.

Lesson 11: Waste Management

We now know that nuclear waste continues to decay long after it is no longer used in a nuclear reactor, and that to use nuclear energy, we need a safe place to store it. 

We watch some short videos about current short-term nuclear waste storage and considerations for long-term storage.

We read several articles in a jigsaw activity. We learn about Yucca Mountain, reasons it should and should not house permanent nuclear waste storage, and potential impacts on people and communities. 

We then take some time to evaluate current storage methods to decide: 

  • Do we think it will last for a very long time? 
  • What possible issues could arise in terms of natural disasters or human actions that could disturb the waste? 
  • Can we monitor or secure waste for the entire time it is dangerous? 
  • Whose voices should be considered when making these decisions? 

From the videos and readings we learn that we need: 

  • a way to communicate with future generation/civilizations about the dangers of nuclear waste
  • There are difficulties in securely storing waste for that long--natural disasters, societal collapse, and human activities like mining that could disturb sites where waste is stored.
  • If we continue using nuclear power we need to update facilities or build new ones  to be more efficient so they produce less waste 
  • A containment vessel that will contain the dangerous byproducts (alpha, beta, gamma)

We summarize what we think we’ve figured out from this set of activities:

Lesson 12: Looking Back

Students will use an opinion line to explore their own understandings and opinions compared to their classmates in regard to the use of nuclear technologies. Students will then explore some quotes from scientists regarding the complexity of scientific and societal issues and the ethics that are involved in science. Students will choose one or two quotes to study and develop an original fictitious dialogue between scientists or create a social media post as they play the role of a scientist grappling with the ethical dilemmas of being involved in the Manhattan Project and/or developing and decision making regarding nuclear technologies.

Lesson 13: Modern Nuclear Reactors

Students will first watch a video to review fission & fusion. Then, students will apply their knowledge of fission and fusion as they engage in a “Four Corners” activity, voting with their feet as they compare fission and fusion. Next, students will assume the role of nuclear engineers tasked with recommending a nuclear reactor design for a specific purpose/scenario. Each engineering team will present their scenario, answer research questions, and make a recommendation for a specific reactor type. 


Links and credit to appropriate institutions.