Understanding Nuclear Waste

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SWBAT explain the current methods of storing nuclear waste and why the half-life of nuclear waste is important in the design of a nuclear waste facility.

Big Idea

How does the government store nuclear waste? Why does it have to be stored for thousands of years?Students learn about nuclear waste and they conduct an investigation exploring the half-life of nuclear waste.


5 minutes

This lesson is intended to be used in the unit Designing for the Future: Nuclear Waste Facility. It can be used as a stand alone lesson with some changes. 

As students begin to research nuclear waste facilities, I field many questions about nuclear energy and nuclear waste. I wrote this ancillary lesson to help students understand how nuclear waste is being stored. It also gives an important context for learning what the term half-life means.


15 minutes

I begin the lesson with an article written by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called Backgrounder on Nuclear Waste. My first strategy is a Vocabulary Dig. Students scan the reading to determine words someone may not know. I ask students to find words "someone" may not know because there are students that do not want others to know words they are unfamiliar with.

Students skim the article individually, circling words. They come together in groups of four and make of list of the words each student recorded. I collect the lists and begin to go over the words. I use social learning to help students with words on the list that some in the class may already know. These are the words in which a students says, "I've heard of that!"  

There are highly technical words I didn't know and had to look up. I model how I use Dictionary.com to look up and pronounce the words. Finally there are words the students will be using time and again in the lesson. I ask the students to write the definitions of these words in their notebooks for further reference. In this lesson the term half-life was important so we wrote it in our notebooks. I put all of the words on my word wall for future writing and speaking references. 

My next strategy is Annotating. I ask students to read the article and annotate two things. the first is to annotate information they they is interesting. I ask them to record the annotation with the symbol !!! To indicate how interested they were in the word. The other annotation is the symbol U, for useful. Is this information useful for your design. 

After the annotations, I use a strategy called Write to Learn. Using their annotations students answer two questions in a summary. I ask, "What was most interesting about this article?" and "What information in the article is useful in your design?" 

Instead of reading the individual summaries, I want to give you an idea of the passion the students have for this design project. In the movie below my students are reading their summaries. 


20 minutes

The investigation centers around understanding how elements contain nuclear energy and how that energy decays over time. In this investigation, students will investigate element half-life using M&M's. If the M&M name is up, the element is still unstable. If there is no writing on the candy, it is stable. Students record on a data table and create a graph.

My students have had background on the vocabulary but they do not fully understand half-life so I created a power point called Isotope Power Point. My intention is to give students a preview of common isotopes and how society regularly uses radioactivity in productive ways.

I show the electromagnetic spectrum and ask, "What color has the most dangerous waves of energy?" The model of the electromagnetic spectrum brings out a lot of questions from my students. We discuss the electromagnetic spectrum in the lesson Integrating Science Technology Engineering and Math and they are still curious. I stopped this lesson to use a flexible teaching approach. Although I want to go on with this lesson, I also know its important to support my students' curiosity.

The Isotope Power Point has other questions in it but it is predominately a teacher directed resource. In the Isotope Power Point there is a slide highlighting Carbon atoms. I ask students to draw carbon models because they have just had chemistry in science. I include some information about how radioactivity is used in society before they conduct the investigation.

I then launch into the Half-Life with M&M's investigation which is very well laid out for teachers. I use the Student Data Table table, graph, and questions because I like the way it was written. Here is an example of the teacher lesson plan.

Radioactive M&M’s®

Give each student 10 M&M’s® candies of any color and a zip lock bag. All of the M&M’s® candies are considered radioactive.

Have the student put the M&M’s® into the zip lock bag, seal, and shake it. Then the students spill out the candies onto a flat surface.

Instruct the students to pick up ONLY the candies with the “m” showing – these are still radioactive. The students should count the “m” candies as they return them to the bag.

Have the students record the number of candies they return to the bag under the next trial.

The students should move the candies that are blank on the top to the side – these have now decayed to a stable state.

The students should repeat steps 2 through 5 until all the candies have "decayed" or until they complete Trial 7.

Set up a place on the board where all students or groups can record their data.

The students record the results for 9 other groups in their data tables and total all the Trials for the resulting 100 candies.

Students record the M&M's,  graph the unstable M&M's, and answer reflection questions. It is a fun way for students to learn about radioactivity decay. 


10 minutes

I use the Investigation's Student Questions to assess student learning. In addition, I ask them to write how the information in the investigation can be useful for their design of a nuclear waste facility.  In my Student Samples, I've explained ways I changed the investigation to align to the student's design problem. I also had a misconception with one of the questions and I explain in the movie what I did to help students understand Question #3.