Radioactivity and Energy

Contributor: Hannah Brooks. Lesson ID: 12496

You flip a switch and electricity immediately shows up! Where does that electricity come from? It is generated somewhere. One option is nuclear power plants that harness the power of those tiny atoms!



learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


What forms of energy do you use to heat your home?

Your home is probably powered by several energy sources working together.

Energy resources include fossil fuels, solar, hydropower, wind, geothermal, and nuclear power. Every type of energy resource has advantages and disadvantages, requiring the consumer and community to consider which energy resource is the best fit.

Before continuing, if you skipped or need to review the seven previous Radioactivity Related Lessons, find them in the right-hand sidebar.

Nuclear energy is generated by using radioactive elements in a controlled environment. It produces close to 20% of all electricity in the United States (as of 2017). There are around 100 nuclear reactors in the United States working to produce energy from radioactive elements.

Nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to produce energy. Fission was discovered using the work from Enrico Fermi, Otto Han, and Fritz Strassman. Fermi outlined that using neutrons to hit an atom would result in a lighter material. Han and Strassman detailed nuclear fission in 1938, when they discovered that as the atom became lighter, it also gave off energy. This laid the groundwork for nuclear energy powered by fission.

Fission occurs when large atoms are split apart. Neutrons are shot at the atom to break it apart, which causes a chain reaction of atomic break down.

  • What do you notice about the image above?
  • How are the atoms moving apart?

As the atoms split, they release a large amount of energy that can generate heat. The heat is used to generate steam from water. Steam can be used to create electricity that is able to power homes and businesses.

Radioactive elements like uranium and polonium are used to create energy from nuclear fission because they are large elements and able to be mined on Earth's surface. Larger elements have longer lives because there is more to decay! Check out the color of uranium in the image below!

Since nuclear power plants can run all day, the fuel eventually runs out. Nuclear fuel cells are replaced every year or so. This ensures that the power plant can continue running and producing energy.

Nuclear power plants use a controlled process called fission to generate electricity. Atoms of heavy radioactive elements are bombarded with neutrons, causing the atoms to split apart and release energy. The energy is used to heat water to steam. Steam can then be used to generate power that can be easily distributed.

In the Got It? section, you will discover how nuclear reactors generate electricity.

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