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Grades 9-12
Overview:
In this lesson, students will learn how to analyze the problems surrounding nuclear waste . They will compare and contrast low- and high-level nuclear waste, and make decisions concerning how to dispose of low-level nuclear waste.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, current events, environmental science, history
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 18: "How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future"
Time:
Two to three hours

Materials Required:
Objectives:
Students will
  • learn what radioactive waste is;
  • learn the impacts that a nuclear waste depository could have on a geographical region;
  • explore how their local community manages low-level nuclear waste (if applicable);
  • examine the decisions that go into choosing a region for a nuclear waste repository; and
  • think about the future implications of storing nuclear waste.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Opening:
Ask students to suggest a number of ways that electricity is produced around the world and to write them on the board.

Ask them what they think is the most economical way to produce electricity and why.

Share background on nuclear power in the United States with your students: Nuclear energy provides the United States with about 20 percent of its electricity. Within the U.S., there are more than 100 nuclear power plants in operation. Nuclear energy generates both high- and low-level radioactive waste that must be stored.

Development:
Divide students into pairs. Assign each pair the task of researching (in the library and/or on the Internet) the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy. The following Web sites should help them begin their research:

National Geographic Magazine: Half Life—The Lethal Legacy of America's Nuclear Waste
National Geographic News: Idaho, U.S. Battle Over Nuclear Waste Dump
National Geographic News: Web Map Shows Nuclear Waste Shipping Routes
The Nuclear Energy Institute
Public Citizen: Nuclear Waste Index
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Have students answer the following questions:

  • What is the per-person demand for energy, specifically electricity, in the United States today? If you live outside the U.S., how does this demand (on a per-person basis) compare to the demand in your own country?
  • Are there alternatives to nuclear power that are as effective at generating electricity?
  • Do the citizens of the United States need more electricity than they already have, or than citizens of other countries?
  • How does the cost of nuclear power compare with that of other energy sources?
In this lesson, students will focus on low-level waste. Students should answer the following questions:
  • What is low-level waste?
  • Where does low-level waste come from?
  • What is the role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in dealing with radioactive waste in the United States?
  • How hazardous is low-level waste?
  • How and where is low-level waste stored?
  • What is the difference between low- and high-level radioactive waste?

Closing:
What do students think about low- versus high-level waste? How should they be addressed differently by governments and environmentalists?
Suggested Student Assessment:
Ask student pairs to decide whether their state or country is suitable for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste. If they say it is not, they then must select and justify another location.

Using a map, students should diagram any proposed site, showing the physical and cultural features of the landscape that might support their decision.

Have student pairs design nuclear depository plans and present them to the class, along with their maps. Encourage students to ask each other questions about how they developed their plans.

Student plans for nuclear waste disposal must meet the minimum requirements set by government agencies, so make sure students address this issue in their plans.

Extending the Lesson:
Have students call local hospitals (hospitals also generate low-level radioactive waste) and inquire as to where the hospitals' radioactive waste is sent for disposal.

Aaron Doering of Century High School in Rochester, Minnesota, contributed classroom ideas for Standard 18.

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