How Clean is Nuclear Energy? An Evaluation of the Environmental Impacts of Nuclear Power as an Alternative Energy Source

Joyce Dinglasan-Panlilio, University of Washington Tacoma

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


The search for alternative sources of energy is a primary environmental issue worldwide. This activity describes a writing assignment that incorporates critical ideas such as the need for alternative energy sources, fundamental principles of nuclear energy as well as the advantages and disadvantages of this energy source when compared to fossil fuels. This assignment is in lieu of a laboratory activity during the discussion of nuclear chemistry within the general chemistry curriculum.

Learning Goals

Learning Outcomes for the Assignment

  • Students will be exposed to an important and controversial environmental issue
  • Students will learn to apply fundamental principles of nuclear chemistry to real life topics such as nuclear energy and how nuclear power plants work.
  • Students will learn to find information relating to nuclear energy from various sources
  • Students will identify advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy as an alternate energy source (keeping the scope to within the discussion of environmental impacts and not cost)
  • Students will gain experience writing an argumentative paper
  • Students will gain practice in synthesizing information and concepts gained from other aspects of the general chemistry curriculum to support their arguments.

Context for Use

This assignment can be incorporated in courses where the topic of nuclear chemistry is discussed. It is an appropriate activity for inclusion the general chemistry curriculum, for an environmental chemistry course or any course that discusses energy. Often, nuclear chemistry concepts are discussed in one or two lectures with nuclear energy often not being discussed in great detail due to time constraints in the course. This assignment will allow students to do independent research on the topic. Students will also be required to synthesize and integrate several chemistry concepts that they have learned previously. This activity is a practical application of concepts learned in the classroom to real life issues. Finally, this activity allows students to practice their writing skills within a core introductory science course.


This activity should be introduced after the main principles of nuclear energy have been covered in class to give students ample background on the topic. Ideally, students should be given at least one week to complete the assignment. If it is to be used in lieu of a laboratory activity, students may be given time during the usual laboratory schedule to do their research. If this assignment is incorporated in a first year class, it is an ideal activity for students to be introduced to the library staff in your institution. Instructors can get the library staff involved and have a representative come to your class to assist students in researching various sources for the assignment.

Possible Use in Other Courses

This activity is transferable to non-chemistry based courses. It is an ideal activity for any environmental issues class or any course with a focus on energy. The concept of allowing students to compare the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power to fossil fuels or other alternative energy sources can be made without the direct application of the fundamental chemistry principles that this activity recommends if used in the context of a general chemistry course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Recommended Lead In Activities to the Assignment

  • Lecture(s), class discussion(s) and problem set on the topic of reaction kinetics and radioactive decay.
  • Lecture(s) and class discussion on nuclear chemistry and how nuclear power plant works

Description of Writing Assignment

This can be given in lieu of a laboratory activity as the class covers the topic of nuclear chemistry. Students are asked to compare the environmental impacts associated with fossil fuels and nuclear power plants. The assignment is designed to be an argumentative piece where students need to provide evidence to support the arguments that they will make. Some guided questions and hints are included in the assignment to help students complete a comprehensive analysis of the issue. In the assignment, students are guided for a thorough examination of the issue of waste. A theoretical/hypothetical calculation of "amount" of waste produced for both energy sources is required from the students. This allows students to apply their knowledge of "nuclear decay" and carbon dioxide emissions in making their arguments.

An Argumentative Writing Assignment (Microsoft Word 137kB Oct31 11)
Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 40kB Oct31 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is highly recommended that a copy of the grading rubric be given to students ahead of time in order to outline clearly expectations for the assignment.

Possible variations or extensions to the activity:

This argumentative writing assignment can be extended into a debate format where students are divided into two groups one supporting and the other against nuclear power. Students should be given ample time to research their side of the argument in preparation for the debate. The debate should be moderated by the course instructor or alternatively by another faculty member. Students should be given rules of the debate such as who will speak first, how long each response should be and how long the debate as a whole should take.

Alternatively, the concept of this assignment can be altered to be a group work where the students are divided into different groups and assigned to be certain stakeholders relating to the issue of alternative energy source. Examples of potential stakeholders are: Government Agency (Environmental Protection Act), nuclear power company, electric company that relies heavily on fossil fuels, consumer groups and environmental activist group. The culmination of the activity could be a town hall meeting where stakeholders will present their sides of the issue. This version of the activity will require preparation time similar to that of the debate format suggested above.


Student product will be evaluated on several criteria: introduction, thesis, counterarguments, structure and organization, supporting information, conclusion, references, and length of paper.

A sample rubric is included in the supporting documents to this teaching and learning activity.

References and Resources