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Discovery of Radioactivity

Introduces the early history of nuclear chemistry.

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Generating Electricity

 Generating Electricity

Credit: Peretz Partensky
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68877611@N00/7238282472
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Approximately 45% of the electricity produced in the United States comes from generating plants powered by coal, with another 24% using natural gas. Both of these are non-renewable fuels. There is growing interest in the use of alternative sources for powering the generators, but few practical solutions. Currently, some 19% of the power plants in this country are fueled by nuclear power.

News You Can Use

  • Although radioactivity was discovered in the very late 1800s, it did not move into the applied science arena until the process of nuclear fission became known in 1939. This splitting of a radioactive atom into two smaller nuclei was accompanied by the release of neutrons. The first application of this process was the atom bomb, developed in the 1940s during World War II.
  • Credit: US government DOD and/or DOE photograph
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Little_boy.jpg
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    A model of the Little Boy atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 [Figure2]


  • After the war, interest began to develop in harnessing this energy for the generation of electricity. The first reactor used for generation of electricity became operational in 1951 and was located near Arco, Idaho. Subsequent research led to the development of power plants for the generation of electricity and for powering ships and submarines.
  • Nuclear power plants are believed by many to be the solution to our diminishing supplies of coal and natural gas. Major concerns deal with the need for large amounts of water for cooling (similar to other types of plants) and the risk of a nuclear melt-down, such as those that took place at Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania), Chernobyl (Ukraine) and the recent Japanese power plant (Fukushima) destruction due to an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
  • Watch a video at the link below to learn more about nuclear power plants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5ZB6SK88Hc

Show What You Know

Use the links below to learn more about radioactivity and energy. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What did Becquerel discover about uranium?
  2. What radioactive elements did Marie Curie and her husband discover?
  3. How is the nuclear reaction in a power plant regulated?
  4. How is radioactivity used for sterilization?
  5. What is the major environmental concern associated with the generation of electricity?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Peretz Partensky; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68877611@N00/7238282472; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: US government DOD and/or DOE photograph; Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Little_boy.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0


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