« Return to AACT homepage

AACT Member-Only Content

You have to be an AACT member to access this content, but good news: anyone can join!

Need Help?

Nuclear Waste Challenge Mark as Favorite (40 Favorites)

ACTIVITY in Radiation. Last updated March 25, 2020.


In this activity, students will design a method to transfer “radioactive” waste from a contaminated area to a proper nuclear waste disposal site from a given list of materials. Students must follow rules and constraints when designing nuclear waste disposal devices and make an effort to maximize their economic gains.

Grade Level

High School

NGSS Alignment

This activity will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into small, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
  • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • Scientific and Engineering Practices:
    • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information


By the end of this activity, students should be able to

  • Collaborate to design a solution to a complex real-world problem.
  • Understand the process of properly handling and disposing of nuclear waste.
  • Discuss the positive and negative impacts of nuclear radiation.

Chemistry Topics

This activity supports students’ understanding of

  • Radiation
  • Nuclear waste handling and disposal
  • Superfund sites
  • Medical and health impacts of radiation


Teacher Preparation: 15 minutes

Lesson: 90 minutes


(Quantities of each will vary depending on what students select to use.)

  • Masking tape
  • “Radioactive” material (Ex: ping pong balls, paper clip, small toys or figures, etc.)
  • Disposal box (Ex: empty shoe box)
  • Paper clips (box 100 count)
  • Straws (bag of 100)
  • String
  • Spoons (approximately 30-50 depending on class size)
  • Index cards (100)
  • Bag of Rubber bands
  • Popsicle sticks
  • “Nuclear disposal gear” (Ex: normal gloves, apron, googles)


  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Teacher Notes

  • Students should be divided into groups of 2 to 4 (depending on class size).
  • Nuclear radiation, handling and disposal of nuclear waste, superfund sites, and health effects of radiation can be discussed prior to the lab day, as a pre-activity discussion, or after the activity is conducted.
  • The following links are helpful websites for presenting info:
  • Activity Set-Up: Mark off a rectangular area (approximately 2 ft by 1.5 ft) using masking tape on a desk to serve as your “contaminated” waste area. Place 6 “radioactive” waste objects within the contaminated zone (example: ping pong balls, paper clip, small toy figures, etc.) Each group will be tested using the same set-up. You only need to set up one contaminated area and waste disposal site. Object selection can make the lab easier or harder depending on how difficult the object is to pick up. Ping pong balls roll and can easily be knocked out of the contaminated area which adds difficulty while other objects may be difficult to pick up depending on the nature of the object. The lab is easier when all 6 objects are the same (ex. 6 ping pong balls) compared to having 6 unique objects (each one poses a separate challenge).
  • Place an empty box (the nuclear disposal site) across the room from the contaminated area, approximately 10-15 feet way (actual distance will depend on room size). Since each group if using the same set-up, you only need one disposal site.
  • Quantities of materials needed will vary depending on student choices. It’s helpful to have excess of materials in order to manage the demand for certain materials.
  • Activity Rules and Constraints:
    • Student groups have 35 minutes to build devices to transport the contaminated items to the disposal site.
    • Students may select whatever materials they wish from the given materials list, however, every item has a cost (included in student handout). The goal of the lab is transport the radioactive items to the disposal site with the most cost effective method.
    • Student groups have a 5 minute limit to transfer the items (grade deduction for going over 5 minutes).
    • Each group will be tested individually with the other groups watching (adding pressure and fun to the lab). Groups may not continue to build or make alterations to their devices after the 35 minute window since this activity challenge is a contest and a group selected to go last would have an unfair advantage of altering their devices based on the mistakes of others. Learning from others mistakes is a valuable skill but must be avoided in this challenge to keep the grading fair.
    • The radioactive items may only be picked up using the devices made by the student.
    • The radioactive material must never touch a part of any students body (only the devices).
    • If at any time, a radioactive item is dropped, a group member must put on radioactive waste gear (normal lab googles, gloves, and apron) to pick up the item and transport it back to the contamination site at a cost of $500 per accident. Students may still use the device that was involved in the drop. They do not need to use a new device in the event of a drop.
    • The items must be transported one at a time. After a device has touched any of the contaminated items it is also considered contaminated and must be dropped into the disposal box. Meaning, each radioactive item must be picked up with a unique device. (Devices can only be used for one item then get disposed).
  • Determining the cost (2 options):
    • Honor system: Have students complete an inventory of their materials and determine their own cost.
    • Teacher lead: Students ask teacher for materials and teacher keeps records of cost.
  • Grading: Each ball successfully transported earns the group $5000. Each drop subtracts $500 from their earnings. All materials used must also be subtracted from earnings. Groups should be charge $1000 per minute for every minute they go over the 5 minute limit. Top earning group gets the highest score and subsequent groups decrease from there.
    • Note: Most groups will be able to finish the challenge very quickly. However, if a group is unable to finish, you may want a predetermined score in the event they are unable to finish.
    • Suggestion: If a group shows appropriate effort throughout the challenge and is unable to finish they will receive a score of 35 out 50.
    • Example scoring: 1 st: 50 out 50, 2nd: 47 out 50, 3rd: 45 out 50, etc.
    • Additional points can be added for post lab analysis to help groups who scored poorly in the competition.
  • Make sure students understand all rules, constraints, and grading before starting lab.

For the Student


Design devices while considering the most profitable method(s) to transfer 6 “radioactive” items from the contaminated area to the proper waste disposal unit following proper nuclear waste disposal protocol.

Available Material Choices & Cost
Tape $200 per inch
String $100 per inch
Index Card $600 per card
Spoon $1000 per spoon
Rubber band $500 per band
Popsicle stick $300 per stick
Straws $400 per straw

Rules and Constraints

  1. You may not touch the radioactive items with any part of your body; you must construct devices to pick up the items using the materials provided.
  2. The radioactive items must not leave the contaminated area (marked by tape) unless they are in the device you constructed to remove the item or they are in the waste disposal unit. If the radioactive items falls, rolls out of the contaminated area or drops during transportation a nuclear waste disposal expert in your team must put on proper nuclear waste disposal gear (goggles, gloves, apron) to pick up the item and return it to the contaminated area at a cost of $500 per accident.
  3. After the radioactive item is transported to the disposal unit, the item and the device used to transport the item are considered contaminated and must be dropped in the unit. Therefore each radioactive must be transported with a new device. You may only transport one item at a time. Each item transported earns your group $3000 (theoretical money). You are allowed to create back-up devices in the event your original devices do not succeed but you must pay for the additional item which will count against your earnings.
  4. You may use any of the materials listed. The cost of each item is given. Your goal is to design a method that earns your group the most money, since it is a competition! Therefore, please consider the cost of the items being selecting to use the items.
  5. You will have 35 minutes to build your devices. You must stop construction after the 35 minutes. Each group will be tested individually. You will have a 5 minute time limit to complete your transfers. All group members may participate in the transfers; however, only one item may be transferred at a time. The next transfer may not begin until the first transfer is complete (radioactive item and device in the disposal box). You will be charged $1000 for every minute needed past 5 minutes and $2000 for any rule violation.

Earnings Log

It is your responsibility to keep track of your cost and earnings. Use the chart below to keep track of your materials used and the total cost of the materials you purchased.

Material Quantity Cost Per Item Total Cost (Quantity x Cost per item)

You must also keep track of money gained by transferring radioactive items ($3000 each), penalties for drops ($500 per accident), late charges ($1000 per minute), and materials used (add the total for all items used).

Money Gained Accidents, Deductions & Late Charges

You must present completed earning logs to the teacher to prove your profits.

Total Earnings (show work/explanation)


Write an opinion editorial piece discussing whether the advances in nuclear chemistry have a more a positive (cancer treatment, irradiated food, power) or negative (nuclear waste, harmful radiation, weapons) impact on society. Be sure to site examples and consider opposing arguments when discussing.