Nuclear Waste Lesson for Kids: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Angela Burke

Angela has over ten years of teaching experience in Special Education, classroom teaching and GT. She has a master's degree in Special Ed with an emphasis in Gifted.

Nuclear waste lasts a long time. In this lesson, discover how nuclear waste is created, how long nuclear waste lasts, and why storing it is a big problem.

Nuclear Energy

Look around you. How many things around you use electricity? Maybe you have a light turned on, or a television, or a computer. Humans rely on electricity every day. But where does electricity come from?

One place is from nuclear plants. These plants create nuclear energy that generates about 24% of America's electricity supply. America has about 100 nuclear plants. Nuclear waste is also left over when nuclear or atomic weapons are made.

What is the price humans pay for creating this type of energy? It is nuclear waste. Let's discover more about what nuclear waste is and where it is stored.


Everything in our world is made up of atoms, which are super small. Let's compare an atom with a dime. If an atom were blown up to the size of a basketball, the dime would become as big as Earth.

Nuclear power happens when atoms are split apart. This process is called fission. Fission happens inside nuclear reactors. Many reactors are covered in a dome of concrete in case of an accident.

Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama, USA
Nuclear Plant

Nuclear power plants do not cause air pollution but the material that is left inside the nuclear reactor after fission happens is called nuclear waste.


Think about the last time you threw away a piece of paper. It takes paper about one month to decompose, or break down and decay. An apple core takes around six months. Plastic cups take 50 years to decay. So what about nuclear waste?

Believe it or not, nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to decompose. Nuclear waste is radioactive, which means the nuclei (or middle of the atoms in the waste) aren't holding together, which makes them very unstable.

Radioactive material kills cells and can cause cancer. This makes nuclear waste very dangerous to a person's health. People transporting the waste and working at the plants may risk being exposed to radioactive material. Tools, protective clothing, and other items exposed to radiation are also part of this waste.

Storage Problems

Would you want nuclear waste stored in your backyard? Most people don't. So where is nuclear waste stored?

Some of the waste is put into steel-lined dry containers and stored above the ground. High-level nuclear waste, which is the really toxic stuff, is put into stainless steel containers and buried far below the Earth's surface. Unfortunately, these containers have been known to leak.

Nuclear dry storage containers above ground

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