Radioactive Isotopes

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Radioactive Isotopes

Part of an Access Excellence lesson
Modified for PULSE by Christopher Martin

Edited by: Stephanie Nardei


1 class period

Preparation Time:  



Internet access


Following the introductory lesson to Chernobyl, students will explore three different isotopes that were released into the atmosphere and contaminated numerous parts of Europe. In a written essay students attempt to emphasize with those affected by these radioactive contaminates. This lesson can be done alongside the math lessons to provide students with a fuller picture.


Students will be able to do the following in a written essay:

  1. Describe an isotope and radioactive isotope

  2. Describe the health effects of the following:

  • Cesium 137,

  • Iodine 131 and

  • Strontium 90

  1. Describe how a specific country or region was affected by radioactive contamination

National Science Education Standards:
CONTENT STANDARD C: Energy sources and UseNuclear reactions release energy without the combustion products of burning fuels, but the radioactivity of fuels and by-products poses other risks, which may last for thousands of years.
Strand 3: Science in Personal and Social PerspectivesConcept 1: Changes in Environments Describe the interactions between human populations, natural hazards, and the environment.
Teacher Background

The most hazardous isotopes released in the Chernobyl incident were Cs-137, I-131, and Sr-90. These isotopes have half-lives sufficiently long to allow them to migrate into the human body or, in the case of Iodine, have the tendency to accumulate in the thyroid gland.

The plume from the burning graphite traveled in a northwest direction toward Sweden, Finland and Eastern Europe, exposing the public to levels up to 100 times the normal background radiation. A very serious concern involves the contamination of grain and dairy products from fallout. This may cause permanent internal contamination. Both Sr-90 and I-131 migrate to vital organs in the body where they are impossible to remove, serving as a source of radiation and a cause of cancer or other diseases.

Related and Resource Websites

CDC Radioactive Isotopes

Global Radiation Patterns

Chernobyl 1 PULSE Lesson Plan

PULSE Resource Page on Nuclear Radiation


  1. Ask students what caused the environmental health impacts. Direct them towards the emission of radioactive isotopes.

  2. What do they know about radioactive isotopes?

  3. Explain there were three radioactive isotopes causing many of the problems. They are going to define what an isotope is, what makes it radioactive and some of the specific features of Cesium 137, Iodine 131, and Strontium 90. Please refer to:

  4. Students then go to and look at the contamination of Iodine and Cesium radioactive isotopes in Europe.

  5. Each student should imagine themselves in a European country on May 1st, 1986. Students should write an essay about Chernobyl including how they might feel and giving specific details about the contamination of their country.

Embedded Assessment
Students’ ability to describe what an isotope is, what a radioactive isotope is, the health effects of Cesium 137, Iodine 131 and Strontium 90 and how a specific country or region was affected by radioactive contamination can be assessed in a written essay

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