Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 78, Issue 2 - October, 2018
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedSeptember 25, 2018
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 78, Issue 2 - October 2018

Search this Publication

CLASSROOM CHALLENGE: The Residential Nuclear Plan Challenge


The Next Generation Nuclear Plant will produce heat and hydrogen for industrial manufacturing as well as electricity for homes. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Think of the entire process for such an application and then consider various concerns about the steps of the process.



After dropping the atomic bombs that ended World War II, much of mankind moved towards taking “nuclear swords and beating them into plowshares,” thereby promoting peaceful uses for atomic energy. Many applications were considered, and today we use atomic energy for a wide variety of everyday things. One suggested application was a concept known as atomic boilers—the use of atomic energy for heating and cooling of residential homes as well as on-site generation of electricity.

In this application, a small atomic reactor would be installed in a home, with this reactor running on a charge of nuclear fuel that lasts perhaps five to seven years. For that time, heat and electricity would be available to the homeowner via the reactor, after which a new charge of fuel would provide electricity and heat for another five to seven years.

In today’s energy-hungry world, your class is challenged with designing how this whole process might work. As the students go through this activity, stress how they use energy today and the safety of various energy uses, such as storing the energy equivalent of 20 sticks of dynamite in home garages [car gas tanks], having natural gas delivered to homes for cooking, home and water heating, etc.

Strive for students to accomplish this design challenge objectively and not dismiss it outright because nuclear power tends to scare away rational thought.


Starting the Design Process

Have students conduct research about atomic energy and specifically how reactors work. What kind of reactor might work best for a home? Have small reactors been used before? How?

Keep in mind that about 10% of the U.S.’s total energy economy is supplied by nuclear means. Some electric utility companies use large nuclear power plants to supply as much as 40% of their customers’ electricity demands. How is this done? The key challenge here is to apply miniature nuclear reactors to one’s home—most likely in the basement or perhaps a secure and nearby underground enclosure. Nuclear reactors have been launched into space, so they can be made small. Why couldn’t they be built into a home? The reactor fuel used in both a commercial nuclear power plant and a residential application being considered would use non-weapons-grade-level fuel, which is diluted. This fuel would not be capable of being exploited for nuclear weaponry and is not easily upgraded without complex recycling technology.

Think of the entire process for such an application and then consider various concerns about the steps of the process:

•     Building a suitable space/enclosure for the reactor in the home

•     Installing the reactor and its fuel charge

•     Replacing the fuel charge every five to seven years

•     Safety and monitoring of the reactor/fuel

•     Shut-down of the reactor

•     Disposing of the fuel charge

•     Disposing of the reactor

Common sense tells us to consider that regulatory agencies at the federal and local levels would be involved heavily; but we routinely utilize regulatory agencies for other applications (e.g., city inspectors for structural, plumbing, heating, and electrical concerns). Selling a home often involves home inspections by potential buyers. Concern with lead in drinking water and other such environmental concerns can trigger regulatory activities. Oil-polluted soil, say from an abandoned heating oil storage tank near the house, would cause great concern to regulatory officials as well.

What special considerations would be necessary with a nuclear-powered home? How about the design of the basement area where the reactor and fuel would be installed? Who changes the nuclear fuel out every five to seven years? How could this be accomplished via qualified nuclear service personnel? Where might the expended fuel go after removal? How would the movement of fresh and depleted nuclear fuel around city streets be tracked and monitored?

Accidents are on the minds of people, especially if “something nuclear” is involved. How would these be addressed? Where could students learn how nuclear accidents are addressed? In the residential application, how would a common problem like a house fire complicate matters for the safety of the firefighters and the neighborhood? Have student teams comb through this unique application of atomic energy and document the kinds of scenarios that concern them.


President Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Be Objective

Residential application of atomic power can have some significant benefits as well. Don’t hesitate to address them. Think of people in homes in the aftermath of a major storm. In a self-sufficient nuclear-powered home, loss of utility-provided power is not a concern. Is a residential nuclear option valuable against storms and other natural disasters? What about tornados and earthquakes and floods?

Homeland security is another consideration if the electric energy delivery system is somehow compromised. A residential energy-generating system like an atomic boiler could be a valuable way to keep electricity flowing at the local levels. Does this help to justify atomic boilers?

This exercise is an excellent example of doing a comprehensive 360-degree look at all the aspects of a bold new way to provide energy to our homes.

Another way to look at this is to consider a nuclear submarine, where hundreds of sailors eat, sleep, and work in the vicinity of a rather large nuclear reactor.

Have fun with this challenge.


Harry T. Roman is a retired engineer/inventor and author of technology education/STEM books, math card games, and teacher resource materials. He can be reached at