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Mars Earth Space Science

Rover Fuel Came From Russian Nuke Factory, But Supplies Running Low 139

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the bombs-into-probes dept.
gbrumfiel writes "The Curiosity rover will soon start rolling, and when it does, it will be running on gas from a Russian weapons plant. Slate has the story of how the plutonium-238 that powers the rover came from Mayak, a Soviet-era bomb factory. Mayak made the fuel through reprocessing, a chemical process used to make nuclear warheads that also polluted the surrounding environment. After the cold war ended, the Russians sold the spare Pu-238 to NASA, which put some of it into Curiosity. Now, the Russian supply is running low and NASA hopes to restart Pu-238 production on U.S. soil (They're planning on making less of a mess this time)." One interesting way of dealing with nuclear waste: reprocess fuel a few times, extracting Pu-238 and friends (those pesky "have to keep waste sealed forever to prevent hyper-squirrels in the year 3,001,000 from being irradiated" elements) and launching an army of deep space probes. But then there's the waste stream from reprocessing...
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Rover Fuel Came From Russian Nuke Factory, But Supplies Running Low

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  • Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThePeices (635180) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:55PM (#41062013)

    Good. Nice to see plutonium used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Good. Nice to see plutonium used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons.

      In other news, /. anti-nuke nuts discover MOX fuel [wikipedia.org] and that reactors like CANDU [wikipedia.org] can use it as a fuel source.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Read the entire PDF
      "...and other national security concerns."

      This doesn't directly imply they would use it to make nuclear weapons, or something else (nuclear powered drones?) But the reason they want to make the Pu238 in the US is so that they aren't relying on Russia.

      • Re:Good (Score:5, Informative)

        by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @05:00AM (#41065573) Journal

        or something else (nuclear powered drones?)

        Pretty much not. PU238 puts otu a lot of heat and a lot of alpha particles. It's neither fissile nor fissionable. It does produce about 500W/kG of power, in the form of heat, which is not all that much for an aircraft.

        Regular old Uranium or Plutonium is what you want for a nuclear powered drone [wikipedia.org].

      • Re:Good (Score:5, Informative)

        by nojayuk (567177) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @06:51AM (#41066027)

        The US DoD uses Pu238 "batteries" in stealthy spacecraft, spysats without large solar panels that would otherwise be easily tracked using ground-based telescopes and radars. Another use for such power sources is seabed listening stations used to monitor submarine and surface-ship movements in "areas of interest".

        Pu-238 is made in specialised isotope-producing reactors. It's not extracted by reprocessing regular spent nuclear fuel from power-station reactors as it would be impossible to separate the Pu-238 out from the large quantities of other Pu isotopes bred from U-238 during regular operation. Those isotope-production reactors have been getting shut down in the US, Canada and elsewhere over the past couple of decades due to age, more restrictive licencing regulations and occasionally by celebrity-powered publicity campaigns. The ex-Soviet isotope reactor fleet is about the only regular source of such material operational today hence the national-security aspect -- the Russians are not that keen to make it easier for the DoD to spy on them by supplying them with lots of Pu-238.

    • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:57PM (#41062699)

      Idaho National Laboratory actually commented on the Slate piece, saying:

      It was disappointing to read Mr. Brumfiel's article. The Curiosity mission represents everything that is great about American ingenuity and engineering. For months, we've hosted a public website that explains via a virtual tour and factsheets how the nuclear battery was developed, fueled, tested and delivered. The website is available at http://www.inl.gov/marsrover [inl.gov].

    • Re:Good (Score:5, Funny)

      by Darinbob (1142669) on Monday August 20, 2012 @09:12PM (#41062861)

      We should have declared Mars a nuclear free zone when we had the chance!

    • Look like someone failed in physics/chemistry:
      [Pu238] is a heat source in radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which are used to power some spacecraft.
      Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium [wikipedia.org]

      [Pu239] can sustain a nuclear chain reaction, leading to applications in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.

    • Re:Good (Score:5, Interesting)

      by onyxruby (118189) <onyxruby AT comcast DOT net> on Monday August 20, 2012 @10:57PM (#41063771)

      Considering nuclear weapons gave us MAD which gave us a period of relative calm that didn't involve something called WW3 I'm inclined to call your comment hyperbole.

      • ... that didn't involve something called WW3...

        Yet. The book is still open on that one.

        • by onyxruby (118189)

          I believe that is the point. Without nuclear weapons WW3 would HG Ave been fought between the west and eastern blocs decades ago. Going by the death counts from the previous world wars and their use of weapons of mass destruction WW3 would have had a body count in the tens of millions, possibly 100 plus million. Like them or not nuclear weapons have done more for peace than anything else in history. There's good reason they used to call them 'peacemakers'.

          • Just because we haven't had a global scale war since the nuclear bomb went off doesn't mean that nukes are the reason we haven't. It's just a tiger repellant rock [criticalthinking.org.uk]. There has been, and continue to be, plenty of conflicts in the world. It's just that none of them have escallated to world war status.
            • by onyxruby (118189)

              That rock can't stop armies from taking over nations in systematic order. At the end of WW2 the Russians systematically took over one eastern European nation after another in rapid succession because there was nothing to stop them. The same thing started to happen in Asia in rapid order as well.

              The only thing that stopped those armies was the threat of nuclear weapons. Read up on your history and you'll see we had a death toll from Communism of about 100 million last century. Conventional army's with conven

    • Re:Good (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Monday August 20, 2012 @11:05PM (#41063825) Homepage

      Good. Nice to see plutonium used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons.

      That's like saying "Good. Nice to see aluminum used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons". It's not insightful, it's ludicrous - the isotope of Plutonium used in RTG's is useless for bombs, and the isotope used in bombs is useless for RTG's.

    • by iiiears (987462)

      "Atoms for Peace" /um, never mind.

  • by CajunArson (465943) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:56PM (#41062019) Journal

    As part of the pseudo-environmentalist lead scare campaign against nuclear power you always hear about things that will supposedly be radioactive for ONE MILLION years (thank you Dr. Evil).

    Well, those ONE MILLION year radioactive elements won't power an RTG because they decay so slowly that the rate of heat production would hardly be measurable even with sensitive test equipment. You could use a lump of that stuff as a paper weight and as long as you didn't eat/drink/breath it then you would never have any negative health effects from it.

    The real issue with radioactive material is from materials like cesium and strontium that are pretty radioactive and have mid-range half-lives of ~30 years or so. Not a real issue for long-term storage since they will be pretty much gone in 1000 years, but not something you want spread around the environment ala Chernobyl, which, BTW, is coming up on its first half-life anniversary for the nastier elements.

    • by Ruie (30480)

      As part of the pseudo-environmentalist lead scare campaign against nuclear power you always hear about things that will supposedly be radioactive for ONE MILLION years (thank you Dr. Evil).

      Well, those ONE MILLION year radioactive elements won't power an RTG because they decay so slowly that the rate of heat production would hardly be measurable even with sensitive test equipment. You could use a lump of that stuff as a paper weight and as long as you didn't eat/drink/breath it then you would never have any negative health effects from it.

      The real issue with radioactive material is from materials like cesium and strontium that are pretty radioactive and have mid-range half-lives of ~30 years or so. Not a real issue for long-term storage since they will be pretty much gone in 1000 years, but not something you want spread around the environment ala Chernobyl, which, BTW, is coming up on its first half-life anniversary for the nastier elements.

      This not quite right. A half life of 1 million years is only ~10000 times longer than Pu-238, which glows red hot in air. So to measure heat production you could simply use a large quantity of long lived isotope, (say 100x as much) and insulate it better, such as by enclosing in Dewar flask.

      Of course, for a space mission you'd want to minimize the weight.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      You could use a lump of that stuff as a paper weight and as long as you didn't eat/drink/breath it then you would never have any negative health effects from it.

      Yes, it's perfectly safe as long as it doesn't leak into the water supply. Welcome to the nuclear power debate.

    • by tp1024 (2409684) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @10:25AM (#41067819)

      Actually, it will be radioactive for millions of years

      Pu-238 decays into U-234, which has a half life of about a quarter million of years (subsequent isotopes are shorter lived). But still, its radioactivity drops by a factor 3000 to one tenth that of pure Pu-239. U-234 is a natural isotope that is the result of the decay of U-238 (to Thorium-234, which decays in two steps to U-234) - there's plenty of that around on earth, it decays (among other isotopes) into each of the well known isotopes Radium-226, Radon-222, Polonium-210 and eventually stable Lead-206 ( Uranium decay is the original source of almost all the lead we have on earth today).

      All of which we deal with on a daily basis without panicking or evacuating huge areas - even though places like Cornwall are sufficiently "contaminated" with all of those by nature, that they would have to have been evacuated, if the criteria of post-Chernobyl evacuations had to be met all over the world. However, increased cancer rates, Mutants, Zombies and Gozilla are noticably absent from over 1000 years of historical records of Cornwall.

    • Chemical poisons such as mercury and cadmium stay toxic forever. We handle them industrially without wrecking the world. Nuclear waste is a smaller issue than chemical industry waste.

      Perfect example of your point: bismuth. It has a half life in the quadrillions of years. Pepto-Bismol users swallow it.

  • One interesting way of dealing with nuclear waste: reprocess fuel a few times, extracting Pu-238 and friends (those pesky "have to keep waste sealed forever to prevent hyper-squirrels in the year 3,001,000 from being irradiated" elements) and launching an army of deep space probes. But then there's the waste stream from reprocessing...

    Of course, the problem with that proposal is that spacecraft don't always end up where you want them, and sometimes crash back to earth and leave a widespread flaming pile of debris that can spread the plutonium over large areas.

  • It's too bad that Iran will never be given the chance for developing nuclear technology with their thriving scientific endeavors and their new space program.

  • Maybe future NASA projects should use Pu-36 instead. Marvin could point out the plentiful mines and Curiosity could extract it. Although since Curiosity is a roving lab maybe it could process it into Pu-238.

  • The metal is the same no matter where it came from, so the parts about Soviet era bomb factories and pollution are interesting mostly because those days are behind us. We know how to do it right now, no reason not to.
    • by slew (2918)

      Why not reprocess? People (rightly or wrongly) are concerned with nuclear proliferation...

      • by EuNao (1653733)
        One of the things that people don't realize is that plutonium from long running reactors is of an isotopic mix that is very poor for nuclear weapons. Mostly the bad thing that reprocessing has going for it is that the same equipment and process can be used to separate uranium that has been irradiated for a much shorter period of time (and that has a much more favorable isotopic composition.) Reprocessing spent fuel is just good policy. We are quite literally throwing away the baby with the bathwater righ
        • by Creepy (93888)

          People are taught that any radiation is bad, and then they go out and get a suntan, bathing in alpha and beta radiation, and maybe get a radiation burn... er, sunburn, make food on their radioactive granite countertops, etc. Most radiation that people absorb is, in fact, radon gas that comes up naturally from the ground. If you want a huge argument against fracking for oil, that itself releases massive amounts of radon gas, which has a relatively short half life (two weeks or so for the more stable isotopes

      • by AK Marc (707885)
        Even North Korea has nukes now, so I think proliferation is less of a worry now than before. Though the warmongers in the US seem to think that we need more when it happens.
  • Tehran announced that it intends to not only beat India to Mars, but it will top them as well by retrieving "mineral samples" of "intense national interest" and bringing them back to Earth for "study."
  • Homer time (Score:5, Funny)

    by Zaelath (2588189) on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:22PM (#41062315)

    Homer: [reading screen] "To Start Press Any Key". Where's the ANY key?
                    I see Esk ["ESC"], Catarl ["CTRL"], and Pig-Up ["PGUP"]. There
                    doesn't seem to be any ANY key. Woo! All this computer hacking
                    is making me thirsty. I think I'll order a TAB. [presses TAB
                    key] Awp...no time for that now, the computer's starting.
                      [reading screen slowly] "Check core temperature, yes slash no."
                    [types] Yes.
                    "Core temperature normal." Hmph. Not too shabby.
                    "Vent radioactive gas." [types] NO.
                    "Venting prevents explosi-on." Heeheee...whoa, this is hard.
                    Where's my Tab? Okay, then, [types] YES, vent the stupid gas.
                      [Cut to a farmer tending his corn. The gas release blows away
                    part of the crop.]
    Farmer: Oh, no! The corn. Paul Newman's gonna have my legs broke.

  • by NReitzel (77941) on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:28PM (#41062389) Homepage

    Yes, there is a waste stream from reprocessing.

    However, it is informative to look at how and when the mess that is - among others - Hanford, came to be.

    At the time, the Military was building bombs to kill a million people at a shot, and the prevailing attitude was that the Soviet Union was only a month away from launching bombers and submarines and missiles, to kill US citizens by the tens or hundreds of millions. The Russians thought the same thing of the US; I think it perplexed them terribly that we didn't attack. After all, their sworn ally, Adolf Hitler, just changed his mind one day and launched a full scale invasion. So the Russians (and Ukranians, and others) were building bombs to kill people in the US by the tens or hundreds of millions.

    Along with all this paranoia, came a driving requirement to build more and bigger weapons. There was a bomber gap, then a missile gap, and if you watched Dr. Strangelove, a mine shaft gap. No one in the bomb business was worrying about poisoning a few hundred workers, or a few thousand coyotes or fish or prairie dogs. They were building bombs, and it was enough that the waste from their efforts not end up with dead workers before they managed to actually build their bombs.

    They temporized, they were careless (careless enough to skewer a reactor operator to a concrete slab with a control rod), but most of all, they were in a tearing hurry. They had to build those bombs before the Rooskies (or the Amerikans) attacked.

    It's no wonder they did a crap job.

    One would sincerely hope that today, we are a little more rational. We can reprocess fuel - we know the basic processes - and we can do so without making a radioactive dead spot on the prairie, or creating glow-in-the-dark salmon. It's kind of like building airplanes. Mistakes happen, people die. But every time something bad happens, we send in very smart engineers and figure out what happened, and why, and design new and better processes so that the next time, fewer people die.

    Chernobyl happened for exactly the same reasons. The Soviets essentially copied the very first Fermi pile (the one under the squash stadium), added cooling and steam pipes, and scaled it up by a factor of a few thousand. This was poor engineering, but it was quick, and they had to get their reactors online quickly so that they could make the materials to make the bombs that they needed to defend themselves. All delusion (well, mostly delusion) but they had a good reason, as did we. The end result was a whopping big accident, but pay close attention here, there was no nuclear explosion.

    We can reprocess fuel rods - which to me, sounds a whole lot better than leaving thousands of tons of insanely radioactive stuff cooling its heels in ponds all over the world. By reprocessing the fuel, we can make new fuel, we can take that crazy hot stuff and concentrate it into kilograms instead of tonnes, and incidentally, make it radioactive enough that no terrorist could stay alive long enough to steal it. We can separate needed isotopes for space exporation and cancer treatment and food sterilization.

    And what do we have to give up to do this? We have to give up irrational fear. There are lots of things to fear - read Feynman's talk about building Y-12 - but the things to fear are real things, not crazy paranoid fantasies. The Fukushima disaster may have achieved criticality of stored used fuel rods, but there was no nuclear explosion. People died, from the tidal wave. Some people were exposed to low levels of radiation, but as was pointed out earlier in this venue, less exposure than they would have had than had they simply lived in Denver, USA for a year.

    We can do this. We have the technology, we have the scientists, we have the engineers. Like any new thing, there will be mistakes, and perhaps those mistakes will cost lives. The comparison isn't to "will bad things happen if we do this" -- the proper comparison is "what bad things will happen if we don't do this."

    -- Norm Reitzel

    • by rve (4436) on Monday August 20, 2012 @10:27PM (#41063533)

      Already, three major cities in Japan have been turned into an uninhabitable
      nuclear [telegraph.co.uk] wasteland [wikitravel.org], where no life can exist for millions of years, and you want to continue this trend? Already, Europeans have done the right thing and are starting to go along in banning radiation and nuclear. Germany is closing all its existing reactors. Do you want to be worse than Germany?

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by NReitzel (77941)

        No life can exist for millions of years?

        You do realize you are so full of crap your eyes are brown?

        Nuclear fuel rod storage ponds have to be treated so that they don't grow algae. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is full of mink and fox and birds and mice. They're all radioactive, a little, but then we're all a little radioactive. If no life could live around Fukushima, why are crops from there prohibited from being shipped and sold?

        At least make a token effort to get the actual facts, mmmkay?

        -- Norm

      • by mug funky (910186)

        wow, this troll ticks every box! i like it!

    • by fermion (181285)
      so, like 3.5 kilograms of plutonium on the rover. If we can reprocess and use the fuel in robots launched into space, then that would be a good thing. The whole problem with reprocessing is what to do with the products, other than making bombs. Because there was not much use, it really makes more sense to just make the product difficult to use.

      The only thing to fear is the explosion of the plutonium in atmosphere. The plutonium will be dispersed, humans will breath it, and it will remain in the tissu

      • by sFurbo (1361249)

        It should never fail, but NASA also said the shuttle would never fail and would have a turn around time measured in weeks.

        IIRC, the original estimate for the shuttle was 1% risk of failure at each launch. With 2 failures in 135 shuttle missions, it seems that they nailed it. We should be able to achieve them same rate with plutonium-carrying rockets if we are willing to pay the price, but in most cases, the plutonium containment will not fail, so we are probably looking at one plutonium dispersion event every 1000-10.000 launches.

        Furthermore, plutonium and plutonium oxides are heavy. You can breath them for a short time, bu

    • by khallow (566160)

      they were careless (careless enough to skewer a reactor operator to a concrete slab with a control rod)

      What makes that careless?

      Mistakes happen, people die. But every time something bad happens, we send in very smart engineers and figure out what happened, and why, and design new and better processes so that the next time, fewer people die.

      Which is exactly what happened with the accident above. It was a mistake. They sent in very smart people to figure out what happened. And they designed new and better processes so that next time, fewer people die.

    • The worker who was skewered with the control rod was suicidal. There was no reason for the reactor to explode like that. The post-mortem found no cause for the explosion other than "the guy pulled it all the way out quickly". Investigators found the worker had personal problems. Took another worker with him, too.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      One would sincerely hope that today, we are a little more rational.

      Hope in one hand, shit in the other, see which fills up first.

      We have the technology to build nested pipelines and we don't use that for oil. What makes you think we're going to use the technology we have to make nuclear cleaner to actually make nuclear cleaner?

    • Fly in Ointment (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @07:43AM (#41066343)

      We can do this. We have the technology, we have the scientists, we have the engineers.

      We also have the corporations, dedicated to cutting every corner for a golden parachute reward - along with bought and paid for politicians that have their back when (not if) something goes wrong due to their craven desires (see: Wall Street banks).

  • In Soviet Russia Pu-238 reprocess you!
  • by kdogg73 (771674) on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:37PM (#41062509) Homepage

    [referring to the Curiosity rover]
    Reuters [looks through a camcorder] This is heavy-duty, Doc. This is great. Uh, does it run, like, on regular unleaded gasoline?
    NASA Scientist: Unfortunately, no. It requires something with a little more kick. Plutonium.
    Reuters: Um, plutonium. Wait a minute. Are...
    [lowers the camcorder]
    Reuters: Are you telling me that this sucker is nuclear?
    NASA Scientist: Hey, hey, hey! Keep rolling. Keep rolling there.
    [The reporter raises the camcorder]
    NASA Scientist: No, no, no, no, no, this sucker's electrical, but I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need.
    Reuters: Doc, you don't just walk into a store and-and buy plutonium. Did you rip that off?
    NASA Scientist: Of course. From a group of Soviet nationalists. They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and, in turn, gave them a shoddy bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts. Come on! Let's get you a radiation suit. We must prepare to reload.

    • by mark-t (151149)
      I was wondering if there was going to be a post with that sort of reference after I read the summary. Thank you for reaffirming my faith in nerd-dom.
  • With the waste produced by nuclear reactors, I have always wondered whether it would be possible to feed the waste of one reactor into another reactor that is designed to use the waste of the first? You could then have a whole chain of reactors each optimised to use the waste of the previous reactor.

    The other question is I have is whether Thorium reactors produce less waste?

  • by greg_barton (5551) <greg_barton.yahoo@com> on Monday August 20, 2012 @09:14PM (#41062875) Homepage Journal

    One useful byproduct of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor is PU238 [glerner.com]

    • by mug funky (910186)

      another is near 100% pure U233, which works rather well in bombs.

      not saying it shouldn't happen. just that there's sensitivity there.

      • by greg_barton (5551)

        Here [americanscientist.org] is a better rebuttal than I could ever write.

      • by drwho (4190)

        It doesn't work well in bombs. Sure, it blows up nicely, if you were able to put the bomb together without everyone being poisoned by the high levels of gamma radiation it emits. There's a reason why LFTR has a fair amount of shielding.

        Simply put, it is not practical to make a bomb out of U-233

    • by Creepy (93888) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @07:33AM (#41066265) Journal

      I was reading about that yesterday, as well as the fact that mining thorium would yield a supply of heavy rare earth elements that could make the US a major exporter of these, bypassing the massive Chinese tariffs on export put in place specifically to get companies to move their manufacturing to China.

      It just baffles me why the US government doesn't put money into researching LFTR because honestly, it is just win-win-win-win, but then I remember the 600 billion in lobbying the nuclear industry does pretty much specifically to shut out competition. Proliferation concerns are a joke - thorium is a minor alpha emitter in its raw state, which would be the state it is used in for a LFTR, and really, the US doesn't have the capability to even enrich the waste into a bomb, much less a terrorist. Dirty bombs with this stuff is even more of a waste of time - potassium (the stuff you have to ingest to live) is more radioactive.

  • by FudRucker (866063) on Monday August 20, 2012 @09:17PM (#41062923)
    it glows from its own radioactivity
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-238 [wikipedia.org]
  • Which decays to a level of activity less than that of the ore still in the ground is about 600 years (and to a level such that the hazard is negligible long before that).

  • A soviet-era bomb maker? I also remember it for its quite good reel-to-reel tape recorders (late eighties), so it must have been something like a diversified industry conglomerate, not just a war-related material factory.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    those pesky "have to keep waste sealed forever to prevent hyper-squirrels in the year 3,001,000 from being irradiated" elements

    Too late. My client, a certain Mr. (starts with 'S', rhymes with 'rat') is already more hyper than you could possibly imagine as a result of encountering your nuclear waste. But he's a reasonable hyper-squirrel. He's willing to settle for only a million .... (sounds of whispering and hurried consultation) ... make that a BILLION ... acorns, delivered to his current residence.

  • by Fuzzums (250400)

    Of course it would be totally all right if Iran would make the weirdest accusations at this point.

    Yes, it's a flame. I'm still waiting for the WMD to be found in Irak...

  • by stiggle (649614) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @07:28AM (#41066241)

    The British have been reprocessing nuclear fuel since they started nuclear power, so they're bound to have some Pu available.
    They used some in some fast breeder reactors, but should still have plenty left, and I'm sure the National Park next to the reprocessing site would be happy to have it leave.

  • About 40 pounds left and ten required for a decent generator. Cant easily go past Mars without a generator. However the recently launched Jupiter Juno mission has massive solar panels - about the limit of this power source.
  • by drwho (4190)

    This is my obligatory mention of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Yes, you may have heard lots about this type of nuclear reactor before, but this post is just to remind you that it can produce the valuable isotopes needed for fueling space probes, as well as nuclear medicine. You see, people need to be hit over the head with data multiple times before they pay attention.

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