Device that can initiate and control a self-sustaining series of nuclear-fission reactions. Neutrons released in one fission reaction may strike other heavy nuclei, causing them to fission. The rate of this chain reaction is controlled by introducing materials, usually in the form of rods, that readily absorb neutrons. Typically, control rods made of cadmium or boron are gradually inserted into the core if the series of fissions begins to proceed at too great a rate, which could lead to meltdown of the core. The heat released by fission is removed from the reactor core by a coolant circulated through the core. Some of the thermal energy in the coolant is used to heat water and convert it to high-pressure steam. This steam drives a turbine, and the turbine's mechanical energy is then converted into electricity by means of a generator. Besides providing a valuable source of electric power for commercial use, nuclear reactors also serve to propel certain types of military surface vessels, submarines, and some unmanned spacecraft. Another major application of reactors is the production of radioactive isotopes that are used extensively in scientific research, medical therapy, and industry.
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