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Fusion reactors, here we come!

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an experimental nuclear fusion reactor, has officially been approved by seven international parties during a meeting in Belgium. The list of international parties includes the United States, European Union, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and India.  The project will cost an estimated $5.9B USD, and is also the world's biggest scientific collaboration. 

reports "We represent more than half of the world's population, and recognize that by working together today we stand a much better chance of tackling the challenges of tomorrow, so energy is an issue of concern for all of us," according to the  EU science and research commissioner, Janez Potocnik.

The end result of the experimental fusion project should be a cheaper, cleaner and safer source of energy.  Global oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions will also theoretically drop if the nuclear fusion reactor is successful.  Fusion is a viable energy source because of natural abundance and availability, while no greenhouse gas emissions will be present.  Another advantage of fusion is that it will not produce any radioactive waste. 

But not everyone is pleased with the news.  Several environmental groups are against the project.  For example, one of the members of the Friends of the Earth group believes it would be a wiser choice to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation.

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Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 8:18:22 AM , Rating: 2
I think everyone is getting a bit carried away with this. Okay, fusion can, in theory, provide a lot of energy; potentially fusible fuel (deuterium) is reasonably abundant; and it's physically impossible for a fusion reactor to overload or melt down; but this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "holy grail" solution.

First, it may simply never work stably enough to actually produce power. It is incredibly difficult to get a sustainable fusion reaction: no one has yet achieved it. For this to work you need a reaction that is sustainable for weeks or months, not just the tiny fractions of a second that have generally been achieved so far.

Second, there's no guarantee that it will be powered solely by deuterium. It's easier to get a deuterium-tritium reaction going, and tritium is both significantly rarer, and also radioactive.

Third, fusion produces a hell of a lot of radiation, and it's very highly penetrating radiation (gamma rays and neutrons): not something that's easy to block. This means you need protection on the same kind of scale as you have with a fission reactor.

Fourth, because of the huge amount of radiation produced, the reactor itself becomes radioactive after a while. It is therefore not correct to say that fusion produces no radioactive waste. While the actual fuel is (mostly) not converted to radioactive waste, the reactor itself will eventually become highly irradiated. You will face exactly the same decommissioning problems that we experience with conventional fission reactors. And, worst of all, you will face exactly the same risk of highly damaging radioactive leakage into the environment as you get with a fission reactor. Fusion isn't clean.

RE: Holy grail?
By Xavian on 5/26/2006 8:24:56 AM , Rating: 2
i never said it caused 'no' waste, i said it was much less then Fission, which still holds true. Radition can always be shielded otherwise those experiemental fusion 'rings' would have never been constructed.

Fusion isn't clean, but its a damn sight more cleaner then Nuclear Fission. Even if it turns-out to be a stop-gap power source, then im sure we will find something better soon enough. (singularities spring to mind ;))

RE: Holy grail?
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 8:29:45 AM , Rating: 3
"It is incredibly difficult to get a sustainable fusion reaction: no one has yet achieved it."

Fusion isn't stable enough now because the containment is too small, hence the bigger 3MW ITER. I don't see how stability can be an issus for multy giga watt commercial reactors.

As for the waste, compared to the billions upon billions of tonnes to CO2 and radio active spent fuel a few thousand tonnes of irradiated steel is trivial.

RE: Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 10:36:34 AM , Rating: 2
I don't see how stability can be an issus for multy giga watt commercial reactors.
Clearly if there ever is a commercial fusion reactor, the stability problem will have to have been solved by then. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be solved. The purpose of this project is not to build a commercial fusion reactor, it is to find out whether a commercial fusion reactor actually can be built: the conclusion may very well be that it can't.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:17:29 PM , Rating: 2
Technically, you don't need stability, you can run the machine in pulsed operation. Inertial confinement fusion with lasers is a 2nd option that doesn't get mentioned very often, and it entirely generates its energy in the transient regime when a small deuterium target is crushed into a high temperature and density plasma.

RE: Holy grail?
By TheDoc9 on 5/26/2006 10:28:04 AM , Rating: 2
I love reading how everyone here who ISN'T a nuclear scientist knows exactly everything about nuclear fusion and is full of wonderfully incitefull predictions on the future. I might as well call miss cleo and get my lotto numbers.

RE: Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 10:37:49 AM , Rating: 2
I love reading how everyone here who ISN'T a nuclear scientist knows exactly everything about nuclear fusion and is full of wonderfully incitefull predictions on the future.
Well, I do at least have a degree in Physics, so I know something about the subject....

RE: Holy grail?
By Sunrise089 on 5/26/2006 12:03:15 PM , Rating: 2
um...this is a PC site. How many of us have degrees in computer science or engeneering? (yes I know some do, but not all or even the majority) How many posters in politics and news have journalism or political science degrees? requiring you to be a game developer to determine whether or not you feel the Half-Life expansion is any good? Didn't think so.

I fully believe most of the above posters are able to realize if fusion power can be made practical it is a better option than solar or wind. I didn't see anyone trying to overstep his/her bounds with technical information we aren't qualified to discuss.

Thanks for playing though.

RE: Holy grail?
By TheDoc9 on 5/26/2006 12:38:19 PM , Rating: 2
Back to the game -

I have a CS degree myself, but I nor does anyone know the future dangers of fusion –they haven't been discovered. Who's to say there won't be new materials used to start the fusion process instead of those scarce few (if they really are scarce) that are mentioned. Isn't that what this project is for, researching and discovering a new, better energy source. To say that fusion is messy now, when we won't see it for 40 years, is ridiculous.

The post earlier about radioactive steel was interesting, how does this poster know this will happen? I say maybe it will, maybe it won’t, maybe there will be new materials in the future to prevent this. Who here works at a fusion plant? Since they don’t exist no-one does.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:25:13 PM , Rating: 2
There is a parallel experiment called "IFMIF" - the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility (hope I got that right), which is designed to see how active certain samples of material get under emulated irradiation that is supposed to model what will happen in close proximity to an operating fusion reactor over the scale of years.

The idea is to find materials whose physical properties won't degrade over time and which will also lack any long-lived isotopes when they are taken out.

So, materials research is an integral part of the activity too. I guess that means we can't fully predict the radioactive footprint of these reactors until IFMIF has published its first results (~2015 it is supposed to operate, so that will be getting on for 2020!).

I suspect parts of ITER (also beginning operation ~2015) will be swapped out as results from IFMIF become known. Actually I've seen a .ppt presentation from Chris Llewellyn-Smith with a project diagram that shows more-or-less that.

RE: Holy grail?
By vingamm on 5/26/2006 12:13:37 PM , Rating: 2
Let me chime in with you NRB. Mine is not in Physics but in electro-engineering and computer science. you are right. this is a feasibility study. It is one that needs to be taken as well. Fossil fuels have almost ruined the enviroment, fission produces highly toxic waste that is active for hundreds of years. A fusion reactor will get "hot" but lets be honest with ourselves. How long can we use the current systems of energy production. To the tree huggers I add, there are over 6 billion people on this planet and the number is not getting smaller. if we dam up all the rivers, where will the fish swim? If well put up a million windmills, where will the trees grow? If the put up solar mirrors we will eventually block out the sun. We could go back to living in caves and just say screw technology all together but I am guessing each and every one of you enjoys your AC from time to time. If this was just a individual choice it would be cool to suggest some of those choices. Fusion is the best choice so far. If you have a viable solution that can serve 6 billion plus people let the WEC know and I think they may consider it.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:19:11 PM , Rating: 2
And, worst of all, you will face exactly the same risk of highly damaging radioactive leakage into the environment as you get with a fission reactor. Fusion isn't clean.

No. Importantly, there is no risk of a Chernobyl-like meltdown or chain-reaction with a fusion reactor, that makes the "risk" smaller and certainly not "exactly the same".

By Proprioceptive on 5/26/2006 6:03:39 AM , Rating: 4
What really gets my goat is that these environmentalist groups were all about getting the Kyoto Treaty signed, pushed every liberal in the world to bleed green on the topic, and now they're saying that fusion isn't worth the investment? Fusion, IS the holy grail and is worth every penny we throw at it. This is by far the best thing I've seen these countries collaborate on, and I'm glad they're not wasting more money on this Kyoto crap, which is a huge economic joke.

RE: Kyoto
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 6:21:48 AM , Rating: 2
Indeed, Fusion isn't just the best option. Fusion is the ONLY option!

There's no way in hell we can supply all of the world's energy with renewables alone, short of a million orbital solar powerplant satalites. An old book I read concluded that 20%(IIRC) is the best we'll ever get out of thermal, tidal etc.

RE: Kyoto
By captchaos2 on 5/26/2006 9:28:50 AM , Rating: 2
So, when can I get a Mr. Fusion for my DeLorean?

RE: Kyoto
By AnnihilatorX on 5/26/2006 6:25:01 AM , Rating: 2
What a joke!

They are saying those noisy wind turbines that kills birds and raise ground surface air temperature more enviornmental friendly than fusion reactor

RE: Kyoto
By Sunrise089 on 5/26/2006 6:49:17 AM , Rating: 2
Agreed. Kyoto is a fine ideal and all, but like so many environmental issues it became quickly overrun with partisan politics for their own sake. Republicans accused Democrats of not operating in reality when it came to acknowledging Kyoto's cost, while Dems accused Republicans of selling out America's future. No serious discussion of the actual costs/benefits of strict environmental policies went on, and meanwhile the Europeans and the other Kyoto nations were held up as the examples for all the world to follow. Those nations took their good PR and then did whatever the hell they wanted to. Now ten years later the "enlightened" nations can proudly report that NOT ONE of the Kyoto signers has met their emmisions targets. Wow, good job enlightened breathren.

RE: Kyoto
By Jeeves on 5/26/2006 9:44:08 AM , Rating: 2
Actually, Germany at least is currently 20% below the 1990 emissions - the set target was a 21% reduction until 2012.

The UK has even met their target of 12,5% reduction, IIRC - although the southern european nations (Spain, Portugal and Greece) have had massive increases that pretty much negate the benefit of reductions elsewhere ...

The biggest problem with Kyoto is that e.g. China was counted as a developing nation and thus has no obligations to reduce emissions at all! Given their massively growing economy and the fact that their enviromental protection standards are laughable, they're one of the biggest problems concerning climate change.

BTW, if that prototype (!) of a commercial reactor is supposed (!) to be ready in 2040 we really ought to think about energy conservation and renewable energy - the oil won't be getting any cheaper till then ... ;)

RE: Kyoto
By dgingeri on 5/26/2006 12:14:48 PM , Rating: 2
as long as human population keeps climbing, our energy needs will keep climbing. as it is now, our needs are about 5X that of the energy that reaches us from the sun. All the energy that we use today ends up as heat accumulating in the atmosphere. CO2 is not the villian. Oil and coal being burned to produce electricity and/or moving stuff around ends up as heat, plain and simple. there is only one option: we need to get waste heat off this planet and find some way to bring other forms of energy onto this planet. That, or simply stop breeding so much. as soon as the population gets down to a workable 1 billion, we'll be much better off.

RE: Kyoto
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:08:18 PM , Rating: 2
Your energy scales are a bit wrong. The sunlight that reaches us is a few hundred times the amount of energy we currently need, but of course to harness all that you'd need to cover the whole planet in solar panels, which is not very practical.

So I agree with your idea that a world population of ~1 billion would be far better.

Also it really *is* the CO2 that is causing global warming. For the directly-generated heat to be a problem we'd need to be again using 100x or more energy than we currently to. Probably thousands of times more.

RE: Kyoto
By z3R0C00L on 5/26/2006 9:42:07 AM , Rating: 2
Oh yes.. Polar Ice Caps melting, animals going instinct up north.. Grizly Bears mating with Polar Bears (normally would never encounter each other)... You don't live up north.. I do.
Kyoto is not a solution.. it's a stop gap solution to slow things down. We should do both. Embrass Kyoto and work towards renewable energy... Fusion or whatever.
I swear Neo-Conservatives are soo narrow minded they don't see the big picture.

RE: Kyoto
By Oscarine on 5/26/2006 10:44:51 AM , Rating: 2
Oh sure its just these quote on quote Neo-Conservatives, get a grip buddy.

I'm all for environmental reform, however your statements are just as insane and partisan as the politicians espousing there sentiment on the same issues.

As for not living up north... I grew up in Palmer Alaska how far "north" are you Point Barrow or something? Living on the north pole itself? :P

RE: Kyoto
By Samus on 5/27/2006 9:04:48 AM , Rating: 2
Cold Fusion would be the holy grail ;)

However, it isn't even plausable with our technology. They've never gotten more energy out of 'it' than they've put into producing the energy itself. Someday...

By tigen on 5/26/2006 6:41:27 AM , Rating: 2
Considering the number of countries involved, $5.9B doesn't seem like a particularly large investment.

RE: $5.9B
By AnnihilatorX on 5/26/2006 6:58:21 AM , Rating: 2
It's definitly a low amount
Considering that the Euro tunnel have a final cost of $10bn

But then the reactor is one that occupies much less space than a Euro tunnel.

However since this is a new technology and is something people never done before, I think the risk of overbudget is high

RE: $5.9B
By Tsuwamono on 5/26/2006 7:43:33 AM , Rating: 3
Lol, there is no risk. Its for sure going to go over 5.9B USD. If it doesnt ill eat my own leg.

RE: $5.9B
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 8:24:21 AM , Rating: 2
I wouldn't mind if it cost a small country's GPD. As far as I'm aware if we don't get fusion by 2030 moder society is screwed.

RE: $5.9B
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 8:45:23 AM , Rating: 2
I just can't spell right can't I?

WAY too strong
By Sunrise089 on 5/26/2006 9:05:31 AM , Rating: 2
As much as I support fusion research, saying any near-future date will result in society being screwed is going too far. We would have no problem whatsoever fully replacing fossil fuels through a combination of nuclear fission reactors and fuel cells running off hydrogen generated by electrolysis (sp?) Yes it would be an inperfect solution due to nuclear waste, but there would be far less pollution than with current fossil fuel power generation, and there would be far less up front cost per kW compared to solar or wind, if they could even take up all the demand in the first place. Still fusion is the long-term ideal.

RE: WAY too strong
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 9:53:25 AM , Rating: 2
And where are we going to find the electricity for the electrolysis? Currently H2 is made by breaking down petrolium which defeats the purpose of H2 engines entirly.

Fission fuel is far less abundent then deuterium and the curent supply won't last more then a few centuries if it replaces coal and gas accross the world, even with breeder reactors. And lets not forget about the geens bitching about the waste of which they are right. Fission power is a stop gap at best for what we are doing with them now.

RE: WAY too strong
By Sunrise089 on 5/26/2006 11:59:14 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, i understand all of that. I would have thought that when I mentioned fission nuclear reactors and electrolysis in the same sentance it would have been obvious I was suggesting the nuclear reactors be used to power the equipment to extract the hydrogen for use in the fuel cells by way of electrolysis. I know nuclear fission isn't a permanant solution, but I was responding to the extrememly pessimistic claim that not having fusion power by 2040 would "screw" the world.

By Chillin1248 on 5/26/2006 5:47:50 AM , Rating: 3
renewable energy and energy conversation

Should it not be "conservation"?

RE: Error
By llbbl on 5/26/2006 9:47:29 AM , Rating: 2
hey guys don't think Spiderman will save you if you fuck this up!

RE: Error
By Boboche on 5/26/2006 12:03:13 PM , Rating: 3
Fusion, as opposed to standard nuclear reactor, is not prone to have any bad chain reactions effects.

If something "fucks up", like you say, the reaction just stops and the H30 or other "plasma'ed" material used, will simply drop back to it's solid form and do "plop!" on the floor.

This is the good thing about this technology. The hard thing is to be able to manipulate it with magnetic fields, it requires tremendeous current to ignite the plasma with pulsed lasers, a lot of cost for infrastructure (thing giant magnet, costly high-power pulse lasers, etc).

Probably the first beta will be able to get 1:1 energy, as in be self-sufficient, but it will be a good step, because most projects so far were under-funded or a complete failure.

That thing in spiderman was just a big "bird flu" panic scenario based on science fiction and the average paranoid person.

When I see environmentalist groups being against the development of such technologies, and proning "conservation" and "renewable sources", I think that they are totally short sighted and live in a bubble-world.

The world is expanding, energy consumption is going up, you can't stop this trend with emerging countries, what you can do with "environmental-friendly" measure is damp that effect, not stop it. You need a nuclear solution without the risks involved by nuclear, Fusion is the answer.

All the windmill you'd need to deliver the world's energy need, you'd have no more forests, the earth would look like a big birthday party with shitloads of helixes everywhere, that's not what you want either right? So think future, think clean and safe energy, and think environment on stuff that you can actually DO something realistically about (Cars, your personnal level of energy consuption, promote local alternative energy projects for smaller regions, which is suitable, but not for massive urban areas...), etc..

RE: Error
By Xenoid on 5/26/2006 1:05:16 PM , Rating: 2
We need to make a form of energy using absurdly powerful forms of magnetism which can be located on an island in the Pacific.

Ok but seriously, this can only be good. But I have a question. Why is it that I never see Canada on these lists? Since when are we not an important country, or is it that our government (not depending on who is in at the time), not taking initiative?

RE: Error
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:04:10 PM , Rating: 2
I thought Canada was a member of the ITER collaboration at some stage, but pulled out a few years ago. The US also had pulled out funding at one point but have since joined back in.

RE: Error
By vampares on 6/15/2006 10:56:22 PM , Rating: 2
"Probably the first beta will be able to get 1:1 energy, as in be self-sufficient, but it will be a good step, because most projects so far were under-funded or a complete failure."

This is kind of the blessing of the sun. The gravitational force from its own mass acts as the generative energy. Not to say that fusion can't be terribly useful. Just not for energy production on earth at reasonable scale. To say that it gets a 1:1 efficency, that energy to run the fusion reactor does not come entirely from the fuel in a direct manor as is it does with fission. The energy it then releases has to be then imparted upon an electrical system. There is plenty of energy being released from the core of the earth right now and few have successfully harnessed it. Imagine trying to capture and enormous amounts of energy with giganitc magenets and lasers and housing around it and not frying everything in the process. In space the production of solar panels becomes much easier (theoretically), so there isn't a lot of usage potenial there either.

Doesn't the Sun
By cscpianoman on 5/26/2006 8:03:01 AM , Rating: 2
Isn't the sun run on fusion? This seems pretty natural to me. It must be the "nuclear" part of the equation that scares environmentalists. This will be the best invention since sliced bread. Once developed and implemented we can say goodbye to coal power, wind, fission, etc. If our state goes into setting on up I would be one of the first to vote, "Yes."

RE: Doesn't the Sun
By nrb on 5/26/2006 8:22:39 AM , Rating: 2
Isn't the sun run on fusion?
Yeah - but would you want to stand really close to the Sun? ;-)

Actually we will definitely never be able to duplicate on Earth the type of fusion that happens in the Sun. In the core of the Sun regular Hydrogen is converted to Helium. The best we could even theoretically do is to convert Deuterium (heavy hydrogen) to Helium. This produces far less energy, and Deuterium is far less common than regular Hydrogen. There is a reasonable amount of it in seawater, but extracting it isn't cheap.

RE: Doesn't the Sun
By beemercer on 5/26/2006 5:22:28 PM , Rating: 3
-It is also possible to run the D-T reaction; this is the easiest to achieve:
D + T ? 4He + n
n + 6Li ? T + 4He
n + 7Li ? T + 4He + n
-Or the p-11B fuel cycle; no neutrons;
p + 11B ? 3 4He

*Lifted from wikipedia

RE: Doesn't the Sun
By shecknoscopy on 5/26/2006 6:58:25 PM , Rating: 2
So, a synthesis that doesn't yield free neutrons effectively eliminates the neutron-caused radioactive waste that's casually mentioned in the other posts here. Namely, that starting with non-radioactive materials, free neutrons (which can't be controlled with electric or magnetic fields, owing to their lack of charge or manipulable dipole) would irradiate the walls of the reactor. Small fluxes are bad enough, but prolonged exposure to intense neutron radiation would begin to decay the very nuclear structure of the materials lining the reactor itself, converting harmless building materials into nuclear waste.

This is, as many people have pointed out, of substantially lower ecological impact than the type of waste generated by fission reactors. And, as a political side-note - and considering the embroiled debate surrounding Iran's nuclear program - I'll add that another benefit of these fusion reactors is that they are distinctly removed in imput materials, design and output than are fusion bombs. Hence there would be no debate as to the ultimate directive of a given facility: weapon or energy-production. Another plus there.

However, the low-or-no neutron flux reactions outlined here require the enrichment and isolation of either various lithium or Boron isotopes, or a stable proton source. While not making the reactor radioactive (or as radioactive - there's still the pesky gamma and x-ray problem), it adds the difficulties of needing to purify less abundant, and more dangerous fuel sources. One of the beauties of the D+T reaction is that it requries little purification to make the original fuels, and at least one of the reaction products is totally harmless. This is no longer the case for the Li or B reactions, and now requires extensively waste-producing processes to make the fuel in the first place. We're not quite back at Square One, but we're closer.

BUT the big problem is that all of this is really moot. The problem so far with fusion is that, though the reaction ultimately produces energy, the energetic barrier to starting this reaction - the so-called activation energy - has, to date, been higher than the amount of energy produced. That is, a Tokomak reactor, operating for 10 hours, would produce enough energy to run Tokyo for a day. But in order to run it for 10 hours, we needed to put in 1.05 day's worth of Tokyo-energy (a standard SI unit, I assure you), to get the reaction started. So, we're in the hole.

Seriously; until someone can get a reactor that actually yields a net profit on energy production, all of this debate is purely academic. For the moment, we've not found the would-be "methedone" for our "oil addiction."

I like to inhale the oil, myself. Get skeeved out by needles.

RE: Doesn't the Sun
By beemercer on 5/27/2006 1:52:23 PM , Rating: 3
Good job summing it up

Earth Groups
By Zoomer on 5/26/2006 5:56:15 AM , Rating: 2
"Earth group believes it would be a wiser choice to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation."

They are misguided. Fusion is the holy grail. Imagine fission, already a rather good source of energy, with practically zero radioactivity for the waste.

RE: Earth Groups
By beemercer on 5/26/2006 4:46:54 PM , Rating: 3
Fusion reactors would have significant radioactive waste, but the halflife of the produscts is like under 10 years instead of millions of years.

By AnnihilatorX on 5/26/2006 6:26:24 AM , Rating: 2
So after a year of childish arguing about where the reactor will be they finally sit together and get on with it :)

By Xavian on 5/26/2006 6:34:27 AM , Rating: 2
Finally, i believe once we create Fusion reactors, all of our energy concerns and radioactive waste concerns will be gone.

Definately the Holy Grail, no Greenhouse Gases, vastly reduced radioactive waste (compared the Fission), far less dangerous then Nuclear Fission and far far more energy provided.

That Earth group is probably against anything un-natural, but the fact is, it would take an incredibly long time to obtain enough renewables to quench our incedible thurst for energy. Nuclear Fusion seems to me the only logical step to keep Civilisation/Social/Technological Development going at full speed, while not worrying about damaging the environment.

Not to mention the sheer incredible things you would be able to accomplish with a reactor that uses the most abundant elements in the known universe.

Not natural?
By Madzombie on 5/26/2006 7:56:42 AM , Rating: 2
The thing these environmentalists don't understand is that fusion is just about the most natural source of energy there is. They keep going on about solar and wind power but both of these are direct results or by-products of fusion. A fusion plant would effectively be a way of creating a small Sun on earth that we can get energy out og.

Plasma is hot
By PrimarchLion on 5/26/2006 3:24:32 PM , Rating: 2
Stupid kink instabilities. Will this experimental reactor actually produce electricity? Even if it breaks even and runs for an extended period, that would be something special.

Calling Doctor Banner
By codeThug on 5/27/2006 12:28:48 AM , Rating: 2
Hey, with all this radiation spewing about, how are we to measure the effects on people? For instance with gamma radiation, is it measured in mega-Hulks per second or something like that?

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