NASA has in the past developed and flight certified a nuclear reactor called (Systems for Nuclear, Auxiliary Power) SNAP-10a. This small space reactor was flown in 1965 and operated for 43 days when a non-reactor electrical component (power supply regulator) failed which led to the termination of the satellite’s mission. SNAP-10a was intended to produce over 500 watts of electrical power for one year.
Picture of 500 watt SNAP-10a space reactor prior to launch
In 2012 LANL National Lab designed and built a small 24 W space nuclear reactor called DUFF for NASA in less than six months at a total project cost of less than $1 million dollars. This was only a demonstration reactors and did not become flight certified (that would be a longer process) but the small DUFF reactor included some really novel, untried technology like use of heat pipes to remove heat from the reactor core – something never previously demonstrated. DUFF used sterling engine power conversion technology to turn nuclear heat into electricity. LANL reviewed for safety and then built the prototype reactor in a span of 6 months. The same reactor design group at LANL has received funding to design and build another somewhat larger, but still fairly small, space reactor called KRUSTY that is intended to produce kilowatt levels of power output. KRUSTY has been designed and physically constructed at LANL and is now being field tested and operated at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site. Testing of this larger kilowatt power space reactor is expected to be complete in January of 2018.
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- Since the advent of the nuclear age, we've been using nuclear reactors, nuclear submarines, etc. So, why not use a large, well controlled and well isolated nuclear reactor to power a particle accelerator that can achieve eVs several orders of magnitude greater than what the LHC achieves?
Picture of the KRUSTY space reactor currently under test
Some people worry about the safety and wisdom of launching small space reactors into space on rockets that have a operational record of failing n out of 100 times. It should be remembered that small space reactors have a very low radiological inventory at launch — less than 5 curies total in the uranium-zirconium-hydride fuel — so space reactors are actually fairly benign … There are no highly radioactive fission products inside a small space reactor until such time as it goes critical on command from earth. It is only once the space reactor goes critical that there will be some moderate level of radiation generated inside the reactor.
 – LANL DUFF Space Reactor – Interplanetary mission fission
 LANL Kilowatt Reactor Using Stirling Technology KRUSTY – Nuclear and Stirling engines spur space exploration