reactor physics

reactor physics

[rē′ak·tər ‚fiz·iks]
The science of the interaction of the elementary particles and radiations characteristic of nuclear reactors with matter in bulk.

Reactor physics

The science of the interaction of the elementary particles and radiations characteristic of nuclear reactors with matter in bulk. These particles and radiations include neutrons, beta rays, and gamma rays of energies between zero and about 107 electronvolts.

The study of the interaction beta and gamma radiations with matter is, within the field of reactor physics, undertaken primarily to understand the absorption and penetration of energy through reactor structures and shields. See Radiation shielding

With this exception, reactor physics is the study of those processes pertinent to the chain reaction involving neutron-induced nuclear fission with consequent neutron generation. Reactor physics is differentiated from nuclear physics, which is concerned primarily with nuclear structure. Reactor physics makes direct use of the phenomenology of nuclear reactions. Neutron physics is concerned primarily with interactions between neutrons and individual nuclei or with the use of neutron beams as analytical devices, whereas reactor physics considers neutrons primarily as fission-producing agents. In the hierarchy of professional classification, neutron physics and reactor physics are both ranked as subfields of the more generalized area of nuclear physics.


Reactor physics borrows most of its basic concepts from other fields. From nuclear physics comes the concept of the nuclear cross section for neutron interaction, defined as the effective target area of a nucleus for interaction with a neutron beam. The total interaction is the sum of interactions by a number of potential processes, and the probability of each of them multiplied by the total cross section is designated as a partial cross section. An outgrowth of this is the definition of macroscopic cross section, which is the product of cross section (termed microscopic, for specificity) with atomic density of the nuclear species involved.

Cross sections vary with energy according to the laws of nuclear structure. In reactor physics this variation is accepted as input data to be assimilated into a description of neutron behavior. Common aspects of cross section dependence, such as variation of absorption cross section inversely as the square root of neutron energy, or the approximate regularity of resonance structure, form the basis of most simplified descriptions of reactor processes in terms of mathematical or logical models.

The concept of neutron flux is related to that of macroscopic cross section. This may be defined as the product of neutron density and neutron speed, or as the rate at which neutrons will traverse the outer surface of a sphere embedded in the medium, per unit of spherical cross-sectional area. The product of flux and macroscopic cross section yields the reaction rate per unit volume and time.


The critical condition is what occurs when the arrangement of materials in a reactor allows, on the average, exactly one neutron of those liberated in one nuclear fission to cause one additional nuclear fission. If a reactor is critical, it will have fissions occurring in it at a steady rate. This desirable condition is achieved by balancing the probability of occurrence of three competing events: fission, neutron capture which does not cause fission, and leakage of neutrons from the system. If v is the average number of neutrons liberated per fission, then criticality is the condition under which the probability of a neutron causing fission is 1/v. Generally, the degree of approach to criticality is evaluated by computing keff, the ratio of fissions in successive links of the chain, as a product of probabilities of successive processes.


Reactivity is a measure of the deviation of a reactor from the critical state at any frozen instant of time. The term reactivity is qualitative, because several sets of units are in current use to describe it.


Reflectors are bodies of material placed beyond the chain-reacting zone of a reactor, whose function is to return to the active zone (or core) neutrons which might otherwise leak. Reflector worth can be crudely measured in terms of the albedo, or probability that a neutron passing from core to reflector will return again to the core.

Good reflectors are materials with high scattering cross sections and low absorption cross sections. The first requirement ensures that neutrons will not easily diffuse through the reflector, and the second, that they will not easily be captured in diffusing back to the core.

Beryllium is the outstanding reflector material in terms of neutronic performance. Water, graphite, D2O, iron, lead, and 283U are also good reflectors.

Reactor dynamics

Reactor dynamics is concerned with the temporal sequence of events when neutron flux, power, or reactivity varies. The inclusive term takes into account sequential events, not necessarily concerned with nuclear processes, which may affect these parameters. There are basically three ways in which a reactor may be affected so as to change reactivity. A control element, absorbing rod, or piece of fuel may be externally actuated to start up, shut down, or change reactivity or power level; depletion of fuel and poison, buildup of neutron-absorbing fission fragments, and production of new fissionable material from the fertile isotopes 232Th, 234U, 238U, and 240Pu make reactivity depend upon the irradiation history of the system; and changes in power level may produce temperature changes in the system, leading to thermal expansion, changes in neutron cross sections, and mechanical changes with consequent change of reactivity.

Reactor control physics

Reactor control physics is the study of the effect of control devices on reactivity and power level. As such, it includes a number of problems in reactor statics, because the primary question is to determine the absorption of the control elements in competition with the other neutronic processes. It is, however, a problem in dynamics, given the above information, to determine what motions of the control devices will lead to stable changes in reactor output.

Reactivity changes

Long-term reactivity changes may represent a limiting factor in the burning of nuclear fuel without costly reprocessing and refabrication. As the chain reaction proceeds, the original fissionable material is depleted, and the system would become subcritical if some form of slow addition of reactivity were not available. This is the function of shim rods in a typical reactor. The reactor is originally loaded with enough fuel to be critical with the rods completely inserted. As the fuel bums out, the rods are withdrawn to compensate. See Nuclear fuels

Reactor kinetics

This is the study of the short-term aspects of reactor dynamics with respect to stability, safety against power excursion, and design of the control system. Control is possible because increases in reactor power often reduce reactivity to zero (the critical value) and also because there is a time lapse between successive fissions in a chain resulting from the finite velocity of the neutrons and the number of scattering and moderating events intervening, and because a fraction of the neutrons is delayed. See Delayed neutron, Nuclear reactor

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