Neutron radiation

Last updated

Neutron radiation is a form of ionizing radiation that presents as free neutrons. Typical phenomena are nuclear fission or nuclear fusion causing the release of free neutrons, which then react with nuclei of other atoms to form new isotopes—which, in turn, may trigger further neutron radiation. Free neutrons are unstable, decaying into a proton, an electron, plus an anti-electron-neutrino with a mean lifetime of 887 seconds (about 14 minutes, 47 seconds). [1]

Ionizing radiation Radiation that carries enough energy to liberate electrons from atoms or molecules

Ionizing radiation is radiation that carries enough energy to detach electrons from atoms or molecules, thereby ionizing them. Ionizing radiation is made up of energetic subatomic particles, ions or atoms moving at high speeds, and electromagnetic waves on the high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Nuclear fission nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller, lighter nuclei. The fission process often produces free neutrons and gamma photons, and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.

Nuclear fusion process where atomic nuclei combine and release energy

In nuclear chemistry, nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles. The difference in mass between the reactants and products is manifested as either the release or absorption of energy. This difference in mass arises due to the difference in atomic "binding energy" between the atomic nuclei before and after the reaction. Fusion is the process that powers active or "main sequence" stars, or other high magnitude stars.



Neutrons may be emitted from nuclear fusion or nuclear fission, or from other nuclear reactions such as radioactive decay or particle interactions with cosmic rays or within particle accelerators. Large neutron sources are rare, and usually limited to large-sized devices such as nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, including the Spallation Neutron Source.

Neutron nucleon (constituent of the nucleus of the atom) that has neutral electric charge (no charge); symbol n

The neutron is a subatomic particle, symbol
, with no net electric charge and a mass slightly greater than that of a proton. Protons and neutrons constitute the nuclei of atoms. Since protons and neutrons behave similarly within the nucleus, and each has a mass of approximately one atomic mass unit, they are both referred to as nucleons. Their properties and interactions are described by nuclear physics.

Nuclear reaction process in which two nuclei collide to produce one or more nuclides

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, a nuclear reaction is semantically considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or else a nucleus of an atom and a subatomic particle from outside the atom, collide to produce one or more nuclides that are different from the nuclide(s) that began the process. Thus, a nuclear reaction must cause a transformation of at least one nuclide to another. If a nucleus interacts with another nucleus or particle and they then separate without changing the nature of any nuclide, the process is simply referred to as a type of nuclear scattering, rather than a nuclear reaction.

Radioactive decay Process by which an unstable atom emits radiation

Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by emitting radiation, such as an alpha particle, beta particle with neutrino or only a neutrino in the case of electron capture, or a gamma ray or electron in the case of internal conversion. A material containing such unstable nuclei is considered radioactive. Certain highly excited short-lived nuclear states can decay through neutron emission, or more rarely, proton emission.

Neutron radiation was discovered from observing an alpha particle colliding with a beryllium nucleus, which was transformed into a carbon nucleus while emitting a neutron, Be(α, n)C. The combination of an alpha particle emitter and an isotope with a large (α, n) nuclear reaction probability is still a common neutron source.

Alpha particle helium-4 nucleus; a particles consisting of two protons and two neutrons bound together

Alpha particles, also called alpha ray or alpha radiation, consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium-4 nucleus. They are generally produced in the process of alpha decay, but may also be produced in other ways. Alpha particles are named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet, α. The symbol for the alpha particle is α or α2+. Because they are identical to helium nuclei, they are also sometimes written as He2+
or 4
indicating a helium ion with a +2 charge. If the ion gains electrons from its environment, the alpha particle becomes a normal helium atom 4

Beryllium Chemical element with atomic number 4

Beryllium is a chemical element with symbol Be and atomic number 4. It is a relatively rare element in the universe, usually occurring as a product of the spallation of larger atomic nuclei that have collided with cosmic rays. Within the cores of stars beryllium is depleted as it is fused and creates larger elements. It is a divalent element which occurs naturally only in combination with other elements in minerals. Notable gemstones which contain beryllium include beryl and chrysoberyl. As a free element it is a steel-gray, strong, lightweight and brittle alkaline earth metal.

Atomic nucleus core of the atom; composed of bound nucleons (protons and neutrons)

The atomic nucleus is the small, dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom, discovered in 1911 by Ernest Rutherford based on the 1909 Geiger–Marsden gold foil experiment. After the discovery of the neutron in 1932, models for a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons were quickly developed by Dmitri Ivanenko and Werner Heisenberg. An atom is composed of a positively-charged nucleus, with a cloud of negatively-charged electrons surrounding it, bound together by electrostatic force. Almost all of the mass of an atom is located in the nucleus, with a very small contribution from the electron cloud. Protons and neutrons are bound together to form a nucleus by the nuclear force.

Neutron radiation from fission

The neutrons in nuclear reactors are generally categorized as slow (thermal) neutrons or fast neutrons depending on their energy. Thermal neutrons are similar in energy distribution (the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution) to a gas in thermodynamic equilibrium but are easily captured by atomic nuclei and are the primary means by which elements undergo nuclear transmutation.

Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution Specific probability distribution function, important in physics

In physics, the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution is a particular probability distribution named after James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann.

Nuclear transmutation conversion of an atom from one element to another

Nuclear transmutation is the conversion of one chemical element or an isotope into another chemical element. Because any element is defined by its number of protons in its atoms, i.e. in the atomic nucleus, nuclear transmutation occurs in any process where the number of protons or neutrons in the nucleus is changed.

To achieve an effective fission chain reaction, neutrons produced during fission must be captured by fissionable nuclei, which then split, releasing more neutrons. In most fission reactor designs, the nuclear fuel is not sufficiently refined to absorb enough fast neutrons to carry on the chain reaction, due to the lower cross section for higher-energy neutrons, so a neutron moderator must be introduced to slow the fast neutrons down to thermal velocities to permit sufficient absorption. Common neutron moderators include graphite, ordinary (light) water and heavy water. A few reactors (fast neutron reactors) and all nuclear weapons rely on fast neutrons. This requires certain changes in the design and in the required nuclear fuel. The element beryllium is particularly useful due to its ability to act as a neutron reflector or lens. This lets smaller quantities of fissile material be used and is a primary technical development that led to the creation of neutron bombs.[ dubious ]

When two particles interact, their mutual cross section is the area transverse to their relative motion within which they must meet in order to scatter from each other. If the particles are hard inelastic spheres that interact only upon contact, their scattering cross section is related to their geometric size. If the particles interact through some action-at-a-distance force, such as electromagnetism or gravity, their scattering cross section is generally larger than their geometric size. When a cross section is specified as a function of some final-state variable, such as particle angle or energy, it is called a differential cross section. When a cross section is integrated over all scattering angles, it is called a total cross section. Cross sections are typically denoted σ (sigma) and measured in units of area.

Neutron moderator medium that reduces the speed of fast neutrons, turning them into thermal neutrons that can sustain nuclear chain reactions; e.g. water, graphite, heavy water, beryllium

In nuclear engineering, a neutron moderator is a medium that reduces the speed of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction involving uranium-235 or a similar fissile nuclide.

Graphite allotrope of carbon, mineral, substance

Graphite, archaically referred to as plumbago, is a crystalline form of the element carbon with its atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure. It occurs naturally in this form and is the most stable form of carbon under standard conditions. Under high pressures and temperatures it converts to diamond. Graphite is used in pencils and lubricants. Its high conductivity makes it useful in electronic products such as electrodes, batteries, and solar panels.

Cosmogenic neutrons

Cosmogenic neutrons, neutrons produced from cosmic radiation in the Earth's atmosphere or surface, and those produced in particle accelerators can be significantly higher energy than those encountered in reactors. Most of them activate a nucleus before reaching the ground; a few react with nuclei in the air. The reactions with nitrogen-14 lead to the formation of carbon-14, widely used in radiocarbon dating.

Carbon-14, (14C), or radiocarbon, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic nucleus containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons. Its presence in organic materials is the basis of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geological and hydrogeological samples. Carbon-14 was discovered on February 27, 1940, by Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Its existence had been suggested by Franz Kurie in 1934.

Radiocarbon dating is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon.


Cold, thermal and hot neutron radiation is most commonly used in scattering and diffraction experiments, to assess the properties and the structure of materials in crystallography, condensed matter physics, biology, solid state chemistry, materials science, geology, mineralogy and related sciences. Neutron radiation is also used in select facilities to treat cancerous tumors due to its highly penetrating and damaging nature to cellular structure. Neutrons can also be used for imaging of industrial parts termed neutron radiography when using film, neutron radioscopy when taking a digital image, such as through image plates, and neutron tomography for three-dimensional images. Neutron imaging is commonly used in the nuclear industry, the space and aerospace industry, as well as the high reliability explosives industry.

Ionization mechanisms and properties

Neutron radiation is often called indirectly ionizing radiation . It does not ionize atoms in the same way that charged particles such as protons and electrons do (exciting an electron), because neutrons have no charge. However, neutron interactions are largely ionizing, for example when neutron absorption results in gamma emission and the gamma ray (photon) subsequently removes an electron from an atom, or a nucleus recoiling from a neutron interaction is ionized and causes more traditional subsequent ionization in other atoms. Because neutrons are uncharged, they are more penetrating than alpha radiation or beta radiation. In some cases they are more penetrating than gamma radiation, which is impeded in materials of high atomic number. In materials of low atomic number such as hydrogen, a low energy gamma ray may be more penetrating than a high energy neutron.

Health hazards and protection

In health physics neutron radiation is a type of radiation hazard. Another, sometimes more severe hazard of neutron radiation, is neutron activation, the ability of neutron radiation to induce radioactivity in most substances it encounters, including the body tissues. [2] This occurs through the capture of neutrons by atomic nuclei, which are transformed to another nuclide, frequently a radionuclide. This process accounts for much of the radioactive material released by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. It is also a problem in nuclear fission and nuclear fusion installations as it gradually renders the equipment radioactive such that eventually it must be replaced and disposed of as low-level radioactive waste.

Neutron radiation protection relies on radiation shielding. Due to the high kinetic energy of neutrons, this radiation is considered the most severe and dangerous radiation to the whole body when it is exposed to external radiation sources. In comparison to conventional ionizing radiation based on photons or charged particles, neutrons are repeatedly bounced and slowed (absorbed) by light nuclei so hydrogen-rich material is more effective at shielding than iron nuclei. The light atoms serve to slow down the neutrons by elastic scattering so they can then be absorbed by nuclear reactions. However, gamma radiation is often produced in such reactions, so additional shielding must be provided to absorb it. Care must be taken to avoid using nuclei that undergo fission or neutron capture that causes radioactive decay of nuclei, producing gamma rays.

Neutrons readily pass through most material, and hence the absorbed dose (measured in Grays) from a given amount of radiation is low, but interact enough to cause biological damage. The most effective shielding materials are water, or hydrocarbons like polyethylene or paraffin wax. Water-extended polyester (WEP) is effective as a shielding wall in harsh environments due to its high hydrogen content and resistance to fire, allowing it to be used in a range of nuclear, health physics, and defense industries. [3] Hydrogen-based materials are suitable for shielding as they are proper barriers against radiation. [4]

Concrete (where a considerable number of water molecules chemically bind to the cement) and gravel provide a cheap solution due to their combined shielding of both gamma rays and neutrons. Boron is also an excellent neutron absorber (and also undergoes some neutron scattering). Boron decays into carbon or helium and produces virtually no gamma radiation with boron carbide, a shield commonly used where concrete would be cost prohibitive. Commercially, tanks of water or fuel oil, concrete, gravel, and B4C are common shields that surround areas of large amounts of neutron flux, e.g., nuclear reactors. Boron-impregnated silica glass, standard borosilicate glass, high-boron steel, paraffin, and Plexiglas have niche uses.

Because neutrons that strike the hydrogen nucleus (proton, or deuteron) impart energy to that nucleus, they in turn break from their chemical bonds and travel a short distance before stopping. Such hydrogen nuclei are high linear energy transfer particles, and are in turn stopped by ionization of the material they travel through. Consequently, in living tissue, neutrons have a relatively high relative biological effectiveness, and are roughly ten times more effective at causing biological damage compared to gamma or beta radiation of equivalent energy exposure. These neutrons can either cause cells to change in their functionality or to completely stop reproducing, causing damage to the body over time. [5] Neutrons are particularly damaging to soft tissues like the cornea of the eye.

Effects on materials

High-energy neutrons damage and degrade materials over time; bombardment of materials with neutrons creates collision cascades that can produce point defects and dislocations in the material, the creation of which is the primary driver behind microstructural changes occurring over time in materials exposed to radiation. At high neutron fluences this can lead to embrittlement of metals and other materials, and to swelling in some of them. This poses a problem for nuclear reactor vessels and significantly limits their lifetime (which can be somewhat prolonged by controlled annealing of the vessel, reducing the number of the built-up dislocations). Graphite moderator blocks are especially susceptible to this effect, known as Wigner effect, and must be annealed periodically. The Windscale fire was caused by a mishap during such an annealing operation.

Radiation damage to materials occurs as a result of the interaction of an energetic incident particle (a neutron, or otherwise) with a lattice atom in the material. The collision causes a massive transfer of kinetic energy to the lattice atom, which is displaced from its lattice site, becoming what is known as the primary knock-on atom (PKA). Because the PKA is surrounded by other lattice atoms, its displacement and passage through the lattice results in many subsequent collisions and the creations of additional knock-on atoms, producing what is known as the collision cascade or displacement cascade. The knock-on atoms lose energy with each collision, and terminate as interstitials, effectively creating a series of Frenkel defects in the lattice. Heat is also created as a result of the collisions (from electronic energy loss), as are possibly transmuted atoms. The magnitude of the damage is such that a single 1 MeV neutron creating a PKA in an iron lattice produces approximately 1100 Frenkel pairs. [6] The entire cascade event occurs over a timescale of 10^-13 seconds, and therefore, can only be 'observed' in computer simulations of the event [7]

The knock-on atoms terminate in non-equilibrium interstitial lattice positions, many of which annihilate themselves by diffusing back into neighboring vacant lattice sites and restore the ordered lattice. Those that do not or cannot leave vacancies, which causes a local rise in the vacancy concentration far above that of the equilibrium concentration. These vacancies tend to migrate as a result of thermal diffusion towards vacancy sinks (i.e., grain boundaries, dislocations) but exist for significant amounts of time, during which additional high-energy particles bombard the lattice, creating collision cascades and additional vacancies, which migrate towards sinks. The main effect of irradiation in a lattice is the significant and persistent flux of defects to sinks in what is known as the defect wind. Vacancies can also annihilate by combining with one another to form dislocation loops and later, lattice voids. [6]

The collision cascade creates many more vacancies and interstitials in the material than equilibrium for a given temperature, and diffusivity in the material is dramatically increased as a result. This leads to an effect called radiation enhanced diffusion, which leads to microstructural evolution of the material over time. The mechanisms leading to the evolution of the microstructure are many, may vary with temperature, flux, and fluence, and are a subject of extensive study [8]

The mechanical effects of these mechanisms include irradiation hardening, embrittlement, creep, and environmentally-assisted cracking. The defect clusters, dislocation loops, voids, bubbles, and precipitates produced as a result of radiation in a material all contribute to the strengthening and embrittlement (loss of ductility) in the material [12] Embrittlement is of particular concern for the material comprising the reactor pressure vessel, where as a result the energy required to fracture the vessel decreases significantly. It is possible to restore ductility by annealing the defects out, and much of the life-extension of nuclear reactors depends on the ability to safely do so. Creep is also greatly accelerated in irradiated materials, though not as a result of the enhanced diffusivities, but rather as a result of the interaction between lattice stress and the developing microstructure. Environmentally-assisted cracking or, more specifically, irradiation assisted stress corrosion cracking (IASCC) is observed especially in alloys subject to neutron radiation and in contact with water, caused by hydrogen absorption at crack tips resulting from radiolysis of the water, leading to a reduction in the required energy to propagate the crack. [6]

See also

Related Research Articles

Neutron activation analysis

Neutron activation analysis (NAA) is the nuclear process used for determining the concentrations of elements in a vast amount of materials. NAA allows discrete sampling of elements as it disregards the chemical form of a sample, and focuses solely on its nucleus. The method is based on neutron activation and therefore requires a source of neutrons. The sample is bombarded with neutrons, causing the elements to form radioactive isotopes. The radioactive emissions and radioactive decay paths for each element are well known. Using this information, it is possible to study spectra of the emissions of the radioactive sample, and determine the concentrations of the elements within it. A particular advantage of this technique is that it does not destroy the sample, and thus has been used for analysis of works of art and historical artifacts. NAA can also be used to determine the activity of a radioactive sample.

Particle radiation is the radiation of energy by means of fast-moving subatomic particles. Particle radiation is referred to as a particle beam if the particles are all moving in the same direction, similar to a light beam.

Radiation Waves or particles propagating through space or through a medium, carrying energy

In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes:

Beta particle ionizing radiation

A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation, is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron emitted by the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus during the process of beta decay. There are two forms of beta decay, β decay and β+ decay, which produce electrons and positrons respectively.

Nuclear technology technology that involves the reactions of atomic nuclei

Nuclear technology is technology that involves the nuclear reactions of atomic nuclei. Among the notable nuclear technologies are nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons. It is also used, among other things, in smoke detectors and gun sights.

Neutron source device that emits neutrons

A neutron source is any device that emits neutrons, irrespective of the mechanism used to produce the neutrons. Neutron sources are used in physics, engineering, medicine, nuclear weapons, petroleum exploration, biology, chemistry, and nuclear power.

Neutron activation process in which neutron radiation induces radioactivity in materials

Neutron activation is the process in which neutron radiation induces radioactivity in materials, and occurs when atomic nuclei capture free neutrons, becoming heavier and entering excited states. The excited nucleus often decays immediately by emitting gamma rays, or particles such as beta particles, alpha particles, fission products, and neutrons. Thus, the process of neutron capture, even after any intermediate decay, often results in the formation of an unstable activation product. Such radioactive nuclei can exhibit half-lives ranging from small fractions of a second to many years.

The Wigner effect, also known as the discomposition effect or Wigner's Disease, is the dislocation of atoms in a solid caused by neutron radiation.

Nuclear fuel material that can be used in nuclear fission or fusion to derive nuclear energy

Nuclear fuel is material used in nuclear power stations to produce heat to power turbines. Heat is created when nuclear fuel undergoes nuclear fission.

Reactor pressure vessel

A reactor pressure vessel (RPV) in a nuclear power plant is the pressure vessel containing the nuclear reactor coolant, core shroud, and the reactor core.

This article deals with radiation damage due to the effects of ionizing radiation on physical objects. Radiobiology is the study of the action of ionizing radiation on living things, including health effects of radiation in humans.

Gamma ray electromagnetic radiation of high frequency and therefore high energy

A gamma ray or gamma radiation, is a penetrating electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic waves and so imparts the highest photon energy. Paul Villard, a French chemist and physicist, discovered gamma radiation in 1900 while studying radiation emitted by radium. In 1903, Ernest Rutherford named this radiation gamma rays based on their relatively strong penetration of matter; he had previously discovered two less penetrating types of decay radiation, which he named alpha rays and beta rays in ascending order of penetrating power.

Radiation materials science describes the interaction of radiation with matter: a broad subject covering many forms of irradiation and of matter.

A Primary Knock-on Atom or PKA is an atom that is displaced from its lattice site by irradiation; it is, by definition, the first atom that an incident particle encounters in the target. After it is displaced from its initial lattice site, the PKA can induce the subsequent lattice site displacements of other atoms if it possesses sufficient energy, or come to rest in the lattice at an interstitial site if it does not.

Neutron embrittlement, sometimes more broadly radiation embrittlement, is the embrittlement of various materials due to the action of neutrons. This is primarily seen in nuclear reactors, where the release of high-energy neutrons causes the long-term degradation of the reactor materials. The embrittlement is caused by the microscopic movement of atoms that are hit by the neutrons, this same action also gives rise to neutron-induced swelling causes materials to grow in size, and the Wigner effect causes energy buildup in certain materials that can lead to sudden releases of energy.


  1. Yue, A. T.; Dewey, M. S.; Gilliam, D. M.; Greene, G. L.; Laptev, A. B.; Nico, J. S.; Snow, W. M.; Wietfeldt, F. E. (27 November 2013). "Improved Determination of the Neutron Lifetime". Physical Review Letters. 111 (22): 222501. arXiv: 1309.2623 . Bibcode:2013PhRvL.111v2501Y. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.111.222501 via APS.
  2. "How Radiation Damages Tissue". Michigan State University. Retrieved 2017-12-21.
  3. "Neutron Radiation Shielding". Frontier Technology Corporation. Retrieved 2017-12-21.
  4. Carrillo, Héctor René Vega (2006-05-15). "Neutron Shielding Performance of Water-Extended Polyester" (PDF). TA-3 Dosimetry and Instrumentation. Retrieved 2017-12-21.
  5. Specialist, WPI, Environmental Information Services -- Shawn Denny, Information Architect; Mike Pizzuti, Graphic Designer; Chelene Neal, Web Information Specialist; Kate Bessiere, Web Information. "Advisory Committee On Human Radiation Experiments Final Report". Retrieved 2017-12-21.
  6. 1 2 3 4 [Dunand, David. "Materials in Nuclear Power Generation." Materials Science & Engineering 381: Materials for Energy Efficient Technology. Northwestern University, Evanston. 3 Feb. 2015. Lecture]
  7. A. Struchbery, E. Bezakova "Thermal-Spike Lifetime from Picosecond-Duration Preequilibrium Effects in Hyperfine Magnetic Fields Following Ion Implantation". 3 May. 1999.
  8. Thomé, L.; Moll, S.; Debelle, A.; Garrido, F.; Sattonnay, G.; Jagielski, J. (1 June 2018). "Radiation Effects in Nuclear Ceramics". Advances in Materials Science and Engineering. 2012: 1–13. doi:10.1155/2012/905474.
  9. CAWTHORNE, C.; FULTON, E. J. (1 November 1967). "Voids in Irradiated Stainless Steel" (PDF). Nature. 216 (5115): 575–576. Bibcode:1967Natur.216..575C. doi:10.1038/216575a0.
  10. Adamson, R. "Effects of Neutron Radiation on Microstructure and the Properties of Zircaloy" 1977. 08 Feb. 2015.
  11. Hyun Ju Jin, Tae Kyu Kim. "Neutron irradiation performance of Zircaloy-4 under research reactor operating conditions." Annals of Nuclear Energy. 13 Sept. 2014 Web. 08 Feb. 2015.
  12. Baroch, CJ. Effects of Radiation on Structural Materials. ASTM International. pp. 129–129–14. doi:10.1520/STP33683S.