A nuclear reaction is considered to be the process in which two nuclear particles (two nuclei or a nucleus and a nucleon) interact to produce two or more nuclear particles or ˠ-rays (gamma rays). Thus, a nuclear reaction must cause a transformation of at least one nuclide to another. Sometimes if a nucleus interacts with another nucleus or particle without changing the nature of any nuclide, the process is referred to a nuclear scattering, rather than a nuclear reaction. Perhaps the most notable nuclear reactions are the nuclear fusion reactions of light elements that power the energy production of stars and the Sun. Natural nuclear reactions occur also in the interaction between cosmic rays and matter.

The most notable man-controlled nuclear reaction is the fission reaction which occurs in nuclear reactorsNuclear reactors are devices to initiate and control a nuclear chain reaction, but there are not only manmade devices. The world’s first nuclear reactor operated about two billion years ago. The natural nuclear reactor formed at Oklo in Gabon, Africa, when a uranium-rich mineral deposit became flooded with groundwater that acted as a neutron moderator, and a nuclear chain reaction started.  These fission reactions were sustained for hundreds of thousands of years, until a chain reaction could no longer be supported. This was confirmed by existence of isotopes of the fission-product gas xenon and by different ratio of U-235/U-238 (enrichment of natural uranium).

Notation of Nuclear Reactions

Standard nuclear notation shows (see picture) the chemical symbol, the mass number and the atomic number of the isotope.

If the initial nuclei are denoted by a and b, and the product nuclei are denoted by c and d, the reaction can be represented by the equation:

 a + b → c + d

boron-neutron reaction

This equation describes neutron capture in the boron, which is diluted in the coolant. Boric acid is used in nuclear power plants as a long-term compensator of nuclear fuel reactivity.

Notation of nuclei

Notation of nuclei
Source: chemwiki.ucdavis.edu

Instead of using the full equations in the style above, in many situations a compact notation is used to describe nuclear reactions. This style of the form a(b,c)d is equivalent to a + b producing c + d. Light particles are often abbreviated in this shorthand, typically p means proton, n means neutron, d means deuteron, α means an alpha particle or helium-4, β means beta particle or electron, γ means gamma photon, etc. The reaction above would be written as 10B(n,α)7Li.

Basic Classification of Nuclear Reactions

In order to understand the nature of neutron nuclear reactions, the classification according to the time scale of of these reactions has to be introduced. Interaction time is critical for defining the reaction mechanism.

There are two extreme scenarios for nuclear reactions (not only neutron reactions):

  • A projectile and a target nucleus are within the range of nuclear forces for the very short time allowing for an interaction of a single nucleon only. These type of reactions are called the direct reactions.
  • A projectile and a target nucleus are within the range of nuclear forces for the time allowing for a large number of interactions between nucleons. These type of reactions are called the compound nucleus reactions.

In fact, there is always some non-direct (multiple internuclear interaction) component in all reactions, but the direct reactions have this component limited.

  • The direct reactions are fast and involve a single-nucleon interaction.
  • The interaction time must be very short (~10-22 s).
  • The direct reactions require incident particle energy larger than ∼ 5 MeV/Ap. (Ap is the atomic mass number of a projectile)
  • Incident particles interact on the surface of a target nucleus rather than in the volume of a target nucleus.
  • Products of the direct reactions are not distributed isotropically in angle, but they are forward focused.
  • Direct reactions are of importance in measurements of nuclear structure.
  • The compound nucleus is a relatively long-lived intermediate state of particle-target composite system.
  • The compound nucleus reactions involve many nucleon-nucleon interactions.
  • The large number of collisions between the nucleons leads to a thermal equilibrium inside the compound nucleus.
  • The time scale of compound nucleus reactions is of the order of 10-18 s – 10-16 s.
  • The compound nucleus reactions is usually created if the projectile has low energy.
  • Incident particles interact in the volume of a target nucleus.
  • Products of the compound nucleus reactions are distributed near isotropically in angle (the nucleus loses memory of how it was created – the Bohr’s hypothesis of independence).
  • The mode of decay of compound nucleus do not depend on the way the compound nucleus is formed.
  • Resonances in the cross-section are typical for the compound nucleus reaction.

Types of Nuclear Reactions

Although the number of possible nuclear reactions is enormous, nuclear reactions can be sorted by types. Most of nuclear reactions are accompanied by gamma emission. Some examples are:

  • Elastic scattering. Occurs, when no energy is transferred between the target nucleus and the incident particle.

 208Pb (n, n) 208Pb

  •  Inelastic scattering. Occurs, when energy is transferred. The difference of kinetic energies is saved in excited nuclide.

 40Ca (α, α’) 40mCa

  • Capture reactions. Both charged and neutral particles can be captured by nuclei. This is accompanied by the emission of ˠ-rays. Neutron capture reaction produces radioactive nuclides (induced radioactivity).

 238U (n, ˠ) 239U

  • Transfer Reactions. The absorption of a particle accompanied by the emission of one or more particles is called the transfer reaction.

4He (α, p) 7Li

  • Fission reactions. Nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei). The fission process often produces free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays), and releases a large amount of energy.

235U (n, 3 n) fission products

  • Fusion reactions.  Occur when, two or more atomic nuclei collide at a very high speed and join to form a new type of atomic nucleus.The fusion reaction of deuterium and tritium is particularly interesting because of its potential of providing energy for the future.

3T (d, n) 4He

  • Spallation reactions. Occur, when a nucleus is hit by a particle with sufficient energy and momentum to knock out several small fragments or, smash it into many fragments.
  • Nuclear decay (Radioactive decay). Occurs when an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing radiation. Radioactive decay is a random process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay. There are many types of radioactive decay:
    • Alpha radioactivity. Alha particles consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium nucleus. Because of its very large mass (more than 7000 times the mass of the beta particle) and its charge, it heavy ionizes material and has a very short range.
    • Beta radioactivity. Beta particles are high-energy, high-speed electrons or positrons emitted by certain types of radioactive nuclei such as potassium-40. The beta particles have greater range of penetration than alpha particles, but still much less than gamma rays.The beta particles emitted are a form of ionizing radiation also known as beta rays. The production of beta particles is termed beta decay.
    • Gamma radioactivity. Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation of an very high frequency and are therefore high energy photons. They are produced by the decay of nuclei as they transition from a high energy state to a lower state known as gamma decay. Most of nuclear reactions are accompanied by gamma emission.
    • Neutron emissionNeutron emission is a type of radioactive decay of nuclei containing excess neutrons (especially fission products), in which a neutron is simply ejected from the nucleus. This type of radiation plays key role in nuclear reactor control, because these neutrons are delayed  neutrons.
Notation of nuclear reactions - radioactive decays

Radioactive decays
Source: chemwiki.ucdavis.edu

Conservation Laws in Nuclear Reactions

In analyzing nuclear reactions, we apply the many conservation lawsNuclear reactions are subject to classical conservation laws for charge, momentum, angular momentum, and energy(including rest energies).  Additional conservation laws, not anticipated by classical physics, are:

Lepton Number. Conservation of Lepton NumberIn particle physics, the lepton number is used to denote which particles are leptons and which particles are not. Each lepton has a lepton number of and each antilepton has a lepton number of -1. Other non-leptonic particles have a lepton number of 0. The lepton number is a conserved quantum number in all particle reactions. A slight asymmetry in the laws of physics allowed leptons to be created in the Big Bang.

The conservation of lepton number means that whenever a lepton of a certain generation is created or destroyed in a reaction, a corresponding antilepton from the same generation must be created or destroyed. It must be added, there is a separate requirement for each of the three generations of leptons, the electron, muon and tau and their associated neutrinos.

Consider the decay of the neutron. The reaction involves only first generation leptons: electrons and neutrinos:


Since the lepton number must be equal to zero on both sides and it was found that the reaction is a three-particle decay (the electrons emitted in beta decay have a continuous rather than a discrete spectrum),  the third particle must be an electron antineutrino.

In particle physics, the baryon number is used to denote which particles are baryons and which particles are not. Each baryon has a baryon number of 1 and each antibaryonhas a baryon number of -1. Other non-baryonic particles have a baryon number of 0. Since there are exotic hadrons like pentaquarks and tetraquarks, there is a general definition of baryon number as:


where nq is the number of quarks, and nq is the number of antiquarks.

The baryon number is a conserved quantum number in all particle reactions.

The law of conservation of baryon number states that:

The sum of the baryon number of all incoming particles is the same as the sum of the baryon numbers of all particles resulting from the reaction.

For example, the following reaction has never been observed:


even if the incoming proton has sufficient energy and charge, energy, and so on, are conserved. This reaction does not conserve baryon number since the left side has B =+2, and the right has B =+1.

On the other hand, the following reaction (proton-antiproton pair production) does conserve B and does occur if the incoming proton has sufficient energy (the threshold energy = 5.6 GeV):


As indicated, B = +2 on both sides of this equation.

From these and other reactions, the conservation of baryon number has been established as a basic principle of physics.

This principle provides basis for the stability of the proton. Since the proton is the lightest particle among all baryons, the hypothetical products of its decay would have to be non-baryons. Thus, the decay would violate the conservation of baryon number. It must be added some theories have suggested that protons are in fact unstable with very long half-life (~1030 years) and that they decay into leptons. There is currently no experimental evidence that proton decay occurs.

The law of conservation of electric charge can be demonstrated also on positron-electron pair production. Since a gamma ray is electrically neutral and sum of the electric charges of electron and positron is also zero, the electric charge in this reaction is also conserved.

Ɣ → e- + e+

It must be added, in order for electron-positron pair production to occur, the electromagnetic energy of the photon must be above a threshold energy, which is equivalent to the rest mass of two electrons. The threshold energy (the total rest mass of produced particles) for electron-positron pair production is equal to 1.02MeV (2 x 0.511MeV) because the rest mass of a single electron is equivalent to 0.511MeV of energy. If the original photon’s energy is greater than 1.02MeV, any energy above 1.02MeV is according to the conservation law split between the kinetic energy of motion of the two particles. The presence of an electric field of a heavy atom such as lead or uranium is essential in order to satisfy conservation of momentum and energy. In order to satisfy both conservation of momentum and energy, the atomic nucleus must receive some momentum. Therefore a photon pair production in free space cannot occur.

Certain of these laws are obeyed under all circumstances, others are not. We have accepted conservation of energy and momentum. In all the examples given we assume that the number of protons and the number of neutrons is separately conserved. We shall find circumstances and conditions in which  this rule is not true. Where we are considering non-relativistic nuclear reactions, it is essentially true. However, where we are considering relativistic nuclear energies or those involving the weak interactions, we shall find that these principles must be extended.

Some conservation principles have arisen from theoretical considerations, others are just empirical relationships. Notwithstanding, any reaction not expressly forbidden by the conservation laws will generally occur, if perhaps at a slow rate. This expectation is based on quantum mechanics. Unless the barrier between the initial and final states is infinitely high, there is always a non-zero probability that a system will make the transition between them.

For purposes of analyzing non-relativistic reactions, it is sufficient to note four of the fundamental laws governing these reactions.

  1. Conservation of nucleons. The total number of nucleons before and after a reaction are the same.
  2. Conservation of charge. The sum of the charges on all the particles before and after a reaction are the same
  3. Conservation of momentum. The total momentum of the interacting particles before and after a reaction are the same.
  4. Conservation of energy. Energy, including rest mass energy, is conserved in nuclear reactions.

Reference: Lamarsh, John R. Introduction to Nuclear engineering 2nd Edition.

A neutron (n) of mass 1.01 u traveling with a speed of 3.60 x 104m/s interacts with a carbon (C) nucleus (mC = 12.00 u) initially at rest in an elastic head-on collision.

What are the velocities of the neutron and carbon nucleus after the collision?


This is an elastic head-on collision of two objects with unequal masses. We have to use the conservation laws of momentum and of kinetic energy, and apply them to our system of two particles.


We can solve this system of equation or we can use the equation derived in previous section. This equation stated that the relative speed of the two objects after the collision has the same magnitude (but opposite direction) as before the collision, no matter what the masses are.


The minus sign for v’ tells us that the neutron scatters back of the carbon nucleus, because the carbon nucleus is significantly heavier. On the other hand its speed is less than its initial speed. This process is known as the neutron moderation and it significantly depends on the mass of moderator nuclei.

Energetics of Nuclear Reactions – Q-value

Q-value of DT fusion reaction

Q-value of DT fusion reaction

In nuclear and particle physics the energetics of nuclear reactions is determined by the Q-value of that reaction. The Q-value of the reaction is defined as the difference between the sum of the masses of the initial reactants and the sum of the masses of the final products, in energy units (usually in MeV).

Consider a typical reaction, in which the projectile a and the target A gives place to two products, B and b. This can also be expressed in the notation that we used so far, a + A → B + b, or even in a more compact notation, A(a,b)B.

See also: E=mc2

The Q-value of this reaction is given by:

Q = [ma + mA – (mb + mB)]c2

which is the same as the excess kinetic energy of the final products:

Q = Tfinal – Tinitial

   = Tb + TB – (Ta + TA)

For reactions in which there is an increase in the kinetic energy of the products Q is positive. The positive Q reactions are said to be exothermic (or exergic). There is a net release of energy, since the kinetic energy of the final state is greater than the kinetic energy of the initial state.

For reactions in which there is a decrease in the kinetic energy of the products Q is negative. The negative Q reactions are said to be endothermic (or endoergic) and they require a net energy input.

The energy released in a nuclear reaction can appear mainly in one of three ways:

  • Kinetic energy of the products
  • Emission of gamma rays. Gamma rays are emitted by unstable nuclei in their transition from a high energy state to a lower state known as gamma decay.
  • Metastable state. Some energy may remain in the nucleus, as a metastable energy level.

A small amount of energy may also emerge in the form of X-rays. Generally, products of nuclear reactions may have different atomic numbers, and thus the configuration of their electron shells is different in comparison with reactants. As the electrons rearrange themselves and drop to lower energy levels, internal transition X-rays (X-rays with precisely defined emission lines) may be emitted.

See also: Q-value Calculator

Exothermic Reactions

Q-value of DT fusion reaction

Q-value of DT fusion reaction

The DT fusion reaction of deuterium and tritium is particularly interesting because of its potential of providing energy for the future. Calculate the reaction Q-value.

3T (d, n) 4He

The atom masses of the reactants and products are:

m(3T) = 3.0160 amu

m(2D) = 2.0141 amu

m(1n) = 1.0087 amu

m(4He) = 4.0026 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {(3.0160+2.0141) [amu] – (1.0087+4.0026) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= 0.0188 x 931.481 = 17.5 MeV

Cross-section of 10B(n,2alpha)T reaction.

Cross-section of 10B(n,2alpha)T reaction.

Tritium is a byproduct in nuclear reactors. Most of the tritium produced in nuclear power plants stems from the boric acid, which is commonly used as a chemical shim to compensate an excess of initial reactivity. Main reaction, in which the tritium is generated from boron is below:


This reaction of a neutron with an isotope 10B is the main way, how radioactive tritium in primary circuit of all PWRs is generated. Note that, this reaction is a threshold reaction due to its cross-section.

Calculate the reaction Q-value.

The atom masses of the reactants and products are:

m(10B) = 10.01294 amu

m(1n) = 1.00866 amu

m(3T) = 3.01604 amu

m(4He) = 4.0026 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {(10.0129+1.00866) [amu] – (3.01604+2 x 4.0026) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= 0.00036 x 931.481 = 0.335 MeV

Endothermic Reactions

In nuclear reactors the gamma radiation plays a significant role also in reactor kinetics and in a subcriticality control. Especially in nuclear reactors with D2O moderator (CANDU reactors) or with Be reflectors (some experimental reactors). Neutrons can be produced also in (γ, n) reactions and therefore they are usually referred to as photoneutrons.

A high energy photon (gamma ray) can under certain conditions eject a neutron from a nucleus. It occurs when its energy exceeds the binding energy of the neutron in the nucleus. Most nuclei have binding energies in excess of 6 MeV, which is above the energy of most gamma rays from fission. On the other hand there are few nuclei with sufficiently low binding energy to be of practical interest. These are: 2D, 9Be, 6Li, 7Li and 13C. As can be seen from the table the lowest threshold have 9Be with 1.666 MeV and 2D with 2.226 MeV.

Photoneutron sources

Nuclides with low photodisintegration
threshold energies.

In case of deuterium, neutrons can be produced by the interaction of gamma rays (with a minimum energy of 2.22 MeV) with deuterium:

Photoneutron - deuterium

The reaction Q-value is calculated below:

The atom masses of the reactant and products are:

m(2D) = 2.01363 amu

m(1n) = 1.00866 amu

m(1H) = 1.00728 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {2.01363 [amu] – (1.00866+1.00728) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= -0.00231 x 931.481 = -2.15 MeV

Calculate the reaction Q-value of the following reaction:

7Li (α, n) 10B

The atom masses of the reactants and products are:

m(4He) = 4.0026 amu

m(7Li) = 7.0160 amu

m(1n) = 1.0087 amu

m(10B) = 10.01294 amu

Using the mass-energy equivalence, we get the Q-value of this reaction as:

Q = {(7.0160+4.0026) [amu] – (1.0087+10.01294) [amu]} x 931.481 [MeV/amu]

= 0.00304 x 931.481 = -2.83 MeV

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Test your Knowledge – Nuclear Reactions

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Nuclear and Reactor Physics:

  1. J. R. Lamarsh, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Theory, 2nd ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1983).
  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
  3. W. M. Stacey, Nuclear Reactor Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN: 0- 471-39127-1.
  4. Glasstone, Sesonske. Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Systems Engineering, Springer; 4th edition, 1994, ISBN: 978-0412985317
  5. W.S.C. Williams. Nuclear and Particle Physics. Clarendon Press; 1 edition, 1991, ISBN: 978-0198520467
  6. Kenneth S. Krane. Introductory Nuclear Physics, 3rd Edition, Wiley, 1987, ISBN 978-0471805533
  7. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  8. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  9. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.

Advanced Reactor Physics:

  1. K. O. Ott, W. A. Bezella, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Statics, American Nuclear Society, Revised edition (1989), 1989, ISBN: 0-894-48033-2.
  2. K. O. Ott, R. J. Neuhold, Introductory Nuclear Reactor Dynamics, American Nuclear Society, 1985, ISBN: 0-894-48029-4.
  3. D. L. Hetrick, Dynamics of Nuclear Reactors, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48453-2. 
  4. E. E. Lewis, W. F. Miller, Computational Methods of Neutron Transport, American Nuclear Society, 1993, ISBN: 0-894-48452-4.

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