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.
In case of deuterium, neutrons can be produced by the interaction of gamma rays (with a minimum energy of 2.22 MeV) with deuterium:Because gamma rays can be emitted by fission products with certain delays, and the process is very similar to that through which a “true” delayed neutron is emitted, photoneutrons are usually treated no differently than regular delayed neutrons in the kinetic calculations. Photoneutron precursors can be also grouped by their decay constant, similarly to “real” precursors. The table below shows the relative importance of source neutrons in CANDU reactors by showing the makeup of the full power flux.Despite the fact photoneutrons are of importance especially in CANDU reactors, deuterium nuclei are always present (~0.0156%) also in the light water of LWRs. Moreover the capture of neutrons in the hydrogen nucleus of the water molecules in the moderator yields small amounts of D2O. This enhances the heavy water concentration. Therefore also in LWRs kinetic calculations, photoneutrons from D2O are treated as additional groups of delayed neutrons having characteristic decay constants λj and effective group fractions.
After a nuclear reactor has been operated at full power for some time there will be a considerable build-up of gamma rays from the fission products. This high gamma flux from short-lived fission products will decrease rapidly after shutdown. In the long term the photoneutron source decreases with the decay of long-lived fission products that produce delayed high-energy gamma rays and the photoneutron source drops slowly, decreasing a little each day. The longest-lived fission product with gamma ray energy above the threshold is 140Ba with a half-life of 12.75 days.
The amount of fission products present in the fuel elements depends on how long has been the reactor operated before shut-down and at which power level has been the reactor operated before shut-down. Photoneutrons are usually major source in a reactor and ensure sufficient neutron flux on source range detectors when reactor is subcritical in long term shutdown.
In comparison with fission neutrons, that make a self-sustaining chain reaction possible, delayed neutrons make reactor control possible and photoneutrons are of importance at low power operation.