Prompt Critical Reactor

Prompt Criticality

The basic classification of states of a reactor may be in some case insufficient and a finer classification is needed. The finer classification takes into account the two groups of neutrons that are produced in fission.

It is known the fission neutrons are of importance in any chain-reacting system. The fission of fissile nuclei produces 2, 3 or more free neutrons. But not all neutrons are released at the same time following fission. Even the nature of creation of these neutrons is different. From this point of view we usually divide the fission neutrons into two following groups:

  • Prompt Neutrons. Prompt neutrons are emitted directly from fission and they are emitted within very short time of about 10-14 second.
  • Delayed Neutrons. Delayed neutrons are emitted by neutron rich fission fragments that are called the delayed neutron precursors. These precursors usually undergo beta decay but a small fraction of them are excited enough to undergo neutron emission. The fact the neutron is produced via this type of decay and this happens orders of magnitude later compared to the emission of the prompt neutrons, plays an extremely important role in the control of the reactor.

Table of key prompt and delayed neutrons characteristicsThe fact the prompt neutrons are emitted within 10-14 and have significant shorter mean generation time (~ 10-5s) than delayed neutrons (~0.1s) have crucial consequences. The period of ~10-5s is very short and causes very very fast response of the reactor power in case of prompt criticality. The state of reactor, when the chain reaction is self-sustained only by prompt neutrons, is known as the prompt critical state. This state of the reactor is very unstable, because one neutron generation takes only  ~10-5s.   Therefore nuclear reactors must operate in the prompt subcritical, delayed critical condition. All power reactors are designed to operate in a delayed critical conditions and are provided with safety systems to prevent them from ever achieving prompt criticality.The prompt critical state is defined as:

The prompt subcritical and delayed supercritical state is defined as:

The prompt subcritical and delayed critical state is defined as:

  • keff = 1; ρ = 0, where the reactivity of a reactor is equal to zero. In this case, the production of prompt neutrons alone is insufficient to balance neutron losses and the delayed neutrons are needed in order to sustain the chain reaction. There is no change in neutron population in time and the chain reaction will be self-sustaining. This state is the same state as the critical state from basic classification.

The prompt subcritical and delayed subcritical state is defined as:

  • keff < 1; ρ < 0, where the reactivity of a reactor is lower than zero. In this case, the production of all neutrons is insufficient to balance neutron losses and the chain reaction is not self-sustaining. If the reactor core contains external or internal neutron sources, the reactor is in the state that is usually referred to as the subcritical multiplication.
 
Effective Delayed Neutron Fraction – βeff
The delayed neutron fraction, β, is the fraction of delayed neutrons in the core at creation, that is, at high energies. But in case of thermal reactors the fission can be initiated mainly by thermal neutron. Thermal neutrons are of practical interest in study of thermal reactor behaviour. The effective delayed neutron fraction, usually referred to as βeff, is the same fraction at thermal energies.

The effective delayed neutron fraction reflects the ability of the reactor to thermalize and utilize each neutron produced. The β is not the same as the βeff due to the fact delayed neutrons do not have the same properties as prompt neutrons released directly from fission. In general, delayed neutrons have lower energies than prompt neutrons. Prompt neutrons have initial energy between 1 MeV and 10 MeV, with an average energy of 2 MeV. Delayed neutrons have initial energy between 0.3 and 0.9 MeV with an average energy of 0.4 MeV.

Therefore in thermal reactors a delayed neutron traverses a smaller energy range to become thermal and it is also less likely to be lost by leakage or by parasitic absorption than is the 2 MeV prompt neutron. On the other hand, delayed neutrons are also less likely to cause fast fission, because their average energy is less than the minimum required for fast fission to occur.

These two effects (lower fast fission factor and higher fast non-leakage probability for delayed neutrons) tend to counteract each other and forms a term called the importance factor (I). The importance factor relates the average delayed neutron fraction to the effective delayed neutron fraction. As a result, the effective delayed neutron fraction is the product of the average delayed neutron fraction and the importance factor.

βeff = β . I

The delayed and prompt neutrons have a difference in their effectiveness in producing a subsequent fission event. Since the energy distribution of the delayed neutrons differs also from group to group, the different groups of delayed neutrons will also have a different effectiveness. Moreover, a nuclear reactor contains a mixture of fissionable isotopes. Therefore, in some cases, the importance factor is insufficient and an importance function must be defined.

For example:

In a small thermal reactor with highly enriched fuel, the increase in fast non-leakage probability will dominate the decrease in the fast fission factor, and the importance factor will be greater than one.

In a large thermal reactor with low enriched fuel, the decrease in the fast fission factor will dominate the increase in the fast non-leakage probability and the importance factor will be less than one (about 0.97 for a commercial PWR).

In large fast reactors, the decrease in the fast fission factor will also dominate the increase in the fast non-leakage probability and the βeff is less than β by about 10%.

Table of main kinetic parameters.
Table of main kinetic parameters.
Effect of Delayed Neutrons on Reactor Control
Despite the fact the number of delayed neutrons per fission neutron is quite small (typically below 1%) and thus does not contribute significantly to the power generation, they play a crucial role in the reactor control and are essential from the point of view of reactor kinetics and reactor safety. Their presence completely changes the dynamic time response of a reactor to some reactivity change, making it controllable by control systems such as the control rods.

Delayed neutrons allow to operate a reactor in a prompt subcritical, delayed critical condition. All power reactors are designed to operate in a delayed critical conditions and are provided with safety systems to prevent them from ever achieving prompt criticality.

For typical PWRs, the prompt criticality occurs after positive reactivity insertion of βeff (i.e. keff ≈ 1.006 or ρ = +600 pcm). In power reactors such a reactivity insertion is practically impossible to insert (in case of normal and abnormal operation), especially when a reactor is in power operation mode and a reactivity insertion causes a heating of a reactor core. Due to the presence of reactivity feedbacks the positive reactivity insertion is counterbalanced by the negative reactivity from moderator and fuel temperature coefficients. The presence of delayed neutrons is of importance also from this point of view, because they provide time also to reactivity feedbacks to react on undesirable reactivity insertion.

 
References:
Nuclear and Reactor Physics:
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  2. J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.
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  8. 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.

See above:

Reactor Criticality