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tron sources, and leakage of neutrons.

For example, in the presence of absorptions, the


Maxwellian distribution of neutrons will be shifted toward higher energies - as if the temperature
were effectively increased. This effect is called “absorption heating” or “absorption spectrum
hardening”. Having in mind that for most nuclei probability for neutron absorption at low ener-
gies increases with energy decrease (see Section II.3.3), relatively more low-energy neutrons will
be absorbed than high-energy neutrons, hence effectively increasing the average energy of
remaining neutrons. The opposite effect occurs due to neutron leakage: the higher-energy neu-
trons have higher probability to leak out of the reactor core then low-energy neutrons. This causes
the neutron distribution to shift to lower energies, which is called “diffusion cooling” or “leakage
spectrum softening”.

II.3. Neutron Cross Sections

Our goal is to analyze nuclear reactors. In addition to the description of the physical processes,
we need to come up with a mathematical form (i.e., a set of equations) that will help us to quan-
tify what is happening in the reactor core. The equations we use will contain mathematical
descriptions of the rates at which neutrons interact with the nuclei. Thus, we must describe such
interactions mathematically.

II.3.1 Microscopic Cross Sections

We will begin with “microscopic” cross sections, which describe the likelihood that a neutron
will interact with a given nucleus. Therefore, “microscopic” cross sections will depend on the
properties of target nuclei and neutrons. For our purposes, the target nucleus is assumed to be at
rest in the laboratory system. If the thermal motion of the target nucleus cannot be neglected, we
introduce the “relative” neutron velocity with respect to target nucleus. The cross sections depend
only on this relative neutron velocity. Consider a beam of neutrons, all with the same velocity,
normally (perpendicularly) incident on a very thin plate of some material:
N

FIGURE II.16. A monoenergetic parallel neutron beam incident normally on a thin target

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We shall assume that the target is so thin that all nuclei are “visible” to the incident neutrons ––
no nucleus is hidden behind another nucleus. We define:

I = beam intensity - rate at which neutrons reach target [neutrons/cm2s]


N = number density of target nuclei [nuclei / cm3].
Δx = target thickness [cm].

The rate at which neutrons collide with nuclei must be proportional to I (the rate at which neu-
trons strike) and to NΔx (the areal density of target nuclei), i.e.:

collision rate = σINΔx (II. 31)

2
colliding neutrons cm neutrons nuclei
- = ------------------
------------------------------------------ -------------------
- -------------
- [ cm ] (II. 32)
cm s
2 nucleus cm s
2
cm
3

where the symbol σ to represent the constant of proportionality. We have determined that σ must
have units of area per nucleus. We refer to σ as a “microscopic cross section”. We tabulate micro-
scopic cross sections in units of barns, with 1 barn defined to be 10–24 cm2.

If neutrons were classical point particles and nuclei were classical spheres, σ would simply be the
cross-sectional area of each nucleus. (Since a nuclear radius is on the order of 10–12 cm, one barn
is on the order of the cross-sectional area of a nucleus.) In reality, neutron-nuclear collisions are
described by quantum-mechanical laws, and they have little to do, in general, with the geometry
of a nucleus. However, it is still useful to think of σ as the effective area that a nucleus presents to
a neutron.

We have described σ as a “constant” of proportionality. However, if we changed anything about


our simple experiment, we might expect our “constant” to change. That is, we might expect to
have a different σ for different neutron speeds and for different target nuclei. This is, in fact, the
case:

microscopic cross sections depend on:

the relative speed between the neutron and the nucleus, and
the target nuclide.

In the preceding discussion we were looking at the total rate at which neutrons interact with
nuclei, without distinguishing between different kinds of interactions (elastic scattering, fission,
inelastic scattering, capture, etc.). The σ that we used above is called the microscopic total cross

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section, and is denoted σt. It can be thought of as the sum of microscopic cross sections for vari-
ous specific interactions:

σt = σa + σs = (σγ + σf + σn,2n + σn,α + ...) + (σe + σin) (II. 33)

where: σt = total cross section, σa = absorption cross section, σs = scattering cross section, σγ =
radiative capture cross section, σf = fission cross section, σn,2n = (n,2n) cross section, and σn,α =
(n,alpha) cross section.

II.3.2 Macroscopic Cross Sections

We have seen that quantitative descriptions of neutron-nuclear interactions involve microscopic


cross sections. We shall soon find that microscopic cross sections are almost always multiplied by
the number density [nuclei/cm3] of the target nuclei. It is therefore convenient to define macro-
scopic cross sections as the product:

Σx = N σx [cm–1],

for each different type, x = {t, a, s, γ, f, ...}, of interaction. Note that macroscopic cross sections
have units of inverse length: [nuclei/cm3] • [cm2/nucleus] = cm–1.

In addition to their convenience, macroscopic cross sections have an important physical interpre-
tation. Let us return to our uniform beam of mono-energetic neutrons incident normally upon a
target. This time we allow the target to be thick. We define:

I(x) = intensity of uncollided neutrons at distance x into the target [neutrons/


cm2s], or intensity of neutrons that have reached distance x without inter-
acting with any nuclei.

I0 I(x)

x=0 x x+dx

FIGURE II.17. Monoenergetic parallel neutron beam incident normally on a thick target

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We have:

dI
------ = – N σ t I ( x ) = – Σ t I ( x ) (II. 34)
dx

which is of exactly the same form as the equation that governs radioactive decay. Its solution is
easily found by integration:

–Σt x
I ( x) = I 0e (II. 35)

where I0 is the uncollided intensity at x = 0. Thus, uncollided neutrons are exponentially attenu-
ated as they try to pass through matter. This is analogous to the exponential decay of radioactive
nuclides as they try to pass through time.

It follows from their definition that macroscopic cross sections are additive in the same way that
microscopic cross sections are:

Σ t = Σ a + Σ s = ( Σ γ + Σ f + Σ n, α + … ) + ( Σ el + Σ in ) (II. 36)

In addition, given a mixture of nuclides Y1, Y2, ..., with number densities N1, N2, ..., and micro-
scopic cross sections σx1, σx2, ..., for any type, x, of interaction, the macroscopic cross section for
the mixture can be calculated as:

Σx = Σx1 + Σx2 + ...

= N1σx1 + N2σx2 + ...

Finally, we have already noted that microscopic cross sections for a given nuclide will depend on
the relative speed between the neutron and the nucleus. Actually, it is convenient and customary
to tabulate cross sections in terms of the neutron energy E = mv2/2 instead of the speed v. Thus,
we have:

σx = σx(E).

We note further that in general, atomic number densities in practical problems will depend on
space and time. Thus, in general,

Σ x = N ( r, t )σ x ( E ) = Σ x ( r, E, t ) ) (II. 37)

where r denotes position.

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