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Energy of the Future
March 31, 2015   
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Scientists at Poland’s National Center for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) in ¦wierk near Warsaw have designed and built a device that is a continuous source of fast neutrons with an energy of 14 MeV.

The new device, in combination with the center’s Maria research reactor, is expected to make it possible to test various materials needed to build fourth-generation nuclear reactors and the thermonuclear power plants of the future. The new device is the sole facility of its kind operating in the world.

At the moment, large sources of fast neutrons are either at an early stage of construction or still in the design phase. Until they become operational, conversion of thermal neutrons from nuclear reactors into fast neutrons may turn out to be the most economically viable technique capable of producing fast neutrons with an energy of 14 MeV. Such a device has been designed and developed by the NCBJ scientists.

“Our lithium-deuterium converter is adapted to work in tandem with the Maria nuclear reactor, which in this case is used as a source of thermal neutrons,” said Rafał Prokopowicz, Ph.D., from the NCBJ division of research reactor technology.

Fast neutrons needed for material testing are produced in a two-stage nuclear reaction involving lithium-6 and deuterium nuclei. The result is neutrons with an energy of 14 MeV. “Since the converter can work continually for many months, it is effectively among the most intense continuous sources of fast (14 MeV) neutrons in the world,” Prokopowicz says.

The radiation resistance of each new potential nuclear facility construction material must be tested in a radiation field with a spectrum similar to that expected within the facility. Fast neutrons with an energy of about 14 MeV are expected to play a key role in the thermonuclear power plants of the future. Fourth-generation nuclear reactors are expected to use fast neutrons as well. To be able to test and qualify materials, a reliable, intense and continually-operated source of fast neutrons is indispensable. Such a source should be located close to a well-equipped lab operated by qualified research staff. The NCBJ is the only such center in Poland and one of just a few around the world.

Prof. GrzegorzWrochna, director-general of the NCBJ, said, “Our converter is the result of an effective combination of the competences of Polish scientists with unique research infrastructure. Since Europe has an insufficient number of research reactors, new prospects are opening up before our institute. We hope that modernizing the Maria reactor and fitting out our Material Testing Lab with additional equipment using national and European funds will allow us to develop an internationally unique research facility at ¦wierk” for research on new materials, including materials needed for building fourth-generation nuclear reactors and thermonuclear power plants.”

Thermonuclear power generation is based on a nuclear fusion reaction in which two light nuclei fuse into a single heavier one, releasing a surplus of energy. The technique most often involves isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) fusing into a nucleus of helium. Eighty percent of all energy released during the reaction is carried away by 14 MeV neutrons, which are also used to produce fuel (tritium). Despite their unquestionable advantages, fast neutrons pose a threat to typical construction materials used to build classical (fission) nuclear reactors. Therefore new construction materials resistant to high temperatures need to be developed.
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