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Source Range Detectors

Source range detectors monitor neutron flux (reactor power) at the lowest shutdown levels and provide indications, alarms, and reactor trips. Source range instrumentation usually consists of two or four source range channels, each with its own separate detector, cable run, and electronic circuitry. The detectors utilized are usually high-sensitivity boron-trifluoride (BF3) proportional counters. In general, proportional counters are capable of particle identification and energy measurement (spectroscopy). The pulse height reflects the energy deposited by the incident radiation in the detector gas. It is possible to distinguish the larger pulses produced by alpha particles (produced by (n, alpha) reactions) from the smaller pulses produced by beta particles or gamma rays.

These BF3 detectors produce a pulse rate output proportional to the thermal neutron flux seen at the detector. These channels are typically used over a counting range of 0.1 to 106 counts per second but vary based on reactor design. These excore detectors are usually located in instrument wells in the primary shield (concrete shield) adjacent to the reactor vessel.

Detection of Neutrons using Gaseous Ionization Detectors

Since the neutrons are electrically neutral particles, they are mainly subject to strong nuclear forces but not electric ones. Therefore, neutrons are not directly ionizing and usually have to be converted into charged particles before they can be detected. Generally, every type of neutron detector must be equipped with a converter (to convert neutron radiation to common detectable radiation) and one of the conventional radiation detectors (scintillation detector, gaseous detector, semiconductor detector, etc.).

Ionization chambers are often used as the charged particle detection device. For example, if the inner surface of the ionization chamber is coated with a thin coat of boron, the (n, alpha) reaction can occur. Most of (n,alpha) reactions of thermal neutrons are 10B(n,alpha)7Li reactions accompanied by 0.48 MeV gamma emission.

(n,alpha) reactions of 10B

Moreover, isotope boron-10 has a high (n, alpha) reaction cross-section along the entire neutron energy spectrum. The alpha particle causes ionization within the chamber, and ejected electrons cause further secondary ionizations.

Another method for detecting neutrons using an ionization chamber is to use the gas boron trifluoride (BF3) instead of air in the chamber. The incoming neutrons produce alpha particles when they react with the boron atoms in the detector gas. Either method may be used to detect neutrons in a nuclear reactor. It must be noted that BF3 counters are usually operated in the proportional region.

The source range instrumentation monitors and indicates the neutron flux level of the reactor core and the rate by which the neutron flux changes during a reactor shutdown and the initial phase of start-up. They are very important for monitoring subcriticality during fuel reload when subcritical multiplication occurs. The neutron flux is indicated in counts per second (cps). The rate of change of the neutron population is called start-up rate (SUR), defined as the number of factors of ten that power changes in one minute. Therefore the units of SUR are powers of ten per minute or decades per minute (dpm).

There are two principal problems in the source range instrumentation:

  • Discrimination. During the reactor shutdown and the initial start-up phase, it is required to distinguish the relatively small number of pulses produced by neutrons from the large number of pulses produced by gamma radiation. Thus gamma discrimination is of particular interest during shutdown after the reactor core reaches a significant level of fuel burnup. This condition produces a high gamma field and a low neutron flux around the detector. Proportional counters allow for discrimination, but they must be calibrated. The discriminator excludes the passage of pulses that are less than a predetermined level. The function of the discriminator is to exclude noise and gamma pulses that are lower in magnitude than neutron pulses (alpha pulses, respectively). Many power plants have found it necessary to place source range proportional counters in lead shielding to reduce gamma radiation at the detectors. This increases the low-end sensitivity of the detector, and it may extend the detector life.
  • Dead Time. This instrument can indicate a maximum neutron count rate of 106 cps. Higher count rates are influenced by a phenomenon known as dead-time. The dead-time is the period during which the detector is busy and cannot accept and process pulses. This phenomenon can have serious consequences since dead-time distorts outputs at high activity or high dose rates.

Some power plants have made provisions for moving the source range detectors from their operating positions to a position of reduced neutron flux level once the flux level increases above the source range.

Special Reference: Standard Review Plan for the Review of Safety Analysis Reports for Nuclear Power Plants: LWR Edition. NUREG-0800, US NRC.

Source Range – Reactor Safety

As was written, the excore nuclear instrumentation system is considered a safety-related system because it provides inputs to the reactor protection system. The source range neutron flux trip provides the core protection for reactivity accidents in MODE 2 (reactor start-up). For example, the source range neutron flux trip ensures protection against an uncontrolled RCCA bank rod withdrawal accident from a subcritical condition during start-up. It also protects against boron dilution accidents and controls rod ejection events.

During refueling, source range detectors also ensure monitoring of reactor subcriticality. They also have an alarm that may serve as a containment evacuation signal if the neutron flux exceeds a preset value. This alarm alerts the control room operators and personnel in the containment of a positive reactivity addition to the reactor during shutdown conditions.


Radiation Protection:

  1. Knoll, Glenn F., Radiation Detection and Measurement 4th Edition, Wiley, 8/2010. ISBN-13: 978-0470131480.
  2. Stabin, Michael G., Radiation Protection, and Dosimetry: An Introduction to Health Physics, Springer, 10/2010. ISBN-13: 978-1441923912.
  3. Martin, James E., Physics for Radiation Protection 3rd Edition, Wiley-VCH, 4/2013. ISBN-13: 978-3527411764.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, Instrumentation, and Control. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 of 2. June 1992.

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. G.R.Keepin. Physics of Nuclear Kinetics. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co; 1st edition, 1965
  7. Robert Reed Burn, Introduction to Nuclear Reactor Operation, 1988.
  8. U.S. Department of Energy, Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
  9. Paul Reuss, Neutron Physics. EDP Sciences, 2008. ISBN: 978-2759800414.

See above:

Excore Instrumentation