Shielding of Neutron Radiation

Shielding of ionizing radiation simply means having some material between the source of radiation and you (or some device) that will absorb the radiation. In order to shield neutron radiation, neutrons must be slowed down and than absorbed. Since a neutron absorption produces gamma radiation, also gamma radiation must be shielded.

There are three main features of neutrons, which are crucial in the shielding of neutrons.

  • Shielding of Neutron RadiationNeutrons have no net electric charge, therefore they cannot be affected or stopped by electric forces. Neutrons ionize matter only indirectly, which makes neutrons highly penetrating type of radiation.
  • Neutrons scatter with heavy nuclei very elastically. Heavy nuclei very hard slow down a neutron let alone absorb a fast neutron.
  • An absorption of neutron (one would say shielding) causes initiation of certain nuclear reaction (e.g. radiative capture or even fission), which is accompanied by a number of other types of radiation. In short, neutrons make matter radioactive, therefore with neutrons we have to shield also the other types of radiation.

See also: Interaction of Neutrons with Matter

14N(n,p)14C - the nuclear reaction of importance in the radiation protection
14N (n,p) 14C

This nuclear reaction (charged particle reaction) continually take place especially in the earth’s atmosphere, forming equilibrium amounts of the radionuclide 14C. In nuclear power plants, it is important especially from radiation protection point of view. The reaction is responsible for most of the radiation dose delivered to the human body by thermal neutrons. The nitrogen atoms are contained in proteins, therefore if the human body is exposed to thermal neutrons, then these thermal neutrons may be absorbed by 14N, causing a proton emission. Protons are directly ionizing particles and deposit their energy over a very short distance in the body tissue.

Principles of Neutron Shielding

The best materials for shielding neutrons must be able to:

  • Slow down neutrons (the same principle as the neutron moderation). First point can be fulfilled only by material containing light atoms (e.g. hydrogen atoms), such as water, polyethylene, and concrete. The nucleus of a hydrogen nucleus contains only a proton. Since a proton and a neutron have almost identical masses, a neutron scattering on a hydrogen nucleus can give up a great amount of its energy (even entire kinetic energy of a neutron can be transferred to a proton after one collision). This is similar to a billiard. Since a cue ball and another billiard ball have identical masses, the cue ball hitting another ball can be made to stop and the other ball will start moving with the same velocity. On the other hand, if a ping pong ball is thrown against a bowling ball (neutron vs. heavy nucleus), the ping pong ball will bounce off with very little change in velocity, only a change in direction. Therefore lead is quite ineffective for blocking neutron radiation, as neutrons are uncharged and can simply pass through dense materials.
  • Table of cross-sections
    Table of cross-sections

    Absorb this slow neutron. Thermal neutrons can be easily absorbed by capture in materials with high neutron capture cross sections (thousands of barns) like boron, lithium or cadmium. Generally, only a thin layer of such absorbator is sufficient to shield thermal neutrons. Hydrogen (in the form of water), which can be used to slow down neutrons, have absorbtion cross-section 0.3 barns. This is not enough, but this insufficiency can be offset by sufficient thickness of water shield.

  • Shield the accompanying radiation. In the case of cadmium shield the absorption of neutrons is accompanied by strong emission of gamma rays. Therefore additional shield is necessary to attenuate the gamma rays. This phenomenon practically does not exist for lithium and is much less important for boron as a neutron absorption material. For this reason, materials containing boron are used often in neutron shields. In addition, boron (in the form of boric acid) is well soluble in water making this combination very efective neutron shield.

Water as a neutron shield

Water due to the high hydrogen content and the availability is efective and common neutron shielding. However, due to the low atomic number of hydrogen and oxygen, water is not acceptable shield against the gamma rays. On the other hand in some cases this disadvantage (low density) can be compensated by high thickness of the water shield.  In case of neutrons, water perfectly moderates neutrons, but with absorption of neutrons by hydrogen nucleus secondary gamma rays with the high energy are produced. These gamma rays highly penetrates matter and therefore it can increase requirements on the thickness of the water shield. Adding a boric acid can help with this problem (neutron absorbtion on boron nuclei without strong gamma emission), but results in another problems with corrosion of construction materials.

Concrete as a neutron shield

Most commonly used neutron shielding in many sectors of the nuclear science and engineering is shield of concrete. Concrete is also hydrogen-containing material, but unlike water concrete have higher density (suitable for secondary gamma shielding) and does not need any maintenance. Because concrete is a mixture of several different materials its composition is not constant. So when referring to concrete as a neutron shielding material, the material used in its composition should be told correctly. Generally concrete are divided to “ordinary “ concrete and “heavy” concrete. Heavy concrete uses heavy natural aggregates such as barites  (barium sulfate) or magnetite or manufactured aggregates such as iron, steel balls, steel punch or other additives. As a result of these additives, heavy concrete have higher density than ordinary concrete (~2300 kg/m3). Very heavy concrete can achieve density up to 5,900 kg/m3 with iron additives or up to 8900 kg/m3 with lead additives. Heavy concrete provide very effective protection against neutrons.

See previous:

Detection of Neutrons

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Neutron Sources