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A neutron reflector is any material that reflects neutrons. This refers to elastic scattering rather than to a specular reflection. The material may be graphite, beryllium, steel, tungsten carbide, or other materials. A neutron reflector can make an otherwise subcritical mass of fissile material critical, or increase the amount of nuclear fission that a critical or supercritical mass will undergo. Such an effect was exhibited twice in accidents involving the Demon Core, a subcritical plutonium pit that went critical in two separate fatal incidents when the pit's surface was momentarily surrounded by too much neutron reflective material.
In a uranium graphite chain reacting pile, the critical size may be considerably reduced by surrounding the pile with a layer of graphite, since such an envelope reflects many neutrons back into the pile.
To obtain a 30-year life span, the SSTAR nuclear reactor design calls for a moveable neutron reflector to be placed over the column of fuel. The reflector's slow downward travel over the column would cause the fuel to be burned from the top of the column to the bottom.
A reflector made of a light material like graphite or beryllium will also serve as a neutron moderator reducing neutron kinetic energy, while a heavy material like lead or lead-bismuth eutectic will have less effect on neutron velocity.
In power reactors, a neutron reflector reduces the non-uniformity of the power distribution in the peripheral fuel assemblies, reduces neutron leakage and reduces a coolant flow bypass of the core. By reducing neutron leakage, the reflector increases reactivity of the core and reduces the amount of fuel necessary to maintain the reactor critical for a long period. In light-water reactors, the neutron reflector is installed for following purposes:
- The neutron flux distribution is “flattened“, i.e., the ratio of the average flux to the maximum flux is increased. Therefore reflectors reduce the non-uniformity of the power distribution.
- Because of the higher flux at the edge of the core, there is much better utilization in the peripheral fuel assemblies. This fuel, in the outer regions of the core, now contributes much more to the total power production.
- The neutron reflector scatters back (or reflects) into the core many neutrons that would otherwise escape. The neutrons reflected back into the core are available for chain reaction. This means that the minimum critical size of the reactor is reduced. Alternatively, if the core size is maintained, the reflector makes additional reactivity available for higher fuel burnup. The decrease in the critical size of core required is known as the reflector savings.
- Neutron reflectors reduce neutron leakage i.e. to reduce the neutron fluence on a reactor pressure vessel.
- Neutron reflectors reduce a coolant flow bypass of a core.
- Neutron reflectors serve as a thermal and radiation shield of a reactor core.
A similar envelope can be used to reduce the critical size of a nuclear weapon, but here the envelope has an additional role: its inertia delays the expansion of the reacting material. For this reason such an envelope is often called a tamper. The weapon tends to disintegrate as the reaction proceeds and this tends to stop the reaction, so the use of a tamper makes for a longer-lasting, more energetic, and more efficient explosion. The most effective tamper is the one having the highest density; high tensile strength is irrelevant because no material remains intact under the extreme pressures of a nuclear weapon. Coincidentally, high-density materials are excellent neutron reflectors. This makes them doubly suitable for nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapons used heavy uranium or tungsten carbide tamper-reflectors.
On the other hand, a heavy tamper necessitates a larger high-explosive implosion system. The primary stage of a modern thermonuclear weapon may use a lightweight beryllium reflector, which is also transparent to X-rays when ionized, allowing the primary's energy output to escape quickly to be used in compressing the secondary stage.
While the effect of a tamper is to increase efficiency, both by reflecting neutrons and by delaying the expansion of the bomb, the effect on the critical mass is not as great. The reason for this is that the process of reflection is time-consuming. By the time reflected neutrons make it back into the core, several generations of the chain reaction have passed, meaning the contribution from the older generation is a tiny fraction of the neutron population.