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Nuclear criticality safety and reactor safety are at the heart of a new global initiative dedicated to the careful measurement and analysis of high-accuracy nuclear data.

That data will come from a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute research program which just earned a 5-year $1.5 million funding plan from the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Criticality Safety Program (NCSP), managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The funds will support a new nuclear engineering research program and laboratory at RPI, focused on the measurement and analysis of high-accuracy nuclear interaction data. Essentially, the information gathered at the new lab, will be a baseline for researchers and engineers to use around the globe in a wide variety of nuclear physics applications, including nuclear criticality safety of fissionable material processing, the design of new and safer nuclear reactors, among others.

The new program, led by Yaron Danon, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at RPI, will study basic nuclear interactions that enable more accurate predictions of energy production and shielding effectiveness in a working nuclear reactor. Results of the study will also enable better prediction of heat production in emergency and emergency shutdown situations, such as the recent crisis at the Fukushima reactors in Japan.

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“To store nuclear material safely, you absolutely need to know the probability that the neutrons will interact with materials they come into contact with. Will the neutrons be absorbed? Would they scatter? Or cause fission?” said Danon, who is director of the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator Laboratory (LINAC) at RPI. “If you’re writing computer code or building a computer model to represent uranium being stored in a concrete structure, for example, these probabilities are critical.”

The goal of the new research program at Rensselaer is to provide high-accuracy nuclear data for the international nuclear community.

In any nuclear technology application – including commercial power generation, naval propulsion, medical devices, and processing and storage of nuclear materials – neutron interactions are of paramount importance, Danon said. To design ways of storing nuclear fissile materials for these products, devices, and systems, engineers require the ability to accurately calculate and predict how the fissile material will behave.

To generate this nuclear data, Danon and his students use the Rensselaer LINAC facility to precisely measure how a wide range of metals, composites, and other materials interact with neutrons at the nuclear level. The collected measurements are a probability the neutrons will interact with different materials called nuclear reaction cross sections. These probabilities, once measured and validated, can then go out to engineers and scientists around the world who can then use the data as inputs in a wide range of engineering models and simulations.

“Highly accurate data about these basic interactions enable engineers to design better systems with the proper safety margins,” Danon said. “It all starts with good data.”

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