Control rods are used in nuclear reactors to control the fission rate of uranium and plutonium. They are made of chemical elements, such as boron, silver, indium and cadmium, that are capable of absorbing many neutrons without fissioning themselves. Because these elements have different capture cross sections for neutrons of varying energies, the composition of the control rods must be designed for the neutron spectrum of the reactor they are supposed to control. Boiling water reactors (BWR), pressurized water reactors (PWR), and heavy water reactors (HWR) operate with thermal neutrons, whereas breeder reactors operate with fast neutrons.
Control rods are usually used in control rod assemblies (typically 20 rods for a commercial PWR assembly) and inserted into guide tubes within a fuel element. A control rod is removed from or inserted into the central core of a nuclear reactor in order to increase or decrease the neutron flux, which describes the number of neutrons which will split further uranium atoms. This in turn affects the thermal power of the reactor, the amount of steam produced, and hence the electricity generated.
Control rods often stand vertically within the core. In pressurized water reactors they are inserted from above, with the control rod drive mechanisms being mounted on the reactor pressure vessel head. Due to the necessity of a steam dryer above the core of a boiling water reactor, this design requires insertion of the control rods from underneath the core. The control rods are partially removed from the core to allow a chain reaction to occur. The number of control rods inserted and the distance to which they are inserted can be varied to control the reactivity of the reactor. Typical shutdown time for modern reactors such as the European Pressurized Reactor or Advanced CANDU reactor is 2 seconds for 90% reduction, limited by decay heat.
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Chemical elements with a sufficiently high capture cross section for neutrons include silver, indium and cadmium. Other elements that can be used include boron, cobalt, hafnium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium or their alloys and compounds, e.g. high-boron steel (limited to use only in research reactors due to increased swelling from helium and lithium due to neutron absorption of boron in the (n, alpha) reaction), silver-indium-cadmium alloy, boron carbide, zirconium diboride, titanium diboride, hafnium diboride, gadolinium nitrate (injected into D2O moderator of Advanced CANDU reactor), gadolinium titanate, and dysprosium titanate.
The choice of materials is influenced by the energy of neutrons in the reactor, their resistance to neutron-induced swelling, and the required mechanical and lifetime properties. The rods may have the form of tubes filled with neutron absorbing pellets or powder etc., made out of stainless steel or other neutron window materials like zirconium, chromium, silicium carbide or C11B15N (cubic boron nitride), with much less capturing, low density, inflammable, insoluble, not rising any H2 as zirconium does with water and heat, stable and dense up to 2800°C, melting at 2973°C, with very high thermal conductivity and moderation like graphite, usable also for fuel rods with fuel just backed inside alpha boron nitride. The swelling of the material in the neutron flux can cause deformation of the rod, leading to its premature replacement.
The burn up of the absorbing isotopes is another limiting lifetime factor, reduced by long capturing isotope rows of the same element or just by not using neutron absorbers for trimming over controlling the nuclear fuel amount at run time, for example in pebble bed reactors or in possible new type 7lithium-moderated and -cooled reactors using fuel and absorber pebbles over using less fuel pebbles or empty placebo pebbles or over direct fuel and extraction in and out of 7lithium circle using continuously centrifuges etc. for taking out fission products like inside from fission produced samarium etc. reducing also the decay heat after shut down (starting normally with about 6-7% and quickly falling) and maximum possible contamination in accident cases (likely <0.2%, compared with about 2% of radioactive inventory set free at Fukushima and 20% at Chernobyl).
Some of the rare earth elements that are excellent neutron absorbers are less rare than silver (reserves of about 500,000t), for example ytterbium (reserves about 1 mio. t) and yttrium, 400 times more common, with middle capturing values, and they can be found and used together without separation inside minerals like xenotime(Yb) (Yb0,40Y0,27Lu0,12Er0,12Dy0,05Tm0,04Ho0,01)PO44, or Keiviit(Yb) (Yb1,43Lu0,23Er0,17Tm0,08Y0,05Dy0,03Ho0,02)2Si2O7, lowering the cost. Xenon is also a strong neutron absorber as a gas and can be used for controlling and (emergency) stopping of helium-cooled reactors, but does not function in cases of pressure loss, or as a burning protection gas together with argon around vessel part special in case of core catching reactors or if filled up with sodium or lithium etc. Xenon produced from fission inside a reactor can be used after waiting enough time for caesium to precipitate, when there is practically no radioactivity left. 59Cobalt is also used as an absorber for winning of 60cobalt for x/ray. Control rods can also be constructed as thick turnable rods with tungsten reflector and absorber side turned to stop by a spring in less than 1s used around the core of pebble bed reactors etc.
Silver-indium-cadmium alloys, generally 80% Ag, 15% In, and 5% Cd, are a common control rod material for pressurized water reactors. The somewhat different energy absorption regions of the materials make the alloy an excellent neutron absorber. It has good mechanical strength and can be easily fabricated. It has to be encased in stainless steel to prevent corrosion in hot water. Also, although indium is less rare than silver, in practice it is more expensive.
Boron is another common neutron absorber. Due to the different cross sections of 10B and 11B, materials containing boron enriched in 10B by isotopic separation are frequently used. The wide absorption spectrum of boron also makes it suitable as a neutron shield. The mechanical properties of boron in its elementary form are unsuitable, and therefore alloys or compounds have to be used instead. Common choices are high-boron steel and boron carbide. Boron carbide is used as a control rod material in both pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors. 10B/11B separation is done commercially with gas centrifuges over BF3, but can also be done over BH3 from borane production or directly with an energy optimized melting centrifuge, using the heat of freshly separated boron for preheating.
Hafnium has excellent properties for reactors using water for both moderation and cooling. It has good mechanical strength, can be easily fabricated, and is resistant to corrosion in hot water. Hafnium can be alloyed with small amounts of other elements, e.g. with tin and oxygen to increase tensile and creep strength, with iron, chromium and niobium for corrosion resistance, and with molybdenum for wear resistance, hardness, and machineability. Some of these alloys are designated as Hafaloy, Hafaloy-M, Hafaloy-N, and Hafaloy-NM. The high cost and low availability of hafnium limit its use in civilian reactors, although it is used in some US Navy reactors. Hafnium carbide can also be used as an insoluble material with a very high melting point of 3890°C and density higher than that of uranium dioxide for sinking unmolten through a corium.
Dysprosium titanate is a new material currently undergoing evaluation for pressurized water control rods. Dysprosium titanate is a promising replacement for Ag-In-Cd alloys because it has a much higher melting point, does not tend to react with cladding materials, is easy to produce, does not produce radioactive waste, does not swell, and does not outgas. It was developed in Russia, and is recommended by some for VVER and RBMK reactors. Disadvantage is less absorption of titanium and oxide and also other neutron absorbing elements are not reacting with the right already high melting point cladding materials and with just using the unseparated content also with dysprosium inside of minerals like Keiviit Yb inside chromium, SiC or c11B15N tubes are beating price and absorption also without swelling and gassing out and for highest melting point best using HfC.
Many other compounds of rare earth elements can also be used, samarium etc. with boron like europium and samarium boride, already used in the colour industry, or less absorptive compounds of boron like titanium but cheap molybdenum as Mo2B5 etc., but since they all swell with boron, in practice other compounds are better, such as carbides etc. or compounds with two or more neutron absorber elements together.
It is important that tungsten, and probably also other elements like tantalum, have much the same high capture qualities as hafnium, but with the opposite effect, and this is not explainable by neutron reflection alone, so the only explanation is resonance gamma rays increasing the fission and breeding ratio over causing more capturing of uranium etc. over metastabil conditions like for isotope 235mU with a half time of about 26 min.
Additional means of reactivity regulation
Usually there are also other means of controlling reactivity: In the PWR design a soluble neutron absorber (boric acid) is added to the reactor coolant, allowing the complete extraction of the control rods during stationary power operation, ensuring an even power and flux distribution over the entire core. This chemical shim, along with the use of burnable neutron poisons within the fuel pellets, is used to assist regulation of the long term reactivity of the core, while the control rods are used for rapid changes to the reactor power (e.g. shutdown and start up). Operators of BWRs use the coolant flow through the core to control reactivity by varying the speed of the reactor recirculation pumps (an increase in coolant flow through the core improves the removal of steam bubbles, thus increasing the density of the coolant/moderator, with the result of increasing power).
In most reactor designs, as a safety measure, control rods are attached to the lifting machinery by electromagnets, rather than direct mechanical linkage. This means that in the event of power failure, or if manually invoked due to failure of the lifting machinery, the control rods will fall automatically, under gravity, all the way into the pile to stop the reaction. A notable exception to this fail-safe mode of operation is the BWR, which requires the hydraulical insertion of control rods in the event of an emergency shut-down, using water from a special tank that is under high nitrogen pressure. Quickly shutting down a reactor in this way is called scramming the reactor.
Criticality accident prevention
Homogeneous neutron absorbers have often been used to manage criticality accidents which involve aqueous solutions of fissile metals. In several such accidents, either borax (sodium borate) or a cadmium compound has been added to the system. The cadmium can be added as a metal to nitric acid solutions of fissile material; the corrosion of the cadmium in the acid will then generate cadmium nitrate in situ.
In carbon dioxide-cooled reactors such as the AGR, if the solid control rods fail to arrest the nuclear reaction, nitrogen gas can be injected into the primary coolant cycle. This is because nitrogen has a larger absorption cross-section for neutrons than carbon or oxygen; hence, the core then becomes less reactive.
As the neutron energy increases, the neutron cross section of most isotopes decreases. The boron isotope 10B is responsible for the majority of the neutron absorption. Boron-containing materials can be used as neutron shields to reduce the activation of objects close to a reactor core.
- http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/sigma/%7Cytterbium (n.gamma) datas with Japanese or Russian database
- Harvey M. Buck, Mark A. Cooper, Petr Cerny, Joel D. Grice, Frank C. Hawthorne: Xenotime-(Yb), YbPO4,a new mineral species from the Shatford Lake pegmatite group, southeastern Manitoba, Canada. In: Canadian Mineralogist. 1999, 37, S. 1303–1306 (Abstract in American Mineralogist, S. 1324; PDF; 81 kB).
- A. V. Voloshin, Ya. A. Pakhomovsky, F. N. Tyusheva: Keiviite Yb2Si2O7, a new ytterbium silicate from amazonitic pegmatites of the Kola Peninsula. In: Mineralog. Zhurnal. 1983, 5-5, S. 94–99 (Abstract in American Mineralogist, S. 1191; PDF; 853 kB).
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