A chain reaction refers to a process in which neutrons released in fission produce an additional fission in at least one further nucleus. This nucleus in turn produces neutrons, and the process repeats. The process may be controlled (nuclear power) or uncontrolled (nuclear weapons).
If each neutron releases two more neutrons, then the number of fissions doubles each generation. In that case, in 10 generations there are 1,024 fissions and in 80 generations about 6 x 10 23 (a mole) fissions.
When a U-235 atom splits, it gives off two or three neutrons (depending on the way the atom splits). If there are no other U-235 atoms in the area, then those free neutrons fly off into space as neutron rays. If the U-235 atom is part of a mass of uranium -- so there are other U-235 atoms nearby -- then one of three things happens:
If, on average, exactly one of the free neutrons from each fission hits another U-235 nucleus and causes it to split, then the mass of uranium is said to be critical. The mass will exist at a stable temperature. A nuclear reactor must be maintained in a critical state.
If, on average, less than one of the free neutrons hits another U-235 atom, then the mass is subcritical. Eventually, induced fission will end in the mass.
If, on average, more than one of the free neutrons hits another U-235 atom, then the mass is supercritical. It will heat up.
For a nuclear bomb, the bomb's designer wants the mass of uranium to be very supercritical so that all of the U-235 atoms in the mass split in a microsecond. In a nuclear reactor, the reactor core needs to be slightly supercritical so that plant operators can raise and lower the temperature of the reactor. The control rods give the operators a way to absorb free neutrons so the reactor can be maintained at a critical level.
Any element that strongly absorbs neutrons is called a reactor poison, because it tends to shut down (poison) an ongoing fission chain reaction. Some reactor poisons are deliberately inserted into fission reactor cores to control the reaction; boron or cadmium control rods are the best example. Many reactor poisons are produced by the fission process itself, and buildup of neutron-absorbing fission products affects both the fuel economics and the controllability of nuclear reactors.
There are four ways in which people are protected from identified radiation sources:
Limiting time: In occupational situations, dose is reduced by limiting exposure time.
Distance: The intensity of radiation decreases with distance from its source.
Shielding: Barriers of lead, concrete or water give good protection from high levels of penetrating radiation such as gamma rays. Intensely radioactive materials are therefore often stored or handled under water, or by remote control in rooms constructed of thick concrete or lined with lead.
Containment: Highly radioactive materials are confined and kept out of the workplace and environment. Nuclear reactors operate within closed systems with multiple barriers which keep the radioactive materials contained. Rooms have a reduced air pressure so that any leaks occur into the room.
A scram or SCRAM is an emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor.
In modern pressurized water reactors, the control rods are lifted by electric motors against both their own weight and a powerful spring. Any cutting of the electric current releases the rods. A SCRAM rapidly (less than four seconds, by test) releases the control rods from those motors and allows their weight and the spring to drive them into the reactor core, thus halting the nuclear reaction as rapidly as possible.
A barn (symbol b) is a unit of area. Originally used in nuclear physics for expressing the cross sectional area of nuclei and nuclear reactions, today it is used in all fields of high energy physics to express the cross sections of any scattering process. A barn is approximately equal to