Beyond Californium—A Neutron Generator Alternative for Dosimetry and Instrument Calibration in the U.S.

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Abstract

Evaluations of neutron survey instruments, area monitors, and personal dosimeters rely on reference neutron radiations, which have evolved from the heavy reliance on (α,n) sources to a shared reliance on (α,n) and the spontaneous fission neutrons of californium‐252 (252Cf). Capable of producing high dose equivalent rates from an almost point source geometry, the characteristics of 252Cf are generally more favorable when compared to the use of (α,n) and (γ,n) sources or reactor-produced reference neutron radiations. Californium‐252 is typically used in two standardized configurations: unmoderated, to yield a fission energy spectrum; or with the capsule placed within a heavy-water moderating sphere to produce a softened spectrum that is generally considered more appropriate for evaluating devices used in nuclear power plant work environments. The U.S. Department of Energy 252Cf Loan/Lease Program, a longtime origin of affordable 252Cf sources for research, testing and calibration, was terminated in 2009. Since then, high-activity sources have become increasingly cost-prohibitive for laboratories that formerly benefited from that program. Neutron generators, based on the D-T and D-D fusion reactions, have become economically competitive with 252Cf and are recognized internationally as important calibration and test standards. Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are jointly considering the practicality and technical challenges of implementing neutron generators as calibration standards in the U.S. This article reviews the characteristics of isotope-based neutron sources, possible isotope alternatives to 252Cf, and the rationale behind the increasing favor of electronically generated neutron options. The evaluation of a D-T system at PNNL has revealed characteristics that must be considered in adapting generators to the task of calibration and testing where accurate determination of a dosimetric quantity is necessary. Finally, concepts are presented for modifying the generated neutron spectra to achieve particular targeted spectra, simulating 252Cf or workplace environments.

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