In many ways, neutrons are mysterious. They are everywhere, present in the nucleus of all elements. Yet they can be difficult to detect: unlike protons or electrons, they possess no charge, and when released, either through radioactive decay or a nuclear reaction, neutrons can be destructive and make objects radioactive. Understanding what neutrons are and how to detect them is fundamental to any country’s peaceful nuclear programme, and so the IAEA is advancing its efforts to help enhance nuclear capacity building through training with neutrons.
“Before coming here in 2021, I knew almost nothing about neutrons. Now, after this fellowship, I hope to go back home to Benin and help my country in safely using nuclear applications,” said Francois Idjiwole, an IAEA Fellow who over the past year has learned about neutrons and been instrumental in supporting setting up a new neutron facility at the IAEA’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria. Idjiwole, an electrical engineer by training with a PhD in nuclear instrumentation from the University of Abomey-Calavi, has also used his expertise to help train other IAEA Fellows and visiting scientists from across Africa.
The recently established neutron facility, called the Nuclear Science Facility (NSF), is now being used to provide hands-on-training of nuclear professionals in a newly renovated building housing two neutron generators – compact particle accelerators that produce neutrons by fusing isotopes of hydrogen. While neutrons in research have often typically been produced by the steady decay of radioisotopes, these two generators producing a 2.5 Mega electron-volt (MeV) of fission-like and 14 MeV of fusion-like neutrons can, through the flick of a switch and few buttons, be turned on and off as needed.
“The ease and flexibility of our neutron generators make them ideal for training new professionals on nuclear science and engineering,” said Kalliopi Kanaki, Head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Science and Instrumentation Laboratory. This month, Kanaki helped organize a training workshop at the facility for 10 young researchers from Algeria, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Türkiye on the safe operation and applications of neutron generators. The workshop included a mix of lectures, demonstrations and practical exercises on operating and using neutron sources, for example, in determining the elemental composition of various samples or non-destructive examination of different objects.
Neutron generators, like those at the Seibersdorf facility, have been used in the oil and mining sectors, civil construction and in other industries for decades in applications such as neutron radiography, neutron activation analysis, radiotracer production, as well as in investigations related to security and safeguard applications. Globally, there is growing interest in nuclear applications for energy, medicine, agriculture and industry. “Our training strengthens the capabilities of countries in adopting and benefiting from the use of versatile and compact accelerator-based neutron sources,” Kanaki added.
In the workshop participants were introduced to neutron activation analysis and delayed neutron counting, as well as the principles of neutron detection, spectrometry and radiography. They were also trained in safety and radiation protection considerations when operating such neutron generators.
“Training opportunities with the IAEA are truly unique and offer possibilities for participants to develop technical knowledge and interest well beyond the scope of the workshop – I am evidence of this,” said Idjiwole. With the NSF now fully established, the IAEA plans to host more fellows and interns as well as hold more training workshops in the future, with the next event scheduled for the second half of 2023.
The ease and flexibility of our neutron generators make them ideal for training new professionals on nuclear science and engineering.