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Neutron and Photon Production by Low-Energy Protons

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Fermilab-FN-0909-APC December 2010

Neutron and Photon Production by Low-Energy Protons*

N.V. Mokhov and I.L. Rakhno

Fermilab, P.O. Box 500, Batavia, Illinois 60510

December 1, 2010


Calculated yields and energy spectra of neutrons and photons generated by 2.5 MeV protons on natural copper are presented along with radiation fields around low-energy proton beam absorbers. Material choice for absorbers and other beam line components is analyzed for low-energy systems of Project X.

*Work supported by Fermi Research Alliance, LLC, under contract DE-AC02-07CH11359 with the U.S. Department of Energy.

  1. Introduction

A front-end design for Project X at Fermilab [1] includes dealing with low-energy proton beams down to 2.5 MeV. In order to design an appropriate beam absorber for such a low-energy proton beam, both prompt and residual radiation generated due to the beam interaction with the absorber should be predicted. At low energies, proton-nucleus interaction data is not readily available for many nuclides and for every particular case a detailed consideration is necessary.

  1. Proton Beam Energies Below 5 MeV

At proton energies as low as 2.5 MeV, contemporary Monte Carlo generators fail to correctly describe proton-nucleus interactions and one has to use tabulated nuclear data generated with special (mostly deterministic) computer codes, if available [2]. Threshold kinetic energy, Tp, for (p,n) reaction on stable nickel and copper isotopes is presented in Table 1. The value of Tp is derived from the corresponding reaction Q-value multiplied by the factor of (A+1)/A in order to perform conversion from the center-of-mass system into laboratory system, where A is target nucleus atomic mass in units of proton mass.

One sees that nickel is much more preferable material for a 2.5-MeV proton beam absorber due to higher neutron generation thresholds, other things being equal. Fig. 1 shows a very rapid growth of the 65Cu(p,n)65Zn cross-section above the threshold therefore a choice of “scraping energy” becomes very important from the radiological point of view for 2 to 5 MeV region.

Table 1. Threshold kinetic energy, Tp, for (p,n) reaction on stable nickel and copper isotopes [2].


Abundance (%)

Tp (MeV)






















Fig. 1. Measured neutron production cross-section on 65Cu isotope [2].

Projected range of 2.5-MeV protons in copper is about 26 μm, so that when considering a copper beam absorber, it is reasonable to deal with a point isotropic neutron and gamma source generated due to proton-nucleus interactions in copper. Neutron and gamma yields for a copper target as well as energy distribution of these yields, calculated with the MCNPX 2.6 code [3], are presented in Table 2 and Fig. 2. At kinetic energy of 2.5 MeV, neutron generation in proton-nucleus interactions occurs on 65Cu isotope in the vicinity of the Coulomb barrier, so that it is significantly suppressed compared to photon generation.

Table 2. Calculated total neutron and photon yields from natural copper and nickel targets (each is a slab 1 mm in thickness) irradiated with a 2.5-MeV proton pencil beam (normal incidence) [3]. Normalization is per incident proton.

Generated particle


Yield 1σ (%)


Yield 1σ (%)


1.0×10-8 10

2.5×10-9 30


1.2×10-7 3

4.6×10-8 6

Fig. 2. Calculated energy distributions of total photon (top) and neutron (bottom) yield from natural copper and nickel targets (each is a slab 1 mm in thickness) irradiated with a 2.5-MeV proton pencil beam (normal incidence). Normalization is per incident proton.

  1. Proton Beam Energies Above 5 MeV

At proton energies above 5 MeV, neutron production can drive the radiation environment, depending on target/absorber material. Here contemporary Monte Carlo generators can already give a reasonable description of proton-nucleus interaction physics to compare with and complement tabulated nuclear data.

As an example, let’s consider a beam absorber designed for the 10-MeV HINS absorber. It is the SNS-type absorber housed in a rectangular steel box loaded with high-density polyethylene beads. It consists of a 1-mm thick cone fabricated of pure nickel surrounded by a 1-mm water cooling channel inside a 1.5-mm stainless steel jacket. Absorber sits on steel-legged stand with beam center 128.5 cm above floor of the HINS enclosure. The proton beam has a symmetrical Gaussian transverse distribution with x = y = 10 mm. Beam intensity is 1% of 25 mA (1.56e15 p/s) at 10 MeV (2.5kW). Calculations are done with the MARS15 code [4]. Schematic view of the calculation geometry is shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3. MARS15 model of the HINS absorber.

Calculated prompt dose outside of the cast iron shielding (Fig. 4a) reaches 30 to 100 Rem/hr. It is about a factor of 10 higher if one removes the poly beads from the void. 70% of the total dose is due to neutrons. As shown in Fig. 4b, residual dose rates on the shielding outside are quite low ranging from 0.01 to 0.1 mRem/hr after 30-day irradiation and 1-day cooling.

Fig. 4. Prompt (left) and residual (right) dose isocontours.

The prompt dose rates are very high. As shown, neutrons dominate the total dose outside, therefore the obvious way to reduce the dose is to add a polyethylene shell outside the iron shielding. It was found that 6-inch thick shell can reduce the dose outside by a factor of ten (Fig. 5), with the peak ranging from 4 to 10 Rem/hr (which considered OK in that case…). The dose reduction in the poly shell is nicely fitted by exp(-x/) with  =7.56 cm shown by a green line in Fig. 6.

Fig. 5. Prompt dose isocontours in the optimized configuration.

Fig. 6. Prompt dose distribution at longitudinal maximum z=55 cm, total (red) and photon (blue). Central peak is due to beam protons. Void filled with poly beads is at |x| < 20.32 cm, followed by iron shield up to |x| = 30.48 cm with a 15.24-cm poly shell outside.

  1. Conclusions

The presented neutron and gamma yields can be used for an express radiation safety analysis as well as detailed calculations for realistic beam absorbers.






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