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I was wondering today, how long boron control rods remains in a nuclear power plant? When a boron atom absorbs two neutrons, it becomes the unstable isotope boron-12 and and the boron nuclei starts decaying. After some time it looses two protons and two neutrons (alpha-decay), so it decays into lithium and is not boron anymore.
So, how long does it take until a control rod is completly depleted (no absorbing boron atoms left), that they are useless and have to be exchanged? And I also don't know why they use boron for control rods? Why can't you use any other stable element, because boron is also unstable when it absorbs up to 2 neutrons. What is the special with boron?

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  • $\begingroup$ Any nuclei that absorbs enough neutrons becomes unstable. And I believe you are incorrect on the decay channels for boron-12. Beta decay (most likely) leads to carbon-12 (stable), while beta+alpha leads to 3 alphas, which are also stable. No lithium is involved. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 19:36

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This publication by IAEA is a good summary of considerations relating to control rod (CR or RCCA) material selection and lifetime management.

I was wondering today, how long boron control rods remains in a nuclear power plant?

  • As low as 4 years, as high as 30 years.
  • Depends on the CR location in the core, since power varies with radial distance from the center the of core and sometimes with polar coordinate in the core (BWRs?). Also, depends on operating conditions, time spent inserted at power, vibration, etc.
  • The location of each CR is rotated cycle-to-cycle to spread the fluence (neutron absorption) on the rod over many years.

So, how long does it take until a control rod is completely depleted (no absorbing boron atoms left), that they are useless and have to be exchanged?

  • Control rods rarely absorb so much that they have lost their effectiveness. This is especially true in PWRs since power control is performed by soluble boron in the coolant and very little of the operating cycle is spent with CRs inserted.
  • Some plants will still measure CR lifetime in B-10 % remaining, but this is for ease of comparing simulation results since B4C pellet swelling has been correlated to a certain B-10 %.
  • The reason both BWR and PWR control rods are retired are due to structural issues related to:

And I also don't know why they use boron for control rods? What is the special with boron?

  • Boron-10, which is about 19.8 percent of natural boron, has a high neutron absorption cross-section. It is relatively inexpensive. These qualities make it a good CR material.
  • Boron is usually used in the form B4C. This material has a tendency to swell once it has absorbed a lot of fluence, which makes the material interact with the CR cladding. This is usually the end of life for PWR control rods.

Why can't you use any other stable element? Other isotopes in control rods are used.

  • Element stability is not of concern in CR isotope selection. Cost, swelling, and mainly absorption cross-section are of interest.
  • AgInCd - Silver, Indium, Cadmium rods are used. For most CRs using this material, only the tips contain it since the tip sees the highest fluence and it swells less than boron. These have good absorption qualities, though, as it might sound, are expensive.
  • Hafnium is a significantly better absorber because most Hf isotopes absorb a neutron and become another high absorption cross-section Hf isotope. It is also disproportionately more expensive, some argue because of the nuclear navy hoarding all the Hf.
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