A spaceship like this is traveling in the space:

NERVA spaceship

Let's say, that its 100 meters long. Its crew module have 5 cm of lead shielding, the 80 m long propellant tank is full of liquid hydrogen, and at the end there is a 500 megawatt nuclear thermal rocket running on U-235, analogous to NERVA. The reactor has a shadow shield made up from 18 cm beryllium, 5 cm tungsten and 5 cm lithium hydride, but is unshielded in other directions.

The enemy attacks this ship with an 50 kiloton neutron bomb, which puts out 75% of its energy as neutron radiation. The bomb explodes precisely behind the ship, so the reactor, the shadow shield, and the propellant tank are between the crew and the detonation.

How far should the detonation happen, if they want its neutron radiation to trigger the overrun of the engine, and thus damage it beyond repair, but NOT to cause fatal radiation sickness to the human crew?

If there is no such distance, let me know.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Don't post links to Google search. They are often broken. And if they aren't, they will soon be. Only exception might be google.com?q= style, but then you will not know what your readers will a actually see, so it's pretty useless. Post a CC-licensed (or compatible) image, sketch it, describe with own words... Something that won't change suddenly and without your control. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Mar 8, 2017 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ So what is “NTR”? It's used in the title but never used or explained in the body of the post. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Mar 8, 2017 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ I can't answer this question with more details about NERVA, which I can't find at the moment. In particular, we need to know about the fuel and moderator design to determine what the effect of excess neutrons will be on the reactor. Nuclear Thermal Rockets in general can have many designs, solid, liquid, liquid-salt, etc; neutron flux increases will have a different effect of each of them. Do you have a link to design information about the NTR you are using? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Mar 8, 2017 at 23:56

1 Answer 1


Probably there is no such distance. The reason: the nuclear bombs are highly unbalanced devices, their neutron-multiplication factor is around 3. It means, that as a single neutron produces around 2-3 other ones, by hitting another nucleus and let it fissile.

Any controlled nuclear fusion should be a device with a neutron multiplication factor of 1. It means, that any neutron coming out from the fission of a nucleus, should produce around 1 another neutron. It should be done so, any different value would result either a not working reactor, or an exploding one.

The control of any nuclear reactor happens on that this neutron multiplication factor is regulated between around 0.99999 and 1.00001 by some controlling system (in nuclear reactors, there are rods of some highly neutron-absorbing material, which can be put into the reactor more deeply or it can be pulled out).

This neutron multiplication factor doesn't depend on the fact, how many neutrons are in the reactor in a given moment. It only affects, how their number changes.

Thus, exploding a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear reactor, it can't make the reactor also to explode.

The alien neutron source will boost the neutrons in the reactor of the rocket, but won't change the neutron multiplication factor.

Although the reaction rate would suddenly increase. The controlling electronic would see that and it would regulate the controlling mechanism on a way to compansate. If it doesn't happen enough fast, the reactor can be damaged. But an exponential chain reaction won't happen, because any controlled reactor nuclear is incapable for that.

Furthermore, there is another effect, which plays against an induced explosion. It is because the reactors aren't purely from fissile material, they also need a moderator substance. In nuclear reactor, it is mostly water. In a nuclear rocket, it may be some different material as well (for example, the hydrogen fuel).

It is because the neutrons coming from fission reactions are coming fast from it. This fast behaves a little bit differently, as we accustomed to. For example, a a faster bullet makes a bigger hole as a slow one.

In the case of the neutrons, there is an exactly opposite process. It is because neutrons are like a small cloud (like the "electron cloud", if you like to know more, http://physics.stackexchange.com can be your friend). The nuclei are small points inside a the big atom (compared to them). If an atom would be grown to 100m big, the nucleus would be 1mm in it. If you want a neutron to "hit" a nucleus, you need it to make it to exist as long as possible nearing a nucleus. Around this is the layman level reason, why the slow neutrons are much more reactive, as the fast ones.

The neutrons hit the the atoms of the moderating substance many times, and they will be slow after a lot of hits. It is like as you bing a billiard (game) ball around a billiard desk, after many hits it will be slower. Without a moderating substance, only very big reactors can be built which are impractical on a rocket (even the energy producing reactors in nuclear power plants are always moderated).

The slow neutrons are named thermal neutrons. It means, that they have around the same energy, as the atoms of the moderator substance. From that point, they can't give it more energy, and maybe they get back into the uranium/plutonium core, to let fissile another atoms.

Now the trick is the following: in the case of thermal neutrons, their energy significantly affects their reactivity. Thus, if the moderating substance is warmer, the thermal neutrons coming from it will be far least reactive! This effect makes possible the regulated chain reactions.

The neutron bomb exploding behind the rocket will not only inject a lot of neutrons into the rocket core, but it will also heat the the moderator around it.

The process would be probably much faster as the ordinary regulation mechanism could interact. A short spike will be visible in the neutron production rate, after that the system would self-regulate.

If the neutron bomb explodes very in the near, it will damage the moderator and cooling mechanism (in most cases, they are the same). From that point, the neutron multiplication factor will sink below 1, and the reaction will stop. Thus, you will have a not-working, damaged reactor.

  • $\begingroup$ Many of your statements are predicated on the reactor having a negative thermal coefficient of reactivity. Do you have any evidence that a NERVA rocket has a negative $\alpha_T$? If not, then this answer may not be correct at all. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Mar 8, 2017 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion analogous to, even if NERVA did not any future variant would. Why would anyone build a reactor that is vulnerable to runaway overheating and meltdown when we already know better? $\endgroup$ Mar 9, 2017 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Probably because it is a rocket in deep space and not a reactor with people living nearby. If there are significant power advantages, why not? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Mar 9, 2017 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ So you suggest, that an ordinary nuke or chemical explosive would have better chances to cause the breakdown of the engine by damaging its external parts: Nozzle, turbo pump, pressure vessel etc... $\endgroup$
    – b.Lorenz
    Mar 9, 2017 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion As I understand, it is moderated by hidrogen and thus it has probably negative $\alpha_T$. I will hunt for reference after the CET worktime. $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Mar 9, 2017 at 13:12

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