Thursday, November 05, 2009

Delayed Neutrons

I learned a life lesson from nuclear physics. To explain, let me tell you about delayed neutrons as they relate to power generation.

Generating power from nuclear fission is about controlling and balancing neutrons. These subatomic particles erupt, two at a time, from each nucleus that fissions. About 0.00001 seconds later the neutrons are slow enough to collide with another uranium or plutonium nucleus and two more neutrons are generated. Controlling a reactor is about ensuring exactly one of each neutron pair is reused to initiate another fission.

Trouble is, when something is capable of doubling (for example, in power) every 0.00001 seconds it is impossible to control. It's a bomb, actually. This is where delayed neutrons become important.

Delayed neutrons are the same as the rest, except they don't get ejected immediately. About one-half of one percent of all the neutrons are delayed, an average of 12 seconds. That tiny portion is enough to skew all the averages. The end result is that fission reactors can indeed be controlled. A tiny portion, gets a tiny delay and the overall falls into control as a result.

And therein is the life lesson. Tiny things make big differences.

Life may feel like it is beyond control. Yet, moments here and there, applied well, can be enough. Enough to be in control rather than bombing out.

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