1. A Beginner’s Guide to OpenMC

1.1. What does OpenMC do?

In a nutshell, OpenMC simulates neutral particles (presently neutrons and photons) moving stochastically through an arbitrarily defined model that represents an real-world experimental setup. The experiment could be as simple as a sphere of metal or as complicated as a full-scale nuclear reactor. This is what’s known as Monte Carlo simulation. In the case of a nuclear reactor model, neutrons are especially important because they are the particles that induce fission in isotopes of uranium and other elements. Knowing the behavior of neutrons allows one to determine how often and where fission occurs. The amount of energy released is then directly proportional to the fission reaction rate since most heat is produced by fission. By simulating many neutrons (millions or billions), it is possible to determine the average behavior of these neutrons (or the behavior of the energy produced, or any other quantity one is interested in) very accurately.

Using Monte Carlo methods to determine the average behavior of various physical quantities in a system is quite different from other means of solving the same problem. The other class of methods for determining the behavior of neutrons and reactions rates is so-called deterministic methods. In these methods, the starting point is not randomly simulating particles but rather writing an equation that describes the average behavior of the particles. The equation that describes the average behavior of neutrons is called the neutron transport equation. This equation is a seven-dimensional equation (three for space, three for velocity, and one for time) and is very difficult to solve directly. For all but the simplest problems, it is necessary to make some sort of discretization. As an example, we can divide up all space into small sections which are homogeneous and then solve the equation on those small sections. After these discretizations and various approximations, one can arrive at forms that are suitable for solution on a computer. Among these are discrete ordinates, method of characteristics, finite-difference diffusion, and nodal methods.

So why choose Monte Carlo over deterministic methods? Each method has its pros and cons. Let us first take a look at few of the salient pros and cons of deterministic methods:

  • Pro: Depending on what method is used, solution can be determined very quickly.

  • Pro: The solution is a global solution, i.e. we know the average behavior everywhere.

  • Pro: Once the problem is converged, the solution is known.

  • Con: If the model is complex, it is necessary to do sophisticated mesh generation.

  • Con: It is necessary to generate multi-group cross sections which requires knowing the solution a priori.

Now let’s look at the pros and cons of Monte Carlo methods:

  • Pro: No mesh generation is required to build geometry. By using constructive solid geometry, it’s possible to build complex models with curved surfaces.

  • Pro: Monte Carlo methods can be used with either continuous-energy or multi-group cross sections.

  • Pro: Running simulations in parallel is conceptually very simple.

  • Con: Because they rely on repeated random sampling, they are computationally very expensive.

  • Con: A simulation doesn’t automatically give you the global solution everywhere – you have to specifically ask for those quantities you want.

  • Con: Even after the problem is converged, it is necessary to simulate many particles to reduce stochastic uncertainty.

Because fewer approximations are made in solving a problem by the Monte Carlo method, it is often seen as a “gold standard” which can be used as a benchmark for a solution of the same problem by deterministic means. However, it comes at the expense of a potentially longer simulation.

1.2. How does it work?

In order to do anything, the code first needs to have a model of some problem of interest. This could be a nuclear reactor or any other physical system with fissioning material. You, as the code user, will need to describe the model so that the code can do something with it. A basic model consists of a few things:

  • A description of the geometry – the problem must be split up into regions of homogeneous material composition.

  • For each different material in the problem, a description of what nuclides are in the material and at what density.

  • Various parameters telling the code how many particles to simulate and what options to use.

  • A list of different physical quantities that the code should return at the end of the simulation. In a Monte Carlo simulation, if you don’t ask for anything, it will not give you any answers (other than a few default quantities).

1.3. What do I need to know?

If you are starting to work with OpenMC, there are a few things you should be familiar with. Whether you plan on working in Linux, macOS, or Windows, you should be comfortable working in a command line environment. There are many resources online for learning command line environments. If you are using Linux or Mac OS X (also Unix-derived), this tutorial will help you get acquainted with commonly-used commands.

To reap the full benefits of OpenMC, you should also have basic proficiency in the use of Python, as OpenMC includes a rich Python API that offers many usability improvements over dealing with raw XML input files.

OpenMC uses a version control software called git to keep track of changes to the code, document bugs and issues, and other development tasks. While you don’t necessarily have to have git installed in order to download and run OpenMC, it makes it much easier to receive updates if you do have it installed and have a basic understanding of how it works. There are a list of good git tutorials at the git documentation website. The OpenMC source code and documentation are hosted at GitHub. In order to receive updates to the code directly, submit bug reports, and perform other development tasks, you may want to sign up for a free account on GitHub. Once you have an account, you can follow these instructions on how to set up your computer for using GitHub.

If you are new to nuclear engineering, you may want to review the NRC’s Reactor Concepts Manual. This manual describes the basics of nuclear power for electricity generation, the fission process, and the overall systems in a pressurized or boiling water reactor. Another resource that is a bit more technical than the Reactor Concepts Manual but still at an elementary level is the DOE Fundamentals Handbook on Nuclear Physics and Reactor Theory Volume I and Volume II. You may also find it helpful to review the following terms: