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Oxidation Behavior and Property Degradation of Nuclear Graphites...

by Cristian I Contescu, Ryan M Paul
Publication Type
ORNL Report
Publication Date

During its multidecade operation in the core of nuclear reactors, graphite components are subjected to aggressive and continuous exposure to a high field of ionizing and neutron irradiation, high temperature, and various types of present and postulated chemical attacks. High density, high crystallinity polygranular synthetic graphite is unique among other materials for its extraordinary capacity of resisting and adapting to the aggression inflicted by high temperature, high energy neutron bombardment and ionizing gamma radiation. But, as a carbonaceous material, even though of very high purity, graphite is reactive towards common oxidizing agents: oxygen, carbon dioxide, water. Safe operation of HTGRs relies, among other aspects, on engineered safeguard systems for efficient and continuous protection of graphite components against oxidation. Graphite oxidation behavior was, and continues to be, an important direction of theoretical and experimental research, engineering analyses, models and simulations, and design and safety regulations. The avalanche of publications, reports, experimental data, computer codes, and regulatory documents related to oxidation behavior of nuclear graphite is now accelerating to new levels, prompted by the increased interest for nuclear energy as a clean, carbon-free energy source. Even though public’s perception of nuclear energy advantages may still be influenced by the memories of past accidents of nuclear reactors from generations II and III, the community of informed scientists and engineers, regulators and statemen knows that generation IV of nuclear reactors is designed at very high safety standards, doubled by great advances of scientific knowledge and technological progress. One of routes of these recent advances is directed at better understanding of graphite oxidation behavior, its relationship with graphite manufacturing and microstructural properties, along with the effects of various environmental factors and process variables. Together, the recent progress in manufacturing, properties characterization, and modeling of intricated physical and chemical processes that concur to the oxidation behavior led to development of powerful simulation codes able to analyze various scenarios of normal operation and hypothetical off-normal events, and thus to clearly specify the allowable parameters envelopes for the designers, constructors, and operators of current and future modular HTGRs.
This review begins with an introduction on manufacturing methods, structure, and properties of nuclear graphite, including basic requirements that this specialty graphite type must satisfy for nuclear use. It continues with a chapter on environmental effects on nuclear graphite, where emphasis is placed less on irradiation and much more on oxidation phenomena, their safety implications, and the basic traits of chronic and acute oxidation by air (oxygen) and water (humidity, steam). Particular attention is placed on the three graphite grades of interest for this document (IG-110, NBG-18, PCEA). A chapter on properties degradation induced by oxidation follows, with focus on density, dimensional, and mechanical properties changes. The next chapter is intended as a brief review of various approaches used for modeling of graphite oxidation behavior. It summarizes the progress of oxidation models, from the early attempts to complex computational approaches interfaced with specialized computer codes designed for nuclear reactor simulations. Last, a list is presented of knowledge gaps where more research is needed. A short summary concludes the review.