To understand the acceleration of the Zircaloy corrosion kinetics in PWR conditions, TEM microstructural characterizations of oxide layers grown in an autoclave or directly in-reactor have been performed. To separate the influence on the oxidation process of the irradiation damage in the alloy from the dynamic effect of neutron flux, oxide layers have also been grown in an autoclave on previously neutron-irradiated cladding. The comparative characterization of these oxide layers leads to the following results: the nucleation and growth process are observed to be similar on oxides formed in-autoclave and significantly different on oxides grown directly in-reactor, indicating that this process is essentially affected by neutron irradiation or, more generally, parameters specific to the reactor environment. Concerning grain growth phenomena, it appears that the high microstructural instability noticed in oxides formed in-reactor is also the consequence of parameters specific to the reactor environment such as neutron irradiation or the lithium concentration gradient. Finally, the iron distribution in the oxide is almost the direct image of the iron distribution in the metal.
The impact of each experimental statement on the oxidation kinetics is discussed. The role of neutron irradiation on the structure of the oxide layer appears to be the most determining.