For safety reasons, the nuclear fuel assemblies of Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) must be able to withstand external excitations ranging from large amplitude seismic motions of the reactor to flow-induced vibrations from the surrounding coolant water. A nuclear fuel assembly is composed of long slender tubes, most of them filled with uranium pellets, maintained in a square array by spacer grids. The spacer grids provide a nonlinear flexible boundary condition with friction and micro-impacts that complicates the nonlinear dynamics. In order to improve safety margins in the design of nuclear fuel assemblies, it is of great interest to understand the influence of the spacer grids, as it relates to the overall structural stiffness and damping properties. In particular, the evolution of the vibration amplitude with increasing excitation forces is still undetermined.

In order to understand the nonlinear vibration response of a zirconium fuel rod filled with nuclear fuel pellets and supported by spacer grids, experiments were carried out in water and in air. They consisted of measuring the vibration response of the rod under a step-sine harmonic excitation at different force amplitude levels in the frequency neighborhood of the fundamental mode. If the excitation is large enough, the response of the rod displays nonlinear phenomena such as the shift of the resonant frequencies, multiple solutions with instabilities (jumps) and hysteresis, and one-to-one internal resonances. These experiments were carried out on zirconium tubes filled with axially unconstrained as well as axially blocked metallic pellets, which simulate the nuclear fuel. The zirconium tubes were tested both in air and immersed in water. The experimental data will be processed in the future by means of an identification procedure to extract the nonlinear stiffness and damping parameters of the system. An increase of the equivalent viscous damping with the excitation amplitude level is expected.

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