The integrity assessment of Reactor Pressure Vessels, mainly based on crack initiation, can be completed by studying crack propagation and arrest. Whereas engineering approaches do not take into account dynamic effects, these effects are important in unstable cleavage crack propagation, arrest and possible propagation re-initiation events. This study deals with physical mechanisms of cleavage crack propagation and numerical computations related to brittle fracture in the framework of local approach to fracture.

Experiments were carried out on thin CT 25 specimens made of 16MND5 PWR vessel steel at five temperatures (−150°C, −125°C, −100°C, −75°C, −50°C). Two kinds of crack path, straight or branching path, were observed. Branching cracks appear for the highest critical loadings at initiation, that increase the elastic stored energy and the effect of plasticity. The elastic-viscoplastic behavior of the ferritic steel was studied up to a strain rate of 104 s−1 and taken into account in the numerical simulations. The eXtended Finite Element Method (X-FEM) was used in CAST3M FE software to model crack propagation. Numerical computations combine a local non linear dynamic approach with a RKR type fracture stress criterion. The different physical micro-mechanisms, involved in cleavage fracture, were examined by the means of SEM fracture surface analyses at different temperatures and strain rates for the two kinds of crack path.

The links of the critical fracture stress with both temperature and strain rate for straight crack path as well as analyses of branching crack phenomena were considered by the means of Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) fracture surface analyses, 3D quantitative optical microscopy and FE computations in order to aim at a robust physical justification of the propagation model which has already been developed at CEA in the frame of the B. Prabel PhD.

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