Preliminary 3-D site-scale studies of radioactive colloid transport in the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is actively investigating the technical feasibility of permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste in a repository to be situated in the unsaturated zone (UZ) at Yucca Mountain (YM), Nevada. In this study we investigate, by means of numerical simulation, the transport of radioactive colloids under ambient conditions from the potential repository horizon to the water table. The site hydrology and the effects of the spatial distribution of hydraulic and transport properties in the Yucca Mountain subsurface are considered. The study of migration and retardation of colloids accounts for the complex processes in the unsaturated zone of Yucca Mountain, and includes advection, diffusion, hydrodynamic dispersion, kinetic colloid filtration, colloid straining, and radioactive decay. The results of the study indicate that the most important factors affecting colloid transport are the subsurface geology and site hydrology, i.e., the presence of faults (they dominate and control transport), fractures (the main migration pathways), and the relative distribution of zeolitic and vitric tuffs. The transport of colloids is strongly influenced by their size (as it affects diffusion into the matrix, straining at hydrogeologic unit interfaces, and transport velocity) and by the parameters of the kinetic-filtration model used for the simulations. Arrival times at the water table decrease with an increasing colloid size because of smaller diffusion, increased straining, and higher transport velocities. The importance of diffusion as a retardation mechanism increases with a decreasing colloid size, but appears to be minimal in large colloids.