Uranium, Th and Pb isotopes were analyzed in layers of opal and chalcedony from individual mm- to cm-thick calcite and silica coatings at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, USA, a site that is being evaluated for a potential high-level nuclear waste repository. These calcite and silica coatings on fractures and in lithophysal cavities in Miocene-age tuffs in the unsaturated zone (UZ) precipitated from descending water and record a long history of percolation through the UZ. Opal and chalcedony have high concentrations of U (10 to 780 ppm) and low concentrations of common Pb as indicated by large values of 206Pb/204Pb (up to 53,806), thus making them suitable for U-Pb age determinations. Interpretations of U-Pb isotope systems in opal samples at Yucca Mountain are complicated by the incorporation of excess 234U at the time of mineral formation, resulting in reverse discordance of U-Pb ages. However, the 207PB/235U ages are much less affected by deviation from initial secular equilibrium and provide reliable ages of most silica deposits between 0.6 and 9.8 Ma. For chalcedony subsamples showing normal age discordance, these ages may represent minimum times of deposition. Typically, 207Pb/235U ages are consistent with the microstratigraphy in the mineral coating samples, such that the youngest ages are for subsamples from outer layers, intermediate ages are from inner layers, and oldest ages are from innermost layers. 234U and 230Th in most silica layers deeper in the coatings are in secular equilibrium with 238U, which is consistent with their old age and closed system behavior during the past -0.5 Ma. The ages for subsamples of silica layers from different microstratigraphic positions in individual calcite and silica coating samples collected from lithophysal cavities in the welded part of the Topopah Spring Tuff yield slow long-term average growth rates of 1 to 5 mm/Ma. These data imply that the deeper parts of the UZ at Yucca Mountain maintained long-term hydrologic stability over the past 10 Ma. despite significant climate variations. U-Pb ages for subsamples of silica layers from different microstratigraphic positions in individual calcite and silica coating samples collected from fractures in the shallower part of the UZ (welded part of the overlying Tiva Canyon Tuff) indicate larger long-term average growth rates up to 23 mm/Ma and an absence of recently deposited materials (ages of outermost layers are 3-5 Ma.). These differences between the characteristics of the coatings for samples from the shallower and deeper parts of the UZ may indicate that the nonwelded tuffs (PTn), located between the welded parts of the Tiva Canyon and Topopah Spring Tuffs, play an important role in moderating UZ flow.
Additional publication details
U-Pb ages of secondary silica at Yucca Mountain, Nevada: Implications for the paleohydrology of the unsaturated zone