Yucca Mountain is an arid site proposed for consideration as the United States’ first underground high-level radioactive waste repository. Low rainfall (approximately 170 mm/yr) and a thick unsaturated zone (500–1000 m) are important physical attributes of the site because the quantity of water likely to reach the waste and the paths and rates of movement of the water to the saturated zone under future climates would be major factors in controlling the concentrations and times of arrival of radionuclides at the surrounding accessible environment. The framework for understanding the hydrologic processes that occur at this site and that control how quickly water will penetrate through the unsaturated zone to the water table has evolved during the past 15 yr. Early conceptual models assumed that very small volumes of water infiltrated into the bedrock (0.5–4.5 mm/yr, or 2–3 percent of rainfall), that much of the infiltrated water flowed laterally within the upper nonwelded units because of capillary barrier effects, and that the remaining water flowed down faults with a small amount flowing through the matrix of the lower welded, fractured rocks. It was believed that the matrix had to be saturated for fractures to flow. However, accumulating evidence indicated that infiltration rates were higher than initially estimated, such as infiltration modeling based on neutron borehole data, bomb-pulse isotopes deep in the mountain, perched water analyses and thermal analyses. Mechanisms supporting lateral diversion did not apply at these higher fluxes, and the flux calculated in the lower welded unit exceeded the conductivity of the matrix, implying vertical flow of water in the high permeability fractures of the potential repository host rock, and disequilibrium between matrix and fracture water potentials. The development of numerical modeling methods and parameter values evolved concurrently with the conceptual model in order to account for the observed field data, particularly fracture flow deep in the unsaturated zone. This paper presents the history of the evolution of conceptual models of hydrology and numerical models of unsaturated zone flow at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Flint, A.L., Flint, L.E., Kwicklis, E.M., Bodvarsson, G.S., Fabryka-Martin, J.M., 2001. Hydrology of Yucca Mountain. Reviews of Geophysics in press). This retrospective is the basis for recommendations for optimizing the efficiency with which a viable and robust conceptual model can be developed for a complex site.
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Evolution of the conceptual model of unsaturated zone hydrology at Yucca Mountain, Nevada