Many parts of the Great Basin have thick zones of unsaturated alluvium which might be suitable for disposing of high-level radioactive wastes. A mathematical model accounting for the coupled transport of energy, water (vapor and liquid), and dry air was used to analyze one-dimensional, vertical transport above and below an areally extensive repository. Numerical simulations were conducted for a hypothetical repository containing spent nuclear fuel and located 100 m below land surface. Initial steady state downward water fluxes of zero (hydrostatic) and 0. 0003 m yr** minus **1 were considered in an attempt to bracket the likely range in natural water flux. Predicted temperatures within the repository peaked after approximately 50 years and declined slowly thereafter in response to the decreasing intensity of the radioactive heat source. The extent of the dry zone was strongly controlled by the mobility of liquid water near the repository under natural conditions. In the case of initial hydrostatic conditions, the dry zone extended approximately 10 m above and 15 m below the repository. For the case of a natural flux of 0. 0003 m yr** minus **1 the relative permeability of water near the repository was initially more than 30 times the value under hydrostatic conditions, consequently the dry zone extended only about 2 m above and 5 m below the repository. In both cases a significant perturbation in liquid saturation levels persisted for several hundred years. This analysis illustrates the extreme sensitivity of model predictions to initial conditions and parameters, such as relative permeability and moisture characteristic curves.
Additional publication details
Simulation of fluid flow and energy transport processes associated with high-level radioactive waste disposal in unsaturated alluvium