The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) at their Nevada Site Office (NSO) are addressing groundwater contamination resulting from historical underground nuclear testing through the Environmental Management program and, in particular, the Underground Test Area (UGTA) project. From 1951 to 1992, 828 underground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) northwest of Las Vegas (DOE UGTA, 2003). Most of these tests were conducted hundreds of feet above the groundwater table; however, more than 200 of the tests were near, or within, the water table. This underground testing was limited to specific areas of the NTS including Pahute Mesa, Rainier Mesa/Shoshone Mountain, Frenchman Flat, and Yucca Flat. Volcanic composite units make up much of the area within the Pahute Mesa Corrective Action Unit (CAU) at the NTS, Nevada. The extent of many of these volcanic composite units extends throughout and south of the primary areas of past underground testing at Pahute and Rainier Mesas. As situated, these units likely influence the rate and direction of groundwater flow and radionuclide transport. Currently, these units are poorly resolved in terms of their hydrologic properties introducing large uncertainties into current CAU-scale flow and transport models. In 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with DOE and NNSA-NSO acquired three-dimensional (3-D) tensor magnetotelluric data at the NTS in Area 20 of Pahute Mesa CAU. A total of 20 magnetotelluric recording stations were established at about 600-m spacing on a 3-D array and were tied to ER20-6 well and other nearby well control (fig. 1). The purpose of this survey was to determine if closely spaced 3-D resistivity measurements can be used to characterize the distribution of shallow (600- to 1,500-m-depth range) devitrified rhyolite lava-flow aquifers (LFA) and zeolitic tuff confining units (TCU) in areas of limited drill hole control on Pahute Mesa within the Calico Hills zeolitic volcanic composite unit (VCU), an important hydrostratigraphic unit in Area 20. The resistivity response was evaluated and compared with existing well data and hydrogeologic unit tops from the current Pahute Mesa framework model. In 2008, the USGS processed and inverted the magnetotelluric data into a 3-D resistivity model. We interpreted nine depth slices and four west-east profile cross sections of the 3-D resistivity inversion model. This report documents the geologic interpretation of the 3-D resistivity model. Expectations are that spatial variations in the electrical properties of the Calico Hills zeolitic VCU can be detected and mapped with 3-D resistivity, and that these changes correlate to differences in rock permeability. With regard to LFA and TCU, electrical resistivity and permeability are typically related. Tuff confining units will typically have low electrical resistivity and low permeability, whereas LFA will have higher electrical resistivity and zones of higher fracture-related permeability. If expectations are shown to be correct, the method can be utilized by the UGTA scientists to refine the hydrostratigraphic unit (HSU) framework in an effort to more accurately predict radionuclide transport away from test areas on Pahute and Rainier Mesas.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Reducing Uncertainty in the Distribution of Hydrogeologic Units within Volcanic Composite Units of Pahute Mesa Using High-Resolution 3-D Resistivity Methods, Nevada Test Site, Nevada
U.S. Geological Survey
Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center