Studies of geology and hydrology in the Basin and Range Province, Southwestern United States, for isolation of high-level radioactive waste - Basis of characterization and evaluation

Professional Paper 1370-A

Prepared in cooperation with the States of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah
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The geologic and hydrologic factors in selected regions of the Basin and Range province were examined to identify prospective areas for further study that may provide isolation of high-level radioactive waste from the accessible environment. The six regions selected for study were characterized with respect to the following guidelines: (1) Potential repository media; (2) Quaternary tectonic conditions; (3) climatic change and geomorphic processes; (4) ground-water conditions; (5) ground-water quality; and (6) mineral and energy resources.

The repository medium will function as the first natural barrier to radionuclide travel by virtue of associated slow ground-water velocity. The principal rock types considered as host media include granitic, intermediate, and mafic intrusive rocks; argillaceous rocks; salt and anhydrite; volcanic mudflow (laharic) breccias; some intrusive rhyolitic plugs and stocks; partially zeolitized tuff; and metamorphic rocks. In the unsaturated zone, the permeability and hydrologic properties of the rocks and the hydrologic setting are more important than the rock type. Media ideally should be permeable to provide drainage and should have a minimal water flux

The ground-water flow path from a repository to the accessible environment needs to present major barriers to the transport of radionuclides. Factors considered in evaluating the ground-water conditions include ground-water traveltimes and quality, confining beds, and earth materials favorable for retardation of radionuclides.

Ground-water velocities in the regions were calculated from estimated hydraulic properties of the rocks and gradients. Because site-specific data on hydraulic properties are not available, data from the literature were assembled and synthesized to obtain values for use in estimating ground-water velocities. Hydraulic conductivities for many rock types having granular and fracture permeability follow a log-normal distribution. Porosity for granular and very weathered crystalline rock tends to be normally distributed; porosity of fractured crystalline rock probably follows a log-normal distribution.

The tectonic setting needs to prevent an increase in radionuclides to the accessible environment. Data on historic seismicity and heat flow, Quaternary faults, volcanism, and uplift were used to assess the tectonic conditions. Long-term late Cenozoic rates of vertical crustal movement in the Basin and Range province range from less than 2 meters per 104 years to greater than 20 meters per 104 years. Shortterm rates of vertical movement may be more than an order of magnitude greater, based on geodetic leveling. Changes in tectonic and climatic processes may potentially cause changes in hydrologic conditions and geomorphology that could affect the integrity of a deep, mined repository either adversely or beneficially.

The transition from a full-glacial climate to the current interglacial condition has occurred within the past 15,000 years. Reconstructions of the last full-glacial climate indicate that, at that time, there was greater water availability for runoff and vegetation growth than there is now. Based on the increased water availability and depending on seasonal distribution of precipitation, on soil characteristics, on topography, and on other characteristics, ground-water recharge during the full-glacial climate is estimated to have been possibly 2 to 10 or more times the modern rate. During the full-glacial climate, more than 100 lakes occupied closed basins in the province. Any increase in ground-water recharge and refilling of Pleistocene lakes will tend to decrease the distance of ground-water flow and its time of travel. The unsaturated zone this zone is considered a potential host medium where the thickness is greater than 150 m will be decreased by these changes. In contrast, incision of streams and other geomorphic, tectonic, or climatically induced changes that lower the ground-water discharge level will tend to increase the thickness of the unsaturated zone. Aggradation in basinal troughs may either decrease or increase the thickness of the unsaturated zone. Aggradation in basins that causes the ground-water discharge level to rise will tend to decrease the thickness of unsaturated zone in the adjacent uplands; aggradation in basins where the ground-water discharge level remains the same or is lowered will increase the unsaturated thickness of basin fill.

Records show that, throughout late Cenozoic time in the Basin and Range province, continued vertical crustal movements have tended to maintain mountain ranges and closed basins, whereas aggradation of the basins and erosion of the mountain ranges have tended to decrease the topographic relief. Maximum rates of denudation for small basins in areas climatically similar to the Basin and Range province are about 2 meters per 104 years. For sites unaffected by stream incision and scarp retreat, a conservative estimate of erosion affecting long-term changes in depth of burial would appear to be 2 meters per 104 years, or, equal to the long-term rate of vertical crustal movement where greater than 2 meters per 104 years. The response of the ground-water conditions to climatic and geomorphically induced boundary conditions is significant from the points of: (1) The potential maximum change in the ground-water flow system; (2) the time of response of the ground-water system; and (3) the present state of the ground-water system as a result of past changes. Effects of longterm climatic and tectonic changes on hydrologic and geomorphic conditions differ from area to area, and rates of change of geomorphic and hydrologic conditions may vary significantly. Therefore, sitespecific studies need to be made to assess the long-term integrity of deep, mined repositories.

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USGS Numbered Series
Studies of geology and hydrology in the Basin and Range Province, Southwestern United States, for isolation of high-level radioactive waste - Basis of characterization and evaluation
Series title:
Professional Paper
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U.S. Government Printing Office
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s):
Utah Water Science Center
Report: vi, 41 p.; Plate: 34.00 in. x 32.00 in.
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United States
Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah