Pore water was extracted in March 1996 from cores collected from test holes UZB-1 and UZB-2 drilled November 1992 and September 1993, respectively, in the Amargosa Desert south of Beatty, Nevada. The test holes are part of a study to determine factors affecting water and gas movement through unsaturated sediments. The holes are about 100 meters south of the southwest corner of the fence enclosing a commercial burial area for low-level radioactive waste. Water vapor collected from test hole UZB-2 in April 1994 and July 1995 had tritium concentrations greater than would be expected from atmospheric deposition. An apparatus was built in which pore water was extracted by cryodistillation from the previously obtained core samples. The extracted core water was analyzed for the radioactive isotope tritium and for the stable isotopes deuterium (D) and oxygen-18 (18O). The isotopic composition of core water was compared with that of water vapor previously collected from air ports in test hole UZB-2 and to additional samples collected during May 1996.
Core water becomes increasingly depleted in D and 18O from the land surface to a depth of 30 meters, indicating that net evaporation of water is occurring near the land surface. Below a depth of 30 meters the stable-isotopic composition of core water becomes nearly constant and roughly equal to that of ground water. The stable isotopes plot on an evaporation trend. The source of the partly evaporated water could be either ground water or past precipitation having the same average isotopic composition as ground water but not modern precipitation, based on 18 months of record. Profiles of D and 18O in water vapor roughly parallel those in core water. The stable isotopes of core water appear to be in isotopic equilibrium with water vapor from UZB-2 when temperature-dependent fractionation is considered. The data are consistent with the hypothesis of evaporative discharge of ground water at the land surface.
The concentration of tritium in core water from depths less than 50 meters was higher than that of present-day atmospheric air, indicating that elevated tritium concentrations preceded the drilling. The concentrations of tritium in core water from the deepest sample (85 meters) and in UZB-2 groundwater (110 meters) were below detection. Thus, tritium in the unsaturated zone is not being introduced through ground water.
The shape of the tritium profile for core water was similar to the shape of the tritium profile for water vapor collected April 1994, except that concentrations were consistently lower in core water than in water vapor. Tritium concentrations in water vapor increased from April 1994 to May 1996. Similar to the stable isotopes, the highest tritium concentrations were measured at shallow depths. Concentrations of tritium in water vapor during core collection were estimated assuming isotopic equilibrium with core water. The computed concentrations for November 1992 and September 1993 form consistent temporal trends with subsequent tritium concentrations in water vapor collected April 1994, July 1995, and May 1996. Observations of a bimodal distribution of tritium, in which the highest concentrations are in a gravel layer at a depth of 1-2 meters, indicate lateral migration of tritium through the vicinity of UZB-2.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Tritium, deuterium, and oxygen-18 in water collected from unsaturated sediments near a low-level radioactive-waste burial site south of Beatty, Nevada
Water-Resources Investigations Report
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