A low-level radioactive-waste burial site is located in Palos Forest Preserve, about 22 kilometers southwest of Chicago, Illinois. Between 1943 and 1949 the site, named Plot M, was filled with radioactive waste from the first Argonne National Laboratory and from the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. Since 1973, tritium concentration levels up to 14 nanocuries per liter have been measured in water samples collected from a well 360 meters from the burial site.
The U.S. Geological Survey is studying the geologic, hydrologic, and geochemical properties of the glacial drift and underlying bedrock at the Plot M site to determine the factors that control the movement of radionuclides. Test wells were drilled into the drift to collect water and core samples for laboratory analysis, to gather geologic and hydrologic data, and to conduct geophysical surveys. Plot M is located in drift that ranges in thickness from 25 to 45 meters. The drift is a stratified sequence of clay- and silt-rich sediments that contain thin, interstratified sand layers. The silt content of the drift increases with depth. The permeability of the drift, as indicated by field and laboratory hydraulic conductivity tests, ranges from 1.0 x 10 -6 to 1.0 ? 10 -8 centimeters per second.
A tritium plume, the contaminated zone in the drift in which tritium concentration levels exceed 10 nanocuries per liter of water, extends horizontally northward from Plot M at least 50 meters and vertically downward to bedrock. The center of the plume, where tritium concentration levels are as high as 50,000 nanocuries per liter, is approximately 15 meters beneath the burial site. The size, shape, and 'bull's-eye' concentration pattern indicate that the plume is a single slug and that the site no longer releases tritium into the drift. The leading edge, or front, of the plume (the 10 nanocuries per liter boundary) left the burial site in either the late 1940's or the early 1950's and intersected the underlying bedrock surface before 1973. The calculated movement rate of the front is 6.3 x 10 -6 centimeters per second.
Several key factors that control both the concentration level and the extent of migration of tritium in the drift at Plot M are 1. The limited amount of tritiated waste buried at Plot M. 2. The long period of time that has elapsed since the waste was buried (30-35 years) relative to the radioactive half-life of tritium (12.3 years). 3. The great thickness and low permeability of the glacial drift at the site.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Low-level radioactive-waste burial at the Palos Forest Preserve, Illinois; geology and hydrology of the glacial drift, as related to the migration of tritium