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234U/238U evidence for local recharge and patterns of groundwater flow in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, USA

January 1, 2002

Uranium concentrations and 234U/238U ratios in saturated-zone and perched ground water were used to investigate hydrologic flow and downgradient dilution and dispersion in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain, a potential high-level radioactive waste disposal site. The U data were obtained by thermal ionization mass spectrometry on more than 280 samples from the Death Valley regional flow system. Large variations in both U concentrations (commonly 0.6-10 ??g 1-1) and 234U/238U activity ratios (commonly 1.5-6) are present on both local and regional scales; however, ground water with 234U/238U activity ratios from 7 up to 8.06 is restricted largely to samples from Yucca Mountain. Data from ground water in the Tertiary volcanic and Quaternary alluvial aquifers at and adjacent to Yucca Mountain plot in 3 distinct fields of reciprocal U concentration versus 234U/238U activity ratio correlated to different geographic areas. Ground water to the west of Yucca Mountain has large U concentrations and moderate 234U/238U whereas ground water to the east in the Fortymile flow system has similar 234U/238U, but distinctly smaller U concentrations. Ground water beneath the central part of Yucca Mountain has intermediate U concentrations but distinctive 234U/238U activity ratios of about 7-8. Perched water from the lower part of the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain has similarly large values of 234U/238U. These U data imply that the Tertiary volcanic aquifer beneath the central part of Yucca Mountain is isolated from north-south regional flow. The similarity of 234U/238U in both saturated- and unsaturated-zone ground water at Yucca Mountain further indicates that saturated-zone ground water beneath Yucca Mountain is dominated by local recharge rather than regional flow. The distinctive 234U/238U signatures also provide a natural tracer of downgradient flow. Elevated 234U/238U in ground water from two water-supply wells east of Yucca Mountain are interpreted as the result of induced flow from 40 a of ground-water withdrawal. Elevated 234U/238U in a borehole south of Yucca Mountain is interpreted as evidence that natural downgradient flow is more likely to follow southerly paths in the structurally anisotropic Tertiary volcanic aquifer where it becomes diluted by regional flow in the Fortymile system.