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Consequences of slow growth for 230Th/U dating of Quaternary opals, Yucca Mountain, NV, USA

January 1, 2000

Thermal ionization mass-spectrometry 234U/238U and 230Th/238U data are reported for uranium-rich opals coating fractures and cavities within the silicic tuffs forming Yucca Mountain, NV, the potential site of a high-level radioactive waste repository. High uranium concentrations (up to 207 ppm) and extremely high 230Th/232Th activity ratios (up to about 106) make microsamples of these opals suitable for precise 230Th/U dating. Conventional 230Th/U ages range from 40 to greater than 600 ka, and initial 234U/238U activity ratios between 1.03 and 8.2. Isotopic evidence indicates that the opals have not experienced uranium mobility; however, wide variations in apparent ages and initial 234U/238U ratios for separate subsamples of the same outermost mineral surfaces, positive correlation between ages and sample weights, and negative correlation between 230Th/U ages and calculated initial 234U/238U are inconsistent with the assumption that all minerals in a given subsample was deposited instantaneously. The data are more consistent with a conceptual model of continuous deposition where secondary mineral growth has occurred at a constant, slow rate up to the present. This model assumes that individual subsamples represent mixtures of older and younger material, and that calculations using the resulting isotope ratios reflect an average age. Ages calculated using the continuous-deposition model for opals imply average mineral growth rates of less than 5 mm/m.y. The model of continuous deposition also predicts discordance between ages obtained using different radiometric methods for the same subsample. Differences in half-lives will result in younger apparent ages for the shorter-lived isotope due to the greater influence of younger materials continuously added to mineral surfaces. Discordant 14C, 230Th/U and U-Pb ages obtained from outermost mineral surfaces at Yucca Mountain support this model. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.