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Geohydrologic aspects for siting and design of low-level radioactive-waste disposal

January 1, 1989

The objective for siting and design of low-level radioactive-waste repository sites is to isolate the waste from the biosphere until the waste no longer poses an unacceptable hazard as a result of radioactive decay. Low-level radioactive waste commonly is isolated at shallow depths with various engineered features to stabilize the waste and to reduce its dissolution and transport by ground water. The unsaturated zone generally is preferred for isolating the waste. Low-level radioactive waste may need to be isolated for 300 to 500 years. Maintenance and monitoring of the repository site are required by Federal regulations for only the first 100 years. Therefore, geohydrology of the repository site needs to provide natural isolation of the waste for the hazardous period following maintenance of the site. Engineering design of the repository needs to be compatible with the natural geohydrologic conditions at the site. Studies at existing commercial and Federal waste-disposal sites provide information on the problems encountered and the basis for establishing siting guidelines for improved isolation of radioactive waste, engineering design of repository structures, and surveillance needs to assess the effectiveness of the repositories and to provide early warning of problems that may require remedial action.

Climate directly affects the hydrology of a site and probably is the most important single factor that affects the suitability of a site for shallow-land burial of low-level radioactive waste. Humid and subhumid regions are not well suited for shallow isolation of low-level radioactive waste in the unsaturated zone; arid regions with zero to small infiltration from precipitation, great depths to the water table, and long flow paths to natural discharge areas are naturally well suited to isolation of the waste. The unsaturated zone is preferred for isolation of low-level radioactive waste. The guiding rationale is to minimize contact of water with the waste and to minimize transport of waste from the repository. The hydrology of a flow system containing a repository is greatly affected by the engineering of the repository site. Prediction of the performance of the repository is a complex problem, hampered by problems of characterizing the natural and manmade features of the flow system and by the limitations of models to predict flow and geochemical processes in the saturated and unsaturated zones. Disposal in low-permeability unfractured clays in the saturated zone may be feasible where the radionuclide transport is controlled by diffusion rather than advection.

Publication Year 1989
Title Geohydrologic aspects for siting and design of low-level radioactive-waste disposal
DOI 10.3133/cir1034
Authors M. S. Bedinger
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 1034
Index ID cir1034
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center