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Testing the concept of drift shadow at Yucca Mountain, Nevada

January 1, 2006

If proven, the concept of drift shadow, a zone of reduced water content and slower ground-water travel time beneath openings in fractured rock of the unsaturated zone, may increase performance of a proposed geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, To test this concept under natural-flow conditions present in the proposed repository horizon, isotopes within the uranium-series decay chain (uranium-238, uranium-234, and thorium-230, or 238U-234U-230Th) have been analyzed in samples of rock from beneath four naturally occurring lithophysal cavities. All rock samples show 234U depletion relative to parent 238U indicating varying degrees of water-rock interaction over the past million years. Variations in 234U/238U activity ratios indicate that depletion of 234U relative to 238U can be either smaller or greater in rock beneath cavity floors relative to rock near cavity margins. These results are consistent with the concept of drift shadow and with numerical simulations of meter-scale spherical cavities in fractured tuff. Differences in distribution patterns of 234U/ 238U activity ratios in rock beneath the cavity floors are interpreted to reflect differences in the amount of past seepage into lithophysal cavities, as indicated by the abundance of secondary mineral deposits present on the cavity floors.