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The unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain was investigated as a possible site for the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository. Scientific investigations included infiltration studies, matrix properties testing, borehole testing and monitoring, underground excavation and testing, and the development of conceptual and numerical models of the hydrologic processes at Yucca Mountain. Infiltration estimates by empirical and geochemical methods range from 0.2 to 1.4 mm/yr and 0.2–6.0 mm/yr, respectively. Infiltration estimates from numerical models range from 4.5 mm/yr to 17.6 mm/yr. Rock matrix properties vary vertically and laterally as the result of depositional processes and subsequent postdepositional alteration. Laboratory tests indicate that the average matrix porosity and hydraulic conductivity values for the main level of the proposed repository (Topopah Spring Tuff middle nonlithophysal zone) are 0.08 and 4.7 × 10−12 m/s, respectively. In situ fracture hydraulic conductivity values are 3–6 orders of magnitude greater. The permeability of fault zones is approximately an order of magnitude greater than that of the surrounding rock unit. Water samples from the fault zones have tritium concentrations that indicate some component of postnuclear testing. Gas and water vapor movement through the unsaturated zone is driven by changes in barometric pressure, temperature-induced density differences, and wind effects. The subsurface pressure response to surface barometric changes is controlled by the distribution and interconnectedness of fractures, the presence of faults and their ability to conduct gas and vapor, and the moisture content and matrix permeability of the rock units. In situ water potential values are generally less than −0.2 MPa (−2 bar), and the water potential gradients in the Topopah Spring Tuff units are very small. Perched-water zones at Yucca Mountain are associated with the basal vitrophyre of the Topopah Spring Tuff or the Calico Hills bedded tuff. Thermal gradients in the unsaturated zone vary with location, and range from ~2.0 °C to 6.0 °C per 100 m; the variability appears to be associated with topography. Large-scale heater testing identified a heat-pipe signature at ~97 °C, and identified thermally induced and excavation-induced changes in the stress field. Elevated gas-phase CO2 concentrations and a decrease in the pH of water from the condensation zone also were identified. Conceptual and numerical flow and transport models of Yucca Mountain indicate that infiltration is highly variable, both spatially and temporally. Flow in the unsaturated zone is predominately through fractures in the welded units of the Tiva Canyon and Topopah Spring Tuffs and predominately through the matrix in the Paintbrush Tuff nonwelded units and Calico Hills Formation. Isolated, transient, fast-flow paths, such as faults, do exist but probably carry only a small portion of the total liquid-water flux at Yucca Mountain. The Paintbrush Tuff nonwelded units act as a storage buffer for transient infiltration pulses. Faults may act as flow boundaries and/or fast pathways. Below the proposed repository horizon, low-permeability lithostratigraphic units of the Topopah Spring Tuff and/or the Calico Hills Formation may divert flow laterally to faults that act as conduits to the water table. Advective transport pathways are consistent with flow pathways. Matrix diffusion is the major mechanism for mass transfer between fractures and the matrix and may contribute to retardation of radionuclide transport when fracture flow is dominant. Sorption may retard the movement of radionuclides in the unsaturated zone; however, sorption on mobile colloids may enhance radionuclide transport. Dispersion is not expected to be a major transport mechanism in the unsaturated zone at Yucca Mountain. Natural analogue studies support the concepts that percolating water may be diverted around underground openings and that the percentage of infiltration that becomes seepage decreases as infiltration decreases.

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