In deep geological repositories for high-level nuclear wastes, interactions between steel canisters and clay-rich materials may lead to mineralogical transformations with a loss of the confining properties of the clays. Experiments simulating the conversion of smectite to Fe-rich clay phases in contact with Fe metal have been carried out to evaluate such a possibility by taking into account the effects of a series of critical parameters, including temperature, pH, and Fe/clay (Fe/C) and liquid/clay (L/C) ratios. The mineralogical and chemical transformations observed in these experiments have been compared with data from the literature, and subsequently used to propose a conceptual model for the main mineralogical transformations which can be expected in clay formations surrounding high-level nuclear waste repositories. In the presence of Fe metal and under low oxygen fugacity (<10−40) the main mineralogical sequences are as follows:

  1. up to 150°C, under neutral pH, and L/C > 5: dioctahedral smectite (di-sm) → 7 Å Fe-rich phase (berthierine, odinite–cronstedtite) for large Fe/C ratios (>0.5), or di-sm → Fe-rich di-sm + Fe-rich trioctahedral smectite (tri-sm) for small Fe/C ratios (0.1);

  2. up to 150°C, under alkaline pH (10–12), and L/C > 5: di-sm → Fe di-sm (±palygorskite) for a small Fe/C ratio (0.1);

  3. at 300°C, Fe/C = 0.1, and L/C > 5: di-sm → Fe-rich saponite → trioctahedral chlorite + feldspar + zeolite (near-neutral pH); di-sm → Fe-rich vermiculite + mordenite (pH 10–12).

Low temperatures (<150°C) and large L/C and Fe/C ratios seem to favor the crystallization of the serpentine group minerals instead of Fe-rich trioctahedral smectites or chlorites, the latter being favored by higher temperatures. The role of L/C and Fe/C ratios and the competition between them at different temperatures is a crucial point in understanding the transformation of smectite in contact with Fe metal.

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