Bentonites are candidate materials for encapsulation of radioactive waste. The cation exchange capacity (CEC) has proved to be one of the most sensitive parameters for detecting changes of mineral properties such as swelling capacity and illitization in alteration experiments. Whether measured differences in CEC values of bentonite buffer samples before and after an experiment are (1) actual differences caused by clay structural changes such as illitization or (2) simply data scatter due to the different methods used by international research teams is an open question. The aim of this study was to measure the CEC of clay samples in five different laboratories using the same method and to evaluate the precision of the values measured. The Cu-trien method and four reference materials of the Alternative Buffer Material (ABM) test project in Äspö, Sweden, were chosen for this interlaboratory study. The precision of the Cu-trien method, which uses visible spectroscopy, was very good with a standard deviation of ±0.7–2.1 meq/100 g for CECs that ranged from 11 to 87 meq/100 g. For the same CEC range, analysis of Cu-trien index cations using inductively coupled plasma (mass spectrometry) and atomic absorption spectroscopy were less precise with a standard deviation of ±2.8–3.9 meq/100 g. Based on the measured precision, greater measured differences in Cu-trien CEC and exchangeable cation values of bentonite buffer samples, before and after an experiment, might be actual differences. Great care must be taken when interpreting measured CEC differences, and analytical characterization of any structural changes may be needed. Compared with results from the ‘International Soil-Analytical Exchange’ (iSE) program for soils, most absolute concentrations were much larger for the clays studied; however, for the two parameters exchangeable Ca2+ and CEC the range was similar to the iSE ring test and, most importantly, the precision was comparable. Future studies should discuss the accuracy of CEC and exchangeable cation values and compare them to alternative CEC methods in which care is taken to prevent dissolution of soluble minerals, such as calcite and gypsum.

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