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In 2002, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was selected as the proposed site for the U.S. high-level nuclear waste repository. Yucca Mountain lies within a large topographically closed basin, in which surface water is internally drained. Groundwater, however, can and does flow into and out of this basin at depth through a regional carbonate-rock aquifer (commonly referred to as the lower carbonate-rock aquifer). Most groundwater recharge (water infiltrating downward through the unsaturated zone into the water table) originates in the highlands north of Yucca Mountain and flows generally southward. Some groundwater discharges within the basin, as in Oasis Valley and the southern Amargosa Desert, but the ultimate discharge is in Death Valley, where water is returned to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration. Groundwater flows through a heterogeneous medium produced by a complex geologic history including both compressional and extensional tectonics. For hydrologic purposes, the rocks and alluvium are divided into 25 hydrogeologic units. Regionally, the most important unit for regional groundwater flow is composed of Paleozoic carbonate rocks, which are locally separated into two aquifers by an intervening shale. Rocks of the southwestern Nevada volcanic field form thick deposits in the northern part of the basin, and these rocks host both aquifers and confining units.

The potentiometric surface of the site-scale flow system contains areas of large hydraulic gradient (as great as 0.13) and small hydraulic gradient (as small as 0.0001). Both extremes are found within the Yucca Mountain site area, where they are well constrained by numerous boreholes. At Yucca Mountain, a single borehole penetrates to the regional carbonate-rock aquifer, and, at this locality, the hydraulic head at depth is 20 m greater than in the overlying volcanic rocks. This head difference is likely widespread, as indicated by thermal highs at the groundwater table in the vicinity of block-bounding faults, where upward leakage of water from the regional carbonate-rock aquifer is postulated.

Since the early 1980s, numerous two- and three-dimensional flow models have been developed to depict regional groundwater flow. A 2004 transient flow model of the Death Valley region has 16 layers and a 1500 m/side horizontal grid; it is composed of 194 rows and 160 columns. The model was first calibrated to a steady-state condition and then to transient conditions. The model matches observed flow patterns well, and it generally agrees with measured water levels except in areas of large hydraulic gradient. The regional model provides the boundary conditions for a detailed site-scale flow model.

The finite-element heat and mass transfer code, FEHM v2.24, was used to simulate flow through the saturated zone at Yucca Mountain. Cells in the site-scale model are 250 m/side in the horizontal grid; it is composed of 181 rows and 121 columns. The model may use as many as 67 layers, but the framework model allows a stair-stepped ground surface, so the number of layers is variable. Layer thickness ranges from 600 m at the bottom of the model to 10 m south of Yucca Mountain. The site-scale flow model was constructed and calibrated, matching observed hydrologic data well. The site-scale flow model provides a means for assessing the hypothetical flow path for any radioactive materials originating from the proposed repository.

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