Plant-based techniques were tested for field-scale evaluation of tritium contamination adjacent to a low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) facility in the Amargosa Desert, Nevada. Objectives were to (i) characterize and map the spatial variability of tritium in plant water, (ii) develop empirical relations to predict and map subsurface contamination from plant-water concentrations, and (iii) gain insight into tritium migration pathways and processes. Plant sampling [creosote bush, Larrea tridentata (Sessé & Moc. ex DC.) Coville] required one-fifth the time of soil water vapor sampling. Plant concentrations were spatially correlated to a separation distance of 380 m; measurement uncertainty accounted for <0.1% of the total variability in the data. Regression equations based on plant tritium explained 96 and 90% of the variation in root-zone and sub-root-zone soil water vapor concentrations, respectively. The equations were combined with kriged plant-water concentrations to map subsurface contamination. Mapping showed preferential lateral movement of tritium through a dry, coarse-textured layer beneath the root zone, with concurrent upward movement through the root zone. Analysis of subsurface fluxes along a transect perpendicular to the LLRW facility showed that upward diffusive-vapor transport dominates other transport modes beneath native vegetation. Downward advective-liquid transport dominates at one endpoint of the transect, beneath a devegetated road immediately adjacent to the facility. To our knowledge, this study is the first to document large-scale subsurface vapor-phase tritium migration from a LLRW facility. Plant-based methods provide a noninvasive, cost-effective approach to mapping subsurface tritium migration in desert areas.

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