United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Hydrologic Evaluation Methodology for Estimating Water Movement Through the Unsaturated Zone at Commercial Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Sites (NUREG/CR-6346)

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Publication Information

Manuscript Completed: November 1995
Date Published: January 1996

Prepared by:
P.D. Meyer, M.L. Rockhold, W.E. Nichols, G.W. Gee

Pacific Northwest Laboratory
Richland, WA 99352

T. J. Nicholson, NRC Project Manager

NRC Job Code N6176

Prepared for:
Division of Regulatory Applications
Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research
U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001

NRC Job Code L2466

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This report identifies key technical issues related to hydrologic assessment of water flow in the unsaturated zone at low-level radioactive waste (LLW) disposal facilities. In addition, a methodology for incorporating these issues in the performance assessment of proposed LLW disposal facilities is identified and evaluated. The issues discussed fall into four areas:

  1. Estimating the water balance at a site (i.e., infiltration, runoff, water storage, evapotranspiration, and recharge);
  2. Analyzing the hydrologic performance of engineered components of a facility;
  3. Evaluating the application of models to the prediction of facility performance; and
  4. Estimating the uncertainty in predicted facility performance.

An estimate of recharge at a LLW site is important since recharge is a principal factor in controlling the release of contaminants via the groundwater pathway. The most common methods for estimating recharge are discussed in Chapter 2. Many factors affect recharge; the natural recharge at an undisturbed site is not necessarily representative either of the recharge that will occur after the site has been disturbed or of the flow of water into a disposal facility at the site. Factors affecting recharge are discussed in Chapter 2.

At many sites engineered components are required for a LLW facility to meet performance requirements. Chapter 3 discusses the use of engineered barriers to control the flow of water in a LLW facility, with a particular emphasis on cover systems. Design options and the potential performance and degradation mechanisms of engineered components are also discussed.

Water flow in a LLW disposal facility must be evaluated before construction of the facility. In addition, hydrologic performance must be predicted over a very long time frame. For these reasons, the hydrologic evaluation relies on the use of predictive modeling. In Chapter 4, the evaluation of unsaturated water flow modeling is discussed. A checklist of items is presented to guide the evaluation. Several computer simulation codes that were used in the examples (Chapter 6) are discussed with respect to this checklist. The codes used include HELP, UNSAT-H, and VAM3DCG.

To provide a defensible estimate of water flow in a LLW disposal facility, the uncertainty associated with model predictions must be considered. Uncertainty arises because of the highly heterogeneous nature of most subsurface environments and the long time frame required in the analysis. Sources of uncertainty in hydrologic evaluation of the unsaturated zone and several approaches for analysis are discussed in Chapter 5. The methods of analysis discussed include a bounding approach, sensitivity analysis, and Monte Carlo simulation.

To illustrate the application of the discussion in Chapters 2 through 5, two examples are presented in Chapter 6. The first example is of a below ground vault located in a humid environment. The second example looks at a shallow land burial facility located in an arid environment. The examples utilize actual site-specific data and realistic facility designs. The two examples illustrate the issues unique to humid and arid sites as well as the issues common to all LLW sites. Strategies for addressing the analytical difficulties arising in any complex hydrologic evaluation of the unsaturated zone are demonstrated.

The report concludes with some final observations and recommendations.

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