Potential migration of buoyant LNAPL from Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) emplaced in a geological disposal facility (GDF) for UK radioactive waste

Benbow, Steven J. and Rivett, Michael O. and Chittenden, Neil and Herbert, Alan W. and Watson, Sarah and Williams, Steve J. and Norris, Simon (2014) Potential migration of buoyant LNAPL from Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) emplaced in a geological disposal facility (GDF) for UK radioactive waste. Journal of Contaminant Hydrology, 167. pp. 1-22. ISSN 0169-7722

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    Abstract

    A safety case for the disposal of Intermediate Level (radioactive) Waste (ILW) in a deep geological disposal facility (GDF) requires consideration of the potential for waste-derived light non-aqueous phase liquid (LNAPL) to migrate under positive buoyancy from disposed waste packages. Were entrainment of waste-derived radionuclides in LNAPL to occur, such migration could result in a shorter overall travel time to environmental or human receptors than radionuclide migration solely associated with the movement of groundwater. This paper provides a contribution to the assessment of this issue through multiphase-flow numerical modelling underpinned by a review of the UK's ILW inventory and literature to define the nature of the associated ILW LNAPL source term. Examination has been at the waste package-local GDF environment scale to determine whether proposed disposal of ILW would lead to significant likelihood of LNAPL migration, both from waste packages and from a GDF vault into the local host rock. Our review and numerical modelling support the proposition that the release of a discrete free phase LNAPL from ILW would not present a significant challenge to the safety case even with conservative approximations. 'As-disposed' LNAPL emplaced with the waste is not expected to pose a significant issue. 'Secondary LNAPL' generated in situ within the disposed ILW, arising from the decomposition of plastics, in particular PVC (polyvinyl chloride), could form the predominant LNAPL source term. Released high molecular weight phthalate plasticizers are judged to be the primary LNAPL potentially generated. These are expected to have low buoyancy-based mobility due to their very low density contrast with water and high viscosity. Due to the inherent uncertainties, significant conservatisms were adopted within the numerical modelling approach, including: the simulation of a deliberately high organic material - PVC content wastestream (2D03) within an annular grouted waste package vulnerable to LNAPL release; upper bound inventory estimates of LNAPLs; incorporating the lack of any hydraulic resistance of the package vent; the lack of any degradation of dissolved LNAPL; and, significantly, the small threshold displacement pressure assumed at which LNAPL is able to enter initially water-saturated pores. Initial scoping calculations on the latter suggested that the rate at which LNAPL is able to migrate from a waste package is likely to be very small and insignificant for likely representative displacement pressure data: this represents a key result. Adopting a conservative displacement pressure, however, allowed the effect of other features and processes in the system to be assessed. High LNAPL viscosity together with low density contrast with water reduces LNAPL migration potential. Migration to the host rock is less likely if waste package vent fluxes are small, solubility limits are high and path lengths through the backfill are short. The capacity of the system to dissolve all of the free LNAPL will, however, depend on groundwater availability. Even with the conservatisms invoked, the overall conclusion of model simulations of intact and compromised (cracked or corroded) waste packages, for a range of realistic ILW LNAPL scenarios, is that it is unlikely that significant LNAPL would be able to migrate from the waste packages and even more unlikely it would be sufficiently persistent to reach the host rock immediately beyond the GDF.