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Technical Report

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The presence of two-phase fluid inclusions in thin secondary mineral crusts at the potential Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository has raised questions regarding the origin, timing, and temperature of past fluid flow through the repository horizon. The geologically recent passage of fluids with high temperatures would call into question the suitability of the site for the storage of high level nuclear waste. This study determined the thermal history of fluid flow through the site using fluid inclusion analyses and constrained the timing of thermal fluids by dating silica minerals spatially associated with the fluid inclusions using U-Pb techniques. Results provide a detailed time-temperature history of fluid migration through primary and secondary pore spaces during the past 8 to 9 million years. One hundred and fifty-five samples were collected in the unsaturated zone from the C-shaped Exploratory Studies Facility (ESF), the ECRB cross drift which crosses the potential repository horizon, and exploratory alcoves. Detailed petrographic and paragenetic studies indicated that the oldest secondary minerals consisted of heterogeneously distributed calcite with lesser chalcedony, quartz, opal, and fluorite. The oldest secondary minerals were overgrown by intermediate bladed calcite. The youngest secondary minerals include chemically distinct Mgenriched, growth-zoned sparry calcite (MGSC) and intergrown U-enriched opal. Fluid inclusion petrography indicated that 50 % of the samples (n = 78) contained fluid inclusion assemblages with two-phase fluid inclusions, and that assemblages of liquid-only fluid inclusions represent > 96% of all fluid inclusions within the secondary minerals. Assemblages of two-phase inclusions also contain liquid-only inclusions that did not nucleate a vapor-bubble owing to formation at relatively low temperatures. Virtually all two-phase fluid inclusions occur in paragenetically old calcite; rare two-phase inclusion assemblages were observed in old fluorite (n = 3) and quartz (n = 2). Rare two-phase fluid inclusions were observed in early-intermediate calcite; sparse, irregularly shaped liquid-only inclusions form the only fluid inclusion assemblages observed in late-intermediate minerals and young MGSC. Homogenization temperatures for calcite across the site are generally 45 - 60 °C, but higher temperatures reaching 83 °C were recorded in the north portal and ramp of the ESF and cooler temperatures of ~ 35 - 45 °C were recorded in the intensely fracture zone. Samples from lithophysal cavities in the ESF and ECRB contain multiple populations of two-phase inclusions. Inclusion temperatures are highest in early calcite (> 45 °C) and cooler in paragenetically younger early calcite, indicating cooling with time. The cooler temperatures coincide with temperatures recorded in the intensely fractured zone and indicate that secondary minerals in the intensely fractured zone began to precipitate later than secondary minerals in other locations. Freezing point depressions determined for inclusions range from -0.2 to -1.6 °C indicating trapping of a low salinity fluid. A small number of fluid inclusions in fluorite and quartz were identified and evaluated. Four inclusions in these minerals homogenized at temperatures higher than those recorded for calcite (91 ° - 95 °C) . Two approaches were used to constrain the timing of thermal fluids at Yucca Mountain. First, the age of MGSC was determined, and it provides a minimum age for fluids with elevated temperatures owing to the presence of only liquid-only inclusions in MGSC. Results indicate that MGSC began to precipitate across the site between 2.90 ± 0.06 Ma and about 1.95 ± 0.06 Ma, and MGSC has continued to precipitate to within the last half million years. These ages constrain fluids with elevated temperatures to have accessed the site more than about 2.90 Ma. Second, more precise temporal constraints were determined for samples in which datable opal or chalcedony occur in the intermediate or older parts of the mineral crusts, or are spatially related to 2-phase fluid inclusions. Such ages indicate that two-phase fluid inclusions are older than 5.32 ± 0.02 Ma, and that fluids with elevated temperatures were present at Yucca Mountain before this time. Results from this study are consistent with a model of descending meteoric water that infiltrated the cooling tuff sequence, became heated, and precipitated secondary minerals within the vadose zone. Fluid inclusions indicate that fluids with elevated temperatures were present during the early history of Yucca Mountain. Sparse, liquid-only fluid inclusions in late intermediate to young calcite indicate that secondary minerals were precipitated from low temperature fluids during the past 5 million years. This study demonstrates that the hypothesis of geologically recent upwelling hydrothermal fluids is untenable and should not disqualify Yucca Mountain as a potential nuclear waste storage site.


Calcite; Fluid inclusions; Geochemistry; Groundwater; Hydrothermal deposits; Nevada – Yucca Mountain; Paragenesis


Geology | Mineral Physics




Document No-: TR-02-005.2
Document Revision: 0
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