Air and groundwater flow at the interface between fractured host rock and a bentonite buffer

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Benoît Dessirier, Jerker Jarsjo and Andrew Frampton, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Designs of deep geological repositories for spent nuclear fuel include several levels of confinement. The Swedish and Finnish concept KBS-3 targets for example sparsely fractured crystalline bedrock as host formation and would have the waste canisters embedded in an engineered buffer of compacted MX-80 bentonite. The host rock is a highly heterogeneous dual porosity material containing fractures and a rock matrix. Bentonite is a complex expansive porous material. Its water content and mechanical properties are interdependent. Beyond the specific physics of unsaturated flow and transport in each medium, the interface between them is critical. Detailed knowledge of the transitory two-phase flow regime, induced by the insertion of the unsaturated buffer in a saturated rock environment, is necessary to assess the performance of planned KBS-3 deposition holes.

A set of numerical simulations based on the equations of two-phase flow for water and air in porous media were conducted to investigate the dynamics of air and groundwater flow near the rock/bentonite interface in the period following installation of the unsaturated bentonite buffer. We assume state of the two-phase flow parameter values for bentonite from laboratory water uptake tests and typical fracture and rock properties from the Äspö Hard rock laboratory (Sweden) gathered under several field characterization campaigns. The results point to desaturation of the rock domain as far as 10 cm away from the interface into matrix-dominated regions for up to 160 days. Similar observations were made during the Bentonite Rock Interaction Experiment (BRIE) at the Äspö HRL, with a desaturation sustained for even longer times. More than the mere time to mechanical and hydraulic equilibrium, the occurrence of sustained unsaturated conditions opens the possibility for biogeochemical processes that could be critical in the safety assessment of the planned repository.