Organic Compounds Complexify Transport in the Amargosa Desert—The Case for Phytotritiation
Thursday, 18 December 2014
Civilian low-level radioactive waste containing organic compounds was disposed in 2- to 15-m deep unlined trenches in a 110-m deep unsaturated zone at the present-day USGS Amargosa Desert Research Site. Tritium represents the plurality of disposed activity. A plume of gas-phase contaminants surrounds the disposal area, with 60 distinct volatile organic compounds (VOCs) identified to date. The distribution of tritiated water in the unsaturated zone surrounding the disposal area is highly enigmatic, with orders of magnitude separating observed levels from those predicted by multiphase models of mass and energy transport. Peaks of tritium and VOCs are coincidently located in sediments tens of meters below the root zone, suggesting abiotic stratigraphic control on lateral transport at depth. Surprisingly, the highest observed levels of tritium occur at a depth of about 1.5 m, the base of the creosote-bush plant-community root zone, where levels of waste-derived VOCs are low (approaching atmospheric levels). Bulk water-vapor samples from shallow and deep unsaturated-zone profile hot spots were trapped as water ice in cold fingers immersed in dry ice-isopropyl alcohol filled Dewar flasks, then melted and sequentially extracted by purge-and-trap VOC degassing followed by elution through activated carbon solid-phase extraction (SPE) cartridges. Analysis of tritium activities and mass spectrometer results indicate that over 98% of tritium activity at depth is present as water, whereas about 15% of basal root zone tritium activity is present as organic compounds trapped with the water. Of these, the less-volatile compound group removed by SPE accounted for about 85% of the organic tritium activity, with mass spectrometry identifying 2-ethyl-1-hexanol as the principal compound removed. This plant-produced fatty alcohol is ubiquitous in the root zone of creosote-bush communities and represents a family of hydroxyl-containing plant produced compounds that give the plants their pungency. These findings suggest that tritiated hydroxyl groups on plant-produced organic compounds provide an important reservoir and pathway for tritium transport.