Mineralogical Evidence for the Palaeohydrogeological Stability of a Deep Groundwater System in Fractured Rock, in West Cumbria, Northwest England

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Antoni Edward Milodowski1, Martin R Gillespie2, Simon R.N. Chenery1, Jonathan Naden1 and Richard P Shaw1, (1)British Geological Survey Keyworth, Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom, (2)British Geological Survey, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
An important requirement of the safety assessment for a geological disposal facility (GDF) for radioactive waste is to be able to demonstrate the long-term chemical stability of the groundwater system at repository depth over the long period of time during which the waste will be a hazard, typically up to one million years. Of particular concern in the UK is the potential for oxidising groundwater to penetrate to repository depth during periods of glaciation, thereby increasing the mobility of some transuranic radionuclides.

Between 1990 and 1998, United Kingdom Nirex Limited carried out  geological investigations into the suitability of a potential site in the Sellafield area of NW England, for a GDF for L/ILW. As part of these investigations, detailed petrological analysis of fracture mineralisation in 23 deep boreholes identified a complex sequence of mineralisation events referred to as ME1-ME9. The distribution of the ME9 calcite mineralisation correlates closely with present-day groundwater flows.

The ME9 calcite has been studied in more detail to understand the evolution of the deep groundwater system. The morphology and growth zoning characteristics of the calcites reflects the groundwater chemistry. Freshwater calcites display c-axis flattened to equant crystals, and are non-ferroan and strongly zoned with Mn-rich and Mn-free bands. Deeper saline-zone calcites display c-axis elongated crystals, with high Mn:Fe and low Mn:Fe growth zones. Calcite in the transition zone between the saline and fresh groundwater display saline-type cores overgrown by freshwater-type calcite, indicating a small depression of the position of the transition zone during the growth of the calcites. Sr isotope ratios and fluid inclusion chemistry confirm a link between ME9 calcite and the present regional groundwater system. Modelling of the oxygen isotope data indicates that some growth zones in the ME9 calcite precipitated from groundwater potentially containing a significant proportion of glacially-recharged water, and that this may have reached depths of up to 1000 m. However, the chemical (REE,Fe and Mn) compositions of the ME9 calcite show that despite the potential contribution of glacially-recharged water to the deep groundwater system, conditions at repository depth (< 500 m) have continually remained reducing.