Bentonite is one of the safety-critical components of the engineered barrier system for the disposal concepts developed for many types of radioactive waste. However, bentonite — especially the swelling clay component that contributes to its essential barrier functions — is unstable at high pH. To date, results from laboratory tests on bentonite degradation have been ambiguous as the reaction rates are so slow as to be difficult to observe. As such, a key goal in this project is to examine the reaction of natural bentonites in contact with natural hyperalkaline groundwaters to determine if any long-term alteration of the bentonite occurs. Ophiolites have been identified as sources of hyperalkaline groundwaters that can be considered natural analogues of the leachates produced by some cementitious materials in repositories for radioactive waste. At the Zambales ophiolite in the Philippines, widespread active serpentinisation results in hyperalkaline groundwaters with measured pH values of up to 11.7, falling into the range typical of low-alkali cement porewaters. These cements are presently being developed worldwide to minimise the geochemical perturbations which are expected to result from the use of OPC-based concretes (see Kamei et al., this conference, for details). In particular, it is hoped that the lower pH of the low-alkali cement leachates will reduce, or even avoid entirely, the potential degradation of the bentonite buffer which is expected at the higher pH levels (12.5 and above) common to OPC-based concretes. During recent field campaigns at two sites in the Zambales ophiolite (Mangatarem and Bigbiga), samples of bentonite and the associated hyperalkaline groundwaters have been collected by drilling and trenching. At Mangatarem, qualitative data from a ‘fossil’ (i.e. no groundwater is currently present) reaction zone indicates some alteration of the bentonite to zeolite, serpentine and CSH phases. Preliminary reaction path modelling suggests that the zeolites could have been produced as a product of smectite reaction in the hyperalkaline groundwaters. Although not included in this calculation to date, the CSH phases identified are completely consistent with reaction of clays with hyperalkaline groundwaters, as seen at other sites worldwide. At the Bigbiga site, an active hyperalkaline groundwater/bentonite reaction zone (at the base of the bentonite deposit) has recently been identified and a drilling campaign is planned for late autumn 2010.

This content is only available via PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.