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Investigating the Temperature Limits of Bentonite Backfilled Repositories: Coupled THMC Modeling, Lab Mockup Testing and Field Experiments

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Compacted bentonite is commonly considered for use as backfill material in emplacement tunnels of nuclear waste repositories because of its low permeability, high swelling pressure, and retardation capacity of radionuclide. To assess whether this material can maintain its favorable features when undergoing heating from the waste package and hydration from the host rock, we need a thorough understanding of the thermal, hydrological, mechanical, and chemical evolution under disposal conditions. Laboratory and field tests integrated with THMC modeling have provided an effective way to deepen such understanding; however, most of this work has been conducted for maximum temperatures around 100°C. In contrast, some international disposal programs have recently started investigations to understand whether local temperatures in the bentonite of up to 200°C could be tolerated with no significant changes in safety relevant properties. For example, the United States disposal program is evaluating the feasibility of geological disposal of large spent nuclear fuel canisters that are currently in dry storage. Direct disposal of these canisters is attractive for economical and safety reasons, but faces the challenge of exposing the bentonite to significant temperatures increases. As a result, strong thermal gradients may induce complex moisture transport processes and bentonite-rock interactions while cementation and perhaps also illitization effects may occur, all of which could  strongly affect the bentonite properties.

Here, we present initial investigations of bentonite behavior exposed to strongly elevated temperatures. We first show results from coupled thermal, hydrological, mechanical and chemical (THMC) simulations of a generic nuclear waste repository in a clay formation with a bentonite-based buffer exposed to a maximum temperature of 200°C. Modeling results illustrate possible performance impacts, such as the time frame and condition of the early unsaturated phase during bentonite hydration, the porosity and permeability after the bentonite becomes fully saturated, and changing in swelling properties. We then discuss preliminary data from a bench-scale laboratory mockup experiment which was designed to represents the strong THMC gradients occurring in a “hot” repository, and we briefly touch on a full-scale field experiment to be conducted soon in the Grimsel Test Site underground research laboratory in Switzerland (referred to as HotBENT, with bentonite exposure from up to 200oC). 

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