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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Use of a Dual-Structure Constitutive Model for Predicting the Long-Term Behavior of an Expansive Clay Buffer in a Nuclear Waste Repository


Expansive soils are suitable as backfill and buffer materials in engineered barrier systems to isolate heat-generating nuclear waste in deep geological formations. The canisters containing nuclear waste would be placed in tunnels excavated at a depth of several hundred meters. The expansive soil should provide enough swelling capacity to support the tunnel walls, thereby reducing the impact of the excavation-damaged zone on the long-term mechanical and flow-barrier performance. In addition to their swelling capacity, expansive soils are characterized by accumulating irreversible strain on suction cycles and by effects of microstructural swelling on water permeability that for backfill or buffer materials can significantly delay the time it takes to reach full saturation. To simulate these characteristics of expansive soils, a dual-structure constitutive model that includes two porosity levels is necessary. The authors present the formulation of a dual-structure model and describe its implementation into a coupled fluid flow and geomechanical numerical simulator. The authors use the Barcelona Basic Model (BBM), which is an elastoplastic constitutive model for unsaturated soils, to model the macrostructure, and it is assumed that the strains of the microstructure, which are volumetric and elastic, induce plastic strain to the macrostructure. The authors tested and demonstrated the capabilities of the implemented dual-structure model by modeling and reproducing observed behavior in two laboratory tests of expansive clay. As observed in the experiments, the simulations yielded nonreversible strain accumulation with suction cycles and a decreasing swelling capacity with increasing confining stress. Finally, the authors modeled, for the first time using a dual-structure model, the long-term (100,000 years) performance of a generic heat-generating nuclear waste repository with waste emplacement in horizontal tunnels backfilled with expansive clay and hosted in a clay rock formation. The thermo-hydro-mechanical results of the dual-structure model were compared with those of the standard single-structure BBM. The main difference between the simulation results from the two models is that the dual-structure model predicted a time to fully saturate the expansive clay barrier on the order of thousands of years, whereas the standard single-structure BBM yielded a time on the order of tens of years. These examples show that a dual-structure model, such as the one presented here, is necessary to properly model the thermo-hydro-mechanical behavior of expansive soils.

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