November 25, 2021

Evaluation of Electrical Resistivity Tomography to Monitor the Transport of Past Releases Beneath Tank Farms


Underground storage tanks at the Hanford Site, in southeastern Washington State, hold radioactive waste generated from four decades of plutonium production. The 149 single-shell tanks and the 28 double-shell tanks have all exceeded their initial design life of approximately 25 years. At least 67 tanks are assumed to have leaked in the past, resulting in radioactive releases into the vadose zone. Gamma ray logging within dry monitoring wells is currently the primary method for tracking the migration of leaked tank waste through the vadose zone. While this approach provides an accurate assessment of radioactive contamination, that information is only provided near (within ~1m) the borehole, leaving most of the vadose zone unmonitored, particularly the important region directly beneath the tank. This report describes a numerical study that investigates the feasibility and performance of time-lapse 3D electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) for long-term monitoring of a hypothetical tank waste location and migration through the vadose zone. ERT is a method of remotely imaging the bulk electrical conductivity (EC) of the subsurface, which is significantly impacted by the presence of conductive solid and liquid tank waste. The release of liquid tank wastes increases subsurface fluid conductivity and saturation over time, creating a target to use time-lapse ERT for long-term monitoring. Although the presence of metallic infrastructure can cause ERT interference, recent advancements in ERT data processing enable the deleterious effects of buried metallic infrastructure (e.g. pipes, wellbore casings, tanks) to be removed to better determine the liquid tank waste migration over time. Three hypothetical realistic scenarios were simulated in the ERT evaluation. The first two scenarios assume the same leak amount and rate (i.e., between 1/1/1951 and 12/31/1951 at the rate of 347 m3 per year) but different leaky tanks. Scenario 1 assumes leaks under tank B-102, which is located on the edge of the B-tank farm and surrounded by a few metallic infrastructure including cased pipes/wells/tanks. Scenario 2 assumes leaks under tank B-108, which is located near the center of the B-tank farm and surrounded by larger amount of metallic infrastructure than B-102. Scenario 3 assumes the same metallic infrastructure as B-102, with a more recent contaminant leak that was simulated to have occurred between 1/1/2018 and 12/31/2023 at a rate of 1.89 m3 per year. The leak time in Scenarios 1 and 2 corresponds to a historical overfill event in 1951 and Scenario 3 corresponds to a recent found tank leak in 2019. In each scenario, a “true” bulk EC model vs. time reflecting contaminant migration was generated. ERT data was simulated from these “true” bulk EC models and a time-lapse ERT inversion produced “imaged” bulk EC vs. time. Three electrode configurations in two, four and eight boreholes surrounding the leak tank were used in the ERT simulations in each scenario. These borehole configurations were considered logistically feasible and cost-effective for monitoring. The hypothetical ERT boreholes are assumed to have non-metallic casing. By comparing the “imaged” bulk EC with the “true” bulk EC, it was demonstrated that the three configurations of wells used (two, four, and eight wells) were able to successfully monitor the migration of tank leaks through the vadose zone, with bulk EC resolution increasing with the number of down borehole ERT arrays for all scenarios. Therefore, the use of eight boreholes to perform ERT monitoring beneath the tanks provided the best spatiotemporal information.

Published: November 25, 2021


Zhu Y., J.L. Robinson, X. Song, M.L. Rockhold, and T.C. Johnson. 2021. Evaluation of Electrical Resistivity Tomography to Monitor the Transport of Past Releases Beneath Tank Farms Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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