Guidelines for thermodynamic sorption modelling in the context of radioactive waste disposal
Journal article, 2013
Thermodynamic sorption models (TSMs) offer the potential to improve the incorporation of sorption in environmental modelling of contaminant migration. One specific application is safety cases for radioactive waste repositories, in which radionuclide sorption on mineral surfaces is usually described using distribution coefficients (K-d values). TSMs can be utilised to provide a scientific basis for the range of K-d values included in the repository safety case, and for assessing the response of K-d to changes in chemical conditions. The development of a TSM involves a series of decisions on model features such as numbers and types of surface sites, sorption reactions and electrostatic correction factors. There has been a lack of consensus on the best ways to develop such models, and on the methods of determination of associated parameter values. The present paper therefore presents recommendations on a number of aspects of model development, which are applicable both to radioactive waste disposal and broader environmental applications.
The TSM should be calibrated using a comprehensive sorption data set for the contaminant of interest, showing the impact of major geochemical parameters including pH, ionic strength, contaminant concentration, the effect of ligands, and major competing ions. Complex natural materials should be thoroughly characterised in terms of mineralogy, surface area, cation exchange capacity, and presence of impurities. During the application of numerical optimisation programs to simulate sorption data, it is often preferable that the TSM should be fitted to the experimentally determined K-d parameter, rather than to the frequently used percentage sorbed. Two different modelling approaches, the component additivity and generalised composite, can be used for modelling sorption data for complex materials such as soils. Both approaches may be coupled to the same critically reviewed aqueous thermodynamic data sets, and may incorporate the same, or similar, surface reactions and surface species. The quality of the final sorption model can be assessed against the following characteristics: an appropriate level of complexity, documented and traceable decisions, internal consistency, limitations on the number of adjustable parameter values, an adequate fit to a comprehensive calibration data set, and capability of simulating independent data sets. Key recommendations for the process of TSM development include: definition of modelling objectives, identification of major decision points, a clear decision-making rationale with reference to experimental or theoretical evidence, utilisation of a suitable consultative and iterative model development process, testing to the maximum practicable extent, and thorough documentation of key decisions. These recommendations are consistent with international benchmarks for environmental modelling.