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Creation's Tiny Mystery
Appendix: "Differential Lead Retention in Zircons"

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Reprint Series
16 April 1982, Volume 216, pp. 296-298



Differential Lead Retention in Zircons:
Implications for Nuclear Waste Containment

Robert V. Gentry, Thomas J. Sworski, Henry S. McKown, David H. Smith, R. E. Eby, and W. H. Christie



Copyright © 1982 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science


Abstract. An innovative ultrasensitive technique was used for lead isotopic analysis of individual zircons extracted from granite core samples at depths of 960, 2170, 2900, 3930, and 4310 meters. The results show that lead, a relatively mobile element compared to the nuclear waste-related actinides uranium and thorium, has been highly retained at elevated temperatures (105° to 313°C) under conditions relevant to the burial of synthetic rock waste containers in deep granite holes.

We report here the measurement of Pb isotope ratios of whole, undissolved zircons, which were loaded directly onto the rhenium filament of a thermal ionization mass spectrometer. This innovation eliminates the Pb contamination introduced in standard chemical dissolution procedures. By using this technique, we were able to measure contamination-free Pb isotope ratios on single, microscopic (~ 50 to 75 μm) zircon crystals, which we estimate contained only ~ 0.2 to 0.5 mg of Pb. We applied this ultralow-level detection method to study the differential retention of Pb in zircons (ZrSiO4 ) extracted from Precambrian granite core samples (1) taken from depths of 960, 2170, 2900, 3930, and 4310 m. These depths correspond to presently recorded temperatures of 105°, 151°, 197°, 277°, and 313°C, respectively (2). We measured about the same 206Pb/207Pb ratio for zircons from all five depths, and we found that the total number of Pb counts measured per individual zircon was, to the limit of our experimental procedures, independent of depth. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that there has been little or no differential Pb loss, which can be attributed to the higher temperatures existing at greater depths. As discussed below, this evidence for high Pb retention under adverse environmental conditions appears to have immediate and practical application to the question of long-term containment of hazardous nuclear wastes.

Samples of granite (2) from Los Alamos National Laboratory drill holes GT-2 and EE-2 from all five depths were individually crushed and then passed through different heavy liquid (methylene iodide) separatory funnels to obtain the high-density fraction containing the zircons. This procedure was repeated several times with different samples from each depth. The high-density fraction was then washed thoroughly with acetone to eliminate the methylene iodide residue before being placed on a standard 1 by 3 inch glass microscope slide. Under a polarizing microscope, the zircons were picked out of the high-density fraction with a fine-tipped needle and then loaded either onto pyrolytic graphite disks for ion microprobe analysis or onto V-shaped rhenium filaments, which were mechanically compressed before mass spectrometric measurements. (Surficial residues on the zircons burned off at temperatures well below that used to measure Pb from within the zircons.) Some zircons were analyzed by x-ray fluorescence before mass analysis.

Our efforts to measure lead isotope ratios in zircons with an Applied Research Laboratory ion microprobe failed because of molecular ion interferences. We then concentrated on determining relative abundances of U, Th, and Zr, using mostly an 16O primary ion beam. Ion count rates were obtained on the 90Zr+, 232ThO+, and 238UO+ peaks. The data were then quantified with sensitivity factors obtained from six different National Bureau of Standards glass standards containing Zr, Th, and U. Two or three zircons from three depths were analyzed, and usually four determinations were made from each zircon. Frequently, there were significant differences in the U and Th concentrations from two different locations on the same zircon. The results are given in Table 1 as a range of values obtained from each zircon.


Table 1. Ion microprobe determinations of U and Th concentration ranges in atomic parts per million on separate zircons from 960, 3930, and 4310 m. Calculations were based on a comparison of 238UO+, 232ThO+, and Zr+ peak sizes and on the assumption that the zircons were pure ZrSiO4.

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