Special Issue

Mathematical Geosciences

, Volume 44, Issue 2, pp 187-208

First online:

Multiphase Transport of Tritium in Unsaturated Porous Media—Bare and Vegetated Soils

  • J. Jiménez-MartínezAffiliated withDepartment of Geotechnical Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of CataloniaGeosciences Rennes UMR 6118 CNRS Université de Rennes 1 Email author 
  • , K. TamohAffiliated withDepartment of Geotechnical Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of Catalonia
  • , L. CandelaAffiliated withDepartment of Geotechnical Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of Catalonia
  • , F. J. ElorzaAffiliated withDepartment of Geological Engineering, Technical University of Madrid
  • , D. HunkelerAffiliated withCentre for Hydrogeology and Geothermic, University of Neuchâtel

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Tritium is a short-lived radioactive isotope (T 1/2=12.33 yr) produced naturally in the atmosphere by cosmic radiation but also released into the atmosphere and hydrosphere by nuclear activities (nuclear power stations, radioactive waste disposal). Tritium of natural or anthropogenic origin may end up in soils through tritiated rain, and may eventually appear in groundwater. Tritium in groundwater can be re-emitted to the atmosphere through the vadose zone. The tritium concentration in soil varies sharply close to the ground surface and is very sensitive to many interrelated factors like rainfall amount, evapotranspiration rate, rooting depth and water table position, rendering the modeling a rather complex task. Among many existing codes, SOLVEG is a one-dimensional numerical model to simulate multiphase transport through the unsaturated zone. Processes include tritium diffusion in both, gas and liquid phase, advection and dispersion for tritium in liquid phase, radioactive decay and equilibrium partitioning between liquid and gas phase. For its application with bare or vegetated (perennial vegetation or crops) soil surfaces and shallow or deep groundwater levels (contaminated or non-contaminated aquifer) the model has been adapted in order to include ground cover, root growth and root water uptake. The current work describes the approach and results of the modeling of a tracer test with tritiated water (7.3×108 Bq m−3) in a cultivated soil with an underlying 14 m deep unsaturated zone (non-contaminated). According to the simulation results, the soil’s natural attenuation process is governed by evapotranspiration and tritium re-emission. The latter process is due to a tritium concentration gradient between soil air and an atmospheric boundary layer at the soil surface. Re-emission generally occurs during night time, since at day time it is coupled with the evaporation process. Evapotranspiration and re-emission removed considerable quantities of tritium and limited penetration of surface-applied tritiated water in the vadose zone to no more than ∼1–2 m. After a period of 15 months tritium background concentration in soil was attained.


Re-emission Effective diffusion Natural attenuation Unsaturated zone Tritium Multiphase transport