Abstract: Yucca Mountain is being studied as a potential site in southern Nevada for an underground, high-level nuclear waste repository. A major consideration for selecting this site is the presence of abundant zeolites in Miocene ash-flow tufts underlying the region. Beneath Yucca Mountain four diagenetic mineral zones have been recognized that become progressively less hydrous with depth.
Zone I, the shallowest zone, is 375–584 m thick in the central part of Yucca Mountain, but 170 m thick to the north. Zone I contains vitric tuffs that consist of unaltered volcanic glass and minor smectite, opal, heulandite, and Ca-rich clinoptilolite. Zone II thins south to north from 700 to 480 m and is characterized by complete replacement of volcanic glass by clinoptilolite with and without mordenite, and by lesser amounts of opal, K-feldspar, quartz, and smectite. Zone III thins south to north from 400 to 98 m thick and consists of analcime, K-feldspar, quartz, and minor calcite and smectite. Heulandite occurs locally at the top of zone III in the eastern part of Yucca Mountain. Zone IV occurs in the deepest structural levels of the volcanic pile and is characterized by albite, K-feldspar, quartz, and minor calcite and smectite.
Clinoptilolite and heulandites in zone I have uniform Ca-rich compositions (60–90 mole % Ca) and Si:Al ratios that are mainly between 4.0 and 4.6. In contrast, clinoptilolites deeper in the volcanic sequence have highly variable compositions that vary vertically and laterally. Deeper clinoptilolites in the eastern part of Yucca Mountain are calcic-potassic and tend to become more calcium-rich with depth. Clinoptilolites at equivalent stratigraphic levels on the western side of Yucca Mountain have sodic-potassic compositions and tend to become more sodium-rich with depth. Despite their differences in exchangeable cation compositions these two deeper compositional suites have similar Si:Al ratios, generally between 4.4 and 5.0. Analcimes have nearly pure end-member compositions, typical of these minerals formed by diagenetic alteration of siliceous volcanic glass; however, K-feldspars are Si-rich compared to the ideal feldspar formula.
Bulk-rock contents of Si, Na, K, Ca, and Mg of zeolitic tuffs generally differ significantly from stratigraphically equivalent vitric tuffs, suggesting that zeolite diagenesis took place in an open chemical system. Both the whole rock and the clinoptilolite are relatively rich in Ca and Mg in the eastern part of Yucca Mountain and rich in Na in the western part. The Ca- and Mg-rich compositions of the zeolitized tuffs in the eastern part of Yucca Mountain may be due to cation exchange by the sorptive minerals with ground water partially derived from underlying Paleozoic carbonate aquifers.
Diagenetic zones become thinner and occur at stratigraphically higher levels from south to north across Yucca Mountain, probably due to a higher geothermal gradient in the northern part of the area. The diagenetic zones were established when the geothermal gradient was greater than it is today, probably during the thermal event associated with the development of the Timber Mountain-Oasis Valley caldera complex north of Yucca Mountain.