Bentonite plays a significant barrier role in many radioactive waste repository designs, where it has been chosen due to its favourable properties such as plasticity, swelling capacity, colloid filtration, low hydraulic conductivity and its stability in relevant geological environments. However, bentonite is unstable at high pH meaning that it could lose its favourable properties if interacted with hyperalkaline leachates from concrete construction materials (e.g. tunnel liners, grouts, etc.), seals and plugs and/or cementitious wastes in a repository. This fact has forced several national programmes to assess alternative construction and sealing materials such as low alkali cements. Recently, it has been assumed that the lower pH (typically pH 10-11) leachates of such cements will degrade bentonite to a much lesser degree than ‘standard’ OPC-based cement leachates (generally with an initial pH>13).
To date, few laboratory or in situ URL (underground rock laboratory) data are available to support the use of low alkali cements in conjunction with bentonites, partly because of the very slow kinetics involved. Consequently, a new project has focussed on finding an appropriate natural analogue site to provide long-term supporting data which will avoid the kinetic constraints of laboratory and URL experiments. Early results have identified an initial, very promising site at Mangatarem in the Philippines, where a quarry excavating bentonite and zeolites is found in the sedimentary carapace of the Zambales ophiolite. In the immediate vicinity of the quarry, ophiolite-derived hyperalkaline groundwaters are present and further field work (including geophysics surveys and borehole drilling) are now being planned to assess regional bentonite/hyperalkaline groundwater interaction. This paper presents an overview of the current status of the project and assesses the relevance of the study to improving understanding of low-alkali cement leachate/bentonite interaction.