Permeable Groundwater Pathways and Tritium Migration Patterns from the HANDLEY Underground Nuclear Test, Pahute Mesa, Nevada

Scientific Investigations Report 2021-5032
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office, Office of Environmental Management, under Interagency Agreement DE-EM0004969


  • Document: Report (2.8 MB pdf)
  • Data Release: USGS data release — MODFLOW-2005 and MT3DMS models and supplemental data used to simulate groundwater flow and tritium transport from the HANDLEY underground nuclear test, Pahute Mesa, southern Nevada
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The HANDLEY nuclear test was detonated at about 2,700 feet below the water table on March 26, 1970, in Pahute Mesa, south-central Nevada. Measured tritium concentrations in boreholes ER-20-12 and PM-3 indicate that a shallow tritium plume has migrated more than 1 mile (mi) downgradient from the HANDLEY test within a semi-perched aquifer and deeper tritium plumes have migrated 4.5 miles (mi) within underlying regional aquifers. Boreholes ER-20-12 and PM-3 are in an area of moderate-to-low transmissivity, but observation of tritium moving 4.5 mi within 40 years of the detonation indicates that high-transmissivity intervals exist. However, the location of these permeable pathways is unknown.

This report integrates geologic, hydrologic, and tritium data to infer the location of permeable pathways near and downgradient from the HANDLEY test. Numerical groundwater-flow and tritium-transport models were developed to estimate hydraulic and transport properties between the HANDLEY test and boreholes ER-20-12 and PM-3. Recharge, hydraulic-conductivity, specific-yield, specific-storage, and effective-porosity distributions were estimated with the numerical models by fitting simulated water-level altitudes, vertical-head differences, aquifer-test transmissivities, tritium concentrations, and drawdowns in wells PM-3-1 and PM-3-2 to measured equivalents. Drawdowns were estimated in wells PM-3-1 and PM-3-2 in response to groundwater withdrawals during the drilling of borehole ER-20-12. A modified hydrostratigraphic framework model (mHFM) was developed that incorporates hydrostratigraphic units (HSUs) from the Pahute Mesa–Oasis Valley hydrostratigraphic framework model (PMOV HFM). HSUs in the mHFM were modified from the PMOV HFM by grouping HSUs that, conceptually, are hydraulically similar and splitting HSUs based on water-level, aquifer-test, and tritium data.

Shallow and deeper tritium plumes have migrated to borehole ER-20-12 from the HANDLEY test. The shallow plume migrated from the HANDLEY test through the Timber Mountain welded tuff aquifer, whereas the deeper plumes moved through the Belted Range aquifer (BRA) and modified pre-Belted Range lava flow aquifer (mPBRLFA). Simulated tritium concentrations indicate that the leading edges of tritium plumes reached borehole ER-20-12 by 1990. From 1970 to 2020, the simulated tritium load mostly occurs between borehole ER-20-12 and the HANDLEY test.

An unmapped permeable feature was simulated between borehole ER-20-12 and the downgradient Ribbon Cliff structural zone. This permeable feature hydraulically connects the BRA and mPBRLFA with the Tiva Canyon aquifer (TCA). The TCA is the most transmissive unit in the study area. Simulated tritium from the deeper plumes moves through the permeable feature downgradient from borehole ER-20-12 and then migrates toward well PM-3-1 through the TCA. The leading edge of the deeper simulated tritium plumes reaches well PM-3-1 by 2010.

The mHFM and PMOV HFM do not include a permeable HSU at the water table near borehole PM-3, which is necessary for numerical flow and transport models to match measured water levels, transmissivities, and tritium concentrations in well PM-3-2. Consistently higher measured tritium concentrations in shallow well PM-3-2, compared to deeper well PM-3-1, and a downward vertical gradient between these wells indicate that a permeable feature exists near the water table that causes faster tritium migration toward the shallow well. Reevaluation of the PMOV HFM and geologic investigations, such as drilling another well, are needed to more precisely understand the shallow permeable pathway from the Handley test to well PM-3-2.

Suggested Citation

Jackson, T.R., 2021, Permeable groundwater pathways and tritium migration patterns from the HANDLEY underground nuclear test, Pahute Mesa, Nevada: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2021–5032, 49 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Framework
  • Numerical Model Development and Calibration
  • Permeable Pathways from the HANDLEY Underground Nuclear Test
  • Tritium Migration from the HANDLEY Underground Nuclear Test
  • Data Incongruencies at Borehole PM-3
  • Model Limitations
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Permeable groundwater pathways and tritium migration patterns from the HANDLEY underground nuclear test, Pahute Mesa, Nevada
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2021-5032
DOI 10.3133/sir20215032
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Nevada Water Science Center
Description Report: vii, 49 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Nevada
Other Geospatial Pahute Mesa
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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