Thermo-plasticity of fine-grained soils at various saturation states: application to nuclear waste disposal

Soil is a particulate material that may undergo irreversible strain as the relative positions of the constituent particles change. That irreversible behaviour may be induced not only by an external stress variation but also by temperature or suction changes. The geomaterials that will be involved in the confinement of radioactive waste in deep geological formations will be submitted to strong thermal, hydraulic, and mechanical modifications. Those modifications may produce a significant change of the characteristics of the confinement barrier. A safety assessment of such facilities must be performed that considers the potential thermo-plasticity effects in the confining soil. Following the need for understanding and quantifying such effects, a constitutive model that deals with the thermo-mechanical modelling of unsaturated soils is proposed. In light of elasto-plasticity, this model is based on the relevant temperature and suction effects on the mechanical behaviour of fine-grained soils, as observed in experiments. In addition, an experimental program has been undertaken in order to corroborate and to extend the existing results. Finally, the developed constitutive model has been properly implemented in a finite element code in order to study the behaviour of the soils that confine the nuclear waste. Therefore, this work addresses the issue from three different directions: a constitutive, experimental, and numerical point of view. (i) Constitutive study. The elaboration of a thermo-plastic constitutive model for unsaturated soils is done in a systematic manner. Starting from a hardening plasticity model for isothermal and saturated conditions, the constitutive relations are progressively extended to non-isothermal conditions and then to unsaturated states. For the more advanced model, a generalized effective stress framework is adopted, which includes a number of intrinsic thermo-hydro-mechanical connections, to represent the stress state in the soil. Two coupled constitutive aspects are used to fully describe the soil behaviour. The mechanical constitutive part is built on concepts of bounding surface theory and multi-mechanism plasticity, while water retention characteristics are described using elasto-plasticity to reproduce the hysteretic response and the effect of temperature and dry density on the soil's water retention properties. The theoretical formulation is supported by comparisons with experimental results. (ii) Experimental study. Aiming at a better understanding of the non-isothermal mechanical behaviour of unsaturated soils, a series of oedometric compression tests under controlled temperatures and suction conditions has been carried out on a silty material. The characteristics and the calibrations of the experimental apparatus are presented. The main results are interpreted in light of the proposed constitutive framework. The compressibility of the soil tested appears not to be affected by the temperature, but it decreases with a suction increase. As far as the preconsolidation stress is concerned, the results show a decrease of the yield limit with increasing temperature, while a suction increase tends to enhance this limit. Finally, an analytical expression is proposed to describe the evolution of the preconsolidation stress with respect to temperature and suction. (iii) Numerical study. In the issue of nuclear waste disposal, the quantification of the temporal and spatial distributions of the thermo-hydro-mechanical phenomena that occur in the confining soils requires that numerical simulations be carried out under imposed boundary conditions. To this end, the last part of this work presents finite element modelling results of several in-situ or laboratory simulation tests through using the developed constitutive model that was implemented in an advanced finite element code. The parameters of the different materials involved in the simulated experiments are determined by means of an extensive literature analysis on their thermal, hydraulic, and mechanical characteristics. The simulation results are interpreted in light of the elasto-thermoplasticity of saturated and unsaturated soils, which emphasizes the significant role of thermo-plastic processes in the global thermo-hydromechanical response of the confining materials. In that sense, this work supplies, in a systematic and progressive manner, constitutive explanations that may help to provide a better understanding of what the effects of thermo-plasticity in soils involved in the confinement of nuclear waste are.


Related material