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Occurrence and behavior of uranium and thorium series radionuclides in the Permian shale hydraulic fracturing wastes


Over the last decade, there has been a rapid growth in the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to recover unconventional oil and gas in the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico (NM) and western Texas. Fracking generates enormous quantities of wastes that contain technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM), which poses risks to human health and the environment because of the relatively high doses of radioactivity. However, very little is known about the chemical composition and radioactivity levels of Permian Basin fracking wastes. Here, we report chemical as well as radiochemical compositions of hydraulic fracking wastes from the Permian Basin. Radium, the major TENORM of interest in unconventional drilling wastes, varied from 19.1 ± 1.2 to 35.9 ± 3.2 Bq/L for 226Ra, 10.3 ± 0.5 to 21.5 ± 1.2 Bq/L for 228Ra, and 2.0 ± 0.05 to 3.7 ± 0.07 Bq/L for 224Ra. In addition to elevated concentrations of radium, these wastewaters also contain elevated concentrations of dissolved salts and divalent cations such as Na+ (31,856–43,000 mg/L), Ca2+ (668–4123 mg/L), Mg2+ (202–2430 mg/L), K+ (148–780 mg/L), Sr2+ (101–260 mg/L), Cl (5160–66,700 mg/L), SO42− (291–1980 mg/L), Br (315–596 mg/L), SiO2 (20–32 mg/L), and high total dissolved solid (TDS) of 5000–173,000 mg/L compared to background waters. These elevated levels are of radiological significance and represent a major source of Ra in the environment. The recent discovery of large deposits of recoverable oil and gas in the Permian Basin will lead to more fracking, TENORM generation, and radium releases to the environment. This paper evaluates the potential radiation risks associated with TENORM wastes generated by the oil and gas recovery industry in the Permian Basin.

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This research is supported by a grant from the US Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office of DOE through Grant No. DE-EM 0005159. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsors.


The project is funded by the US Department of Energy (USDOE) through a grant.

US-DOE, Grant No. DE-EM 0005159

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All authors contributed to the study’s conception and design. Punam Thakur: investigation, method development, writing, and data curation; Anderson L Ward: writing, article review, and graphics; Tanner M. Schaub: sample collection and article review.

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Correspondence to Punam Thakur.

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Thakur, P., Ward, A. & Schaub, T. Occurrence and behavior of uranium and thorium series radionuclides in the Permian shale hydraulic fracturing wastes. Environ Sci Pollut Res 29, 43058–43071 (2022).

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  • Fracking
  • Oil and gas
  • Radium
  • Alpha spectrometry
  • Gamma spectrometry