Long-Term Data, Part II

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Science  01 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5595, pp. 925
DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5595.925d

Many atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted in the 1950s. These tests produced a wide spectrum of radiogenic pollutants, some of which, such as carbon-14, have had useful second lives as tracers for understanding atmospheric and ocean dynamics. However, isotopes of uranium and plutonium that were used to construct the bombs have enjoyed more limited application for environmental studies, primarily because mass spectrometric techniques were not sufficiently well developed at the time to establish a historical record. Isotopic ratios of uranium and plutonium have potential uses as fingerprints of specific nuclear tests; plutonium, in particular, has virtually no natural sources.

Warneke et al. present environmental records of isotopes of uranium and plutonium since the early 1950s from two sources: an annual archive of plants harvested at Rothamsted in the United Kingdom and an ice core from Mont Blanc. The qualitatively identical records show that plutonium fallout from tests in the Nevada desert in 1952 did in fact reach northwestern Europe, and they provide a baseline that can be used for tracer studies. — BH

Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 10.1016/S0012-821X(02)00930-5 (2002).

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