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New plutonium research helps distinguish nuclear power pollution from global fall out via EurikAlert!

Lancaster University

Researchers looking at miniscule levels of plutonium pollution in our soils have made a breakthrough which could help inform future ‘clean up’ operations on land around nuclear power plants, saving time and money.

Publishing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers show how they have measured the previously ‘unmeasurable’ and taken a step forward in differentiating between local and global sources of plutonium pollution in the soil.

By identifying the isotopic ‘fingerprint’ of trace-level quantities of plutonium in the soil which matched the isotopic fingerprint of the plutonium created by an adjacent nuclear reactor, the research team was able to estimate levels of plutonium in the soil which were attributable to reactor pollution and distinguish this from plutonium from general global pollution.

This is important to provide key information to those responsible for environmental assessment and clean up.

Plutonium formed in the big bang decayed away long ago, but miniscule quantities can be found in the environment as a result of reactions in naturally occurring uranium in the ground, and due to human activity. The latter occur local to their source of production, for example, from nuclear plant effluents, reactor accidents, accidents involving nuclear weapons and plutonium-powered space probes. They also occur globally from fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapon tests which took place between the 1950s and 1980.

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