Plutonium and other radionuclides persist across marine-to-terrestrial ecotopes in the Montebello Islands sixty years after nuclear tests

Since the 1956 completion of nuclear testing at the Montebello Islands, Western Australia, this remote uninhabited island group has been relatively undisturbed (no major remediations) and currently functions as high-value marine and terrestrial habitat within the Montebello/Barrow Islands Marine Conservation Reserves. The former weapons testing sites, therefore, provide a unique opportunity for assessing the fate and behaviour of Anthropocene radionuclides subjected to natural processes across a range of shallow-marine to island-terrestrial ecological units (ecotopes). We collected soil, sediment and biota samples and analysed their radionuclide content using gamma and alpha spectrometry, photostimulated luminescence autoradiography and accelerator mass spectrometry. We found the activity levels of the fission and neutron-activation products have decreased by ~hundred-fold near the ground zero locations. However, Pu concentrations remain elevated, some of which are high relative to most other Australian and international sites (up to 25,050 Bq kg−1 of 239+240+241Pu). Across ecotopes, Pu ranked from highest to lowest in the following order: island soils > dunes > foredunes > marine sediments > and beach intertidal zone. Low values of Pu and other radionuclides were detected in all local wildlife tested including endangered species. Activity concentrations ranked (highest to lowest) terrestrial arthropods > terrestrial mammal and reptile bones > algae > oyster flesh > whole crab > sea turtle bone > stingray and teleost fish livers > sea cucumber flesh > sea turtle skin > teleost fish muscle. The three detonations (one from within a ship and two from 30 m towers) resulted in differing contaminant forms, with the ship detonation producing the highest activity concentrations and finer more inhalable particulate forms. The three sites are distinct in their 240/239Pu and 241/239Pu atom ratios, including the Pu transported by natural process or within migratory living organisms. Crown Copyright © 2019 Published by Elsevier B.V
Plutonium, Radioisotopes, Spectroscopy, Nuclear test sites, Cesium 137, Particles, Radioecology, Western Australia, Islands
Johansen, M. P., Child, D. P., Cresswell, T., Harrison, J. J., Hotchkis, M. A. C., Howell, N. R., Johansen, A., Straudlig, S., Thiruvoth, S., Young, E. & Whiting, S. D. (2019). Plutonium and other radionuclides persist across marine-to-terrestrial ecotopes in the Montebello Islands sixty years after nuclear tests. Science of The Total Environment, 691, 572-583. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.06.531