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Abstract

Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons during the period 1945–1980 ushered in the ‘atomic age’ and released large quantities of anthropogenic radiogenic nuclides into the atmosphere. These radionuclides were subsequently deposited as fallout to the entire surface of the planet. While many have decayed to negligible levels, long-lived radionuclides persist and will do so for thousands of years. Isotopes of plutonium, 239Pu (half-life 24 100 years) and 240Pu (half-life 6563 years), provide the best chronological markers for the onset of this anthropogenic event both now and into the future due to their long half-lives, particle-reactivity, and the fact that they were present in negligible quantities prior to anthropogenic production and release. Chronostratigraphic markers established by distinct Pu concentration profiles and Pu isotope changes in sediment sequences and ice and coral cores can provide high-resolution dating over the last 60 years. However, even though fallout has ceased, it is found that the Pu inventory currently held in surface soil layers and the oceans will continue to supply Pu to sediment deposition zones for millennia and centuries, respectively. The delivery of this Pu will depend on soil erosion and bioturbation rates, and the rate of removal of dissolved Pu from the ocean.

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