Plutonium in the atmosphere: A global perspective

Punam Thakur, Hnin Khaing, Marke Susanna Salminen-Paatero

Research output: Contribution to journalReview Articlepeer-review


A number of potential source terms have contributed plutonium isotopes to the atmosphere. The atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 and the re-entry of the burned SNAP-9A satellite in 1964, respectively. It is generally believed that current levels of plutonium in the
stratosphere are negligible and compared with the levels generally found at surface-level air. In this study, the time trend analysis and long-term behavior of plutonium isotopes (239+240Pu and 238Pu) in the atmosphere were assessed using historical data collected by various national and international monitoring
networks since 1960s. An analysis of historical data indicates that 239+240Pu concentration post-1984 is still frequently detectable, whereas 238Pu is detected infrequently. Furthermore, the seasonal and time-trend variation of plutonium concentration in surface air followed the stratospheric trends
until the early 1980s. After the last Chinese test of 1980, the plutonium concentrations in surface air dropped to the current levels, suggesting that the observed concentrations post-1984 have not been under stratospheric control, but rather reflect the environmental processes such as resuspension. Recent
plutonium atmospheric air concentrations data show that besides resuspension, other environmental processes such as global dust storms and biomass burning/wildfire also play an important role in redistributing plutonium in the atmosphere.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Environmental Radioactivity
Pages (from-to)39-51
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2017
MoE publication typeA2 Review article in a scientific journal

Fields of Science

  • 114 Physical sciences
  • 116 Chemical sciences

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