The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the only operating deep underground geologic nuclear repository in the United States. It is located in southeastern New Mexico, approximately 655 m (2150 ft) below the surface of the Earth in a bedded Permian evaporite salt formation. This mined geologic repository is designed for the safe disposal of transuranic (TRU) wastes generated from the US defense program. Aerosol and soil samples have been collected near the WIPP site to investigate the sources of plutonium in the WIPP environment since the late 1990s, well before WIPP received its first shipment. Activities of 238Pu, 239+240Pu and 241Am were determined by alpha spectrometry following a series of chemical separations. The concentrations of Al and U were determined in a separate set of samples by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. The annual airborne concentrations of 239+240Pu during the period from 1998 to 2010 show no systematic interannual variations. However, monthly 239+240Pu particulate concentrations show a typical seasonal variation with a maximum in spring, the time when strong and gusty winds frequently give rise to blowing dust. Resuspension of soil particles containing weapons fallout is considered to be the predominant source of plutonium in the WIPP area. Further, this work characterizes the source, temporal variation and its distribution with depth in a soil profile to evaluate the importance of transport mechanisms affecting the fate of these radionuclides in the WIPP environment. The mean 137Cs/239+240Pu, 241Am/239+240Pu activity ratio and 240Pu/239Pu atom ratio observed in the WIPP samples are consistent with the source being largely global fallout. There is no evidence of any release from the WIPP contributing to radionuclide concentrations in the environment.
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Journal of Environmental Monitoring
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