Retrospective search for evidence of the 1957 Windscale fire in NE Ireland using 129I and other long-lived nuclides

D. Gallagher, E. J. Mcgee, P. I. Mitchell, V. Alfimov, A. Aldahan, G. Possnert

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31 Citations (Scopus)


The accident at Windscale in October 1957 resulted in the release to the atmosphere of a large quantity of radioactivity. The presented work is a retrospective search for evidence of contamination from the accident in the northeastern region of Ireland. A lake yielding a high-resolution sedimentary record was identified near the northeast coast of Ireland. This site was used to reconstruct the history of radionuclide input to the region, based on the analysis of a set of cores extracted from the lake. A chronology for sediment accumulation within the lake was established using radioisotopic dating techniques (including 210Pb). High-resolution gamma and alpha spectrometry techniques were used to quantify concentrations of 137Cs, 239,240Pu and 241Am, all of which were released during the accident. The primary radioactive component of the release was 131I (T1/2 = 8 days), but this short-lived isotope has long since decayed. However, 129I (T1/2 = 1.57 × 107 years) was also released during the accident, and in a known ratio to 131I. Recent advances in accelerator mass spectrometry now make it feasible to measure 129I at ultra-trace level and thereby retrospectively reconstruct 131I deposition. Clearly resolved concentration profiles for 137Cs, 239,240Pu and 241Am in the lake cores reflect known historical fallout trends. The data suggest that any contamination from the Windscale fire that might have reached this catchment has been overwritten by input from the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. A time-series for 129I in lake sediment shows that concentrations in recent sediments are approximately 10 times greater than concentrations recorded in strata corresponding to the period of maximum fallout of other radionuclides from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons (1964). These recent increases in 129I are attributed to increased emissions from the nuclear industry. The study yields no evidence of any enhancement in radioisotope concentrations, over and above global fallout, in strata dated to 1957, and we conclude that contamination from the Windscale fire had negligible impact on the northeastern region of Ireland.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2927-2935
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - May 1 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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