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Evidence for the Preservation of Technogenic Tritiated Organic Compounds in an Estuarine Sedimentary Environment

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journal contribution
posted on 05.06.2012, 00:00 by Ian W. Croudace, Phillip E. Warwick, Jenny E. Morris
The macrotidal Severn Estuary (southwestern UK) has received a broad range of industrial discharges since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A more recent anthropogenic input to the estuary has been technogenic tritium (specifically organically bound tritium, OBT). This was derived from a specialized industrial laboratory producing custom radiolabeled compounds for life science research and diagnostic testing from 1980 until 2008. While it was generally acknowledged that the radiological impact of the tritium discharges into the Estuary was small, public concern motivated the company and regulatory agencies to commission several research studies from 1998 to 2005 to better understand their environmental impact. This study examined OBT interaction with estuarine sediment by acquiring a broad range of geochemical and sedimentological data from a suite of sediment cores collected from the northern side of the Estuary. Two important observations are that the OBT compounds are strongly bound to the clay/silt fraction of sediment and that the down-core OBT profiles in intertidal and subtidal sediments are broadly similar to the discharge record. Geochemical and chronometric methods (Cu, Pb and Zn elemental profiles, 210Pb, 137Cs) provide important corroboration of the OBT record. A key additional piece of evidence that firmly authenticated the established chronology was the discovery of a previously unreported sedimentary marker layer that was generated by a major storm surge that occurred on December 13, 1981. Although this study has provided clear evidence of systematic accumulation of OBT in sedimentary sinks of the region, an estimation of its depositional inventory shows it represents only a small fraction of the total discharge. This modest retention in the principal sedimentary sinks of the Severn Estuary system reflects the particular dynamics of this highly macrotidal sediment starved estuary.