Grand Canyon tourists exposed for years to radiation in museum building, safety manager says via USA Today

, Arizona Republic

For nearly two decades at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, tourists, employees, and children on tours passed by three paint buckets stored in the national park’s museum collection building, unaware that they were being exposed to radiation.

Although federal officials learned last year that the 5-gallon containers were brimming with uranium ore and then removed the radioactive specimens, the park’s safety director alleges nothing was done to warn park workers or the public that they might have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.

In a rogue email sent to all Park Service employees on Feb. 4, Elston “Swede” Stephenson — the safety, health and wellness manager — described the alleged cover-up as “a top management failure” and warned of possible health consequences.

“If you were in the Museum Collections Building (2C) between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, you were ‘exposed’ to uranium by OSHA’s definition,” Stephenson wrote. “The radiation readings, at first blush, exceeds (sic) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safe limits. … Identifying who was exposed, and your exposure level, gets tricky and is our next important task.” The building is located in Grand Canyon Village, Arizona.


According to Stephenson, the uranium specimens had been in a basement at park headquarters for decades, and were moved to the museum building when it opened, around 2000.

One of the buckets was so full that its lid would not close.

Stephenson said the containers were stored next to a taxidermy exhibit, where children on tours sometimes stopped for presentations, sitting next to uranium for 30 minutes or more. By his calculation, those children could have received radiation dosages in excess of federal safety standards within three seconds, and adults could have suffered dangerous exposure in less than a half-minute.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission measures radiation contamination in millisieverts per hour or per year. According to Stephenson, close exposures to the uranium buckets could have exposed adults to 400 times the health limit — and children to 4,000 times what is considered safe.


Stephenson said the uranium threat was discovered in March 2018 by the teenage son of a park employee who happened to be a Geiger counter  enthusiast, and brought a device to the museum collection room.

Workers immediately moved the buckets to another location in the building, he said, but nothing else was done.


The technicians reached the Grand Canyon several days after his call, on June 18. Lacking protective clothing, they purchased dish-washing and gardening gloves, and then used a broken mop handle to lift the buckets into a truck, Stephenson said.

Those details are corroborated by photographs Stephenson included in a 45-page slideshow created to document the radiation exposure and alleged cover-up.

Stephenson said technicians concealed the radiation readings from him and dumped the ore into Orphan Mine, an old uranium dig that is considered a potential Superfund site below the Rim, about two miles from Grand Canyon Village.


The report indicated radiation levels at 13.9 millirems per hour where the buckets were stored, and 800 per hour on contact with the ore. Five feet from the buckets, there was a zero reading.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says a maximum safe dosage for the public, beyond natural radiation, is no more than 2 millirems per hour, or 100 per year.

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