LeRoy Moore: Geiger counters miss alpha radiation at Rocky Flats via Daily Camera

On Feb. 14 Amy Bounds published an article about the University of Colorado’s annual science fair for high school students. Fairview High School student Maddie Nagle addressed “concerns about lingering plutonium” at Rocky Flats. Her research compared soil samples from trails in Boulder and the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Using a CU geiger counter, “she found the average radiation levels along the Rocky Flats trail were the same as those” on the Boulder trail.

Had she solved the problem of exposure to plutonium? No. The typical geiger detects gamma radiation released from uranium, but it cannot detect alpha radiation released by plutonium. With a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium released from Rocky Flats will be with us a very long time.


In 1970 Atomic Energy Commission scientists P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy produced a map showing where they had found plutonium in eastern and southeastern areas on and off the site. This map was used in a lawsuit brought against corporate operators of the plant by people in off-site contaminated areas. The plaintiffs won the lawsuit and the corporations paid them $375 million.

An on-site area shown by Krey and Hardy to contain plutonium is now part of the Wildlife Refuge. During the Superfund cleanup of the site, no cleanup occurred in what is now the Refuge. In 1996 ecologist Shawn Smallwood found 18 species of burrowing animals on the Rocky Flats site, some of which dig to as deep as 20 feet. They bring particles of plutonium too small to see to the surface where they can be distributed by high winds and be inhaled by people in the area, the worst way to be exposed to plutonium.

LeRoy Moore

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