back to article Visited the Grand Canyon since 2000? You'll have great photos – and maybe a teensy bit of unwanted radiation

Grand Canyon visitors may have been exposed to tiny amounts of bonus radiation from buckets of uranium ore bafflingly placed in the National Park’s museum for nearly 20 years. Elston “Swede” Stephenson – the safety, health, and wellness manager working at the breathtaking American landmark – claims park officials failed to …

  1. VikiAi Silver badge
    Happy

    I went there once. I left a glowing review of the place.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Boom-boom!

      1. lglethal Silver badge
        Joke

        I agree, it was buckets of fun...

      2. caffeine addict Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Shirley, you mean >

    2. Lee D Silver badge
    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Meh

      I was there about a decade ago. maybe got a millirem or two

  2. jake Silver badge

    Mountains.

    Molehills.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Mountains.

      Wait until you see how other publications reported it...

      C.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Mountains.

        It's not ElReg's reportage I was referring to.

        One wonders why a dude named after a small English village just off the Fosse Way in Nottinghamshire, and with a good British surname, would have the nickname "Swede". Embellishment probably runs in the family ...

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: Mountains.

          Possibly:

          - his head looks like a swede

          - he looks like a famous Scandanavian tennis player or singer

          - he wore a suede jacket in college and his mates had an accent

          - He was a stoner and was known for exclaiming 'Sweet!'

          - his mother and paternal grandmother were Swedish

          - he enjoys creating low budget remakes of famous movies, a la Be Kind Rewind.

          None of the above are by themselves likely, but it is not unlikely there is an explanation. I knew of a middle aged bloke universally known as Doughnut - since his first day at primary when he wore a jumper his grandmother had knitted him, brown, white, red and brown.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: when he wore

            A long time ago, in a university club which I had joined, a guy once wore a hawaiian shirt to a meeting. He was thenceforth known only as "Surfboard", and probably still is.

            1. Dr Dan Holdsworth Silver badge
              Happy

              Re: when he wore

              A chap I know of, now a school teacher hence no names given, was always known as "Pants", owing to a vile yet extremely practical joke someone played on him involving some Deep Heat embrocation and a spare pair of his boxer shorts...

              1. bombastic bob Silver badge
                Coat

                Re: when he wore

                could've been worse, if it had involved chocolate flavored laxative made into a hot beverage...

          2. cantankerous swineherd Silver badge

            Re: Mountains.

            life is just so cruel.

          3. ICPurvis47 Bronze badge
            Megaphone

            Re: Mountains.

            On my first day at High School (South East Essex Technical High School) I was the only member of 1B that wore spectacles, so, as everyone was introducing themselves, someone nicknamed me "The Professor", which was soon shortened to "Prof". I carried this nickname throughout my education, right up to MSc. level in 1974. I also rejoiced in a couple of other names, "English" when I was living in Louisville Kentucky for a while, and "Chev" when I was working for a tyre fitting company, because I owned a 1959 Chevrolet Parkwood "Gull Wing" station wagon. When I was a development engineer at an electrical manufacturing company, the three of that were developing a new product were often scrounging around the factory for existing parts to incorporate in our prototype, so we were referred to as "The Wombles". The section leader was "Grand Uncle Bulgaria" because he was Polish, I was "Tobermory" because I did most of the innovation work, and the third member was "Orinoco", because he said that he was "Fat and Lazy". Unfortunately, he was actually very ill, and passed away soon after the project was completed. Nowadays, I'll answer to almost anything, as long as it is not too derogatory.

            1. jelabarre59 Silver badge

              Re: Mountains.

              Nowadays, I'll answer to almost anything, as long as it is not too derogatory.

              As my dad would say, "you can call me anything, just don't call me late for dinner."

    2. Woza
      Headmaster

      Re: Mountains.

      Given the location, perhaps an inverted saying: making a canyon out of a pothole.

  3. DCFusor Silver badge

    Amazingly reasonable reporting here

    I work around things radioactive. I own some U ore, some pretty hot as ore goes...but I don't keep it in my bedroom. Neither did they.

    Alphas, the main decay path of the original U have a range in the small inches and don't even penetrate from the inside of an ore rock.

    Betas, which are primarily from the things U decays into...a few more inches (a sheet of Al stops them easily).

    Gammas...well, there are a fair number and high enough energy that distance is your friend (inverse square law).

    But as reported, even a drum of this stuff isn't going to fry you unless you sleep on it.

    The worst that would happen is somehow ingesting some of the dust. It is toxic, but that's not really the issue in the amount you'd mange to get into yourself.

    The problem there is that now the frequent alpha and beta radiation is coming from inside you - there's not the normal layer of dead skin which stops alphas easily. And your body is dumb enough to sequester this sort of heavy metal in nice places like your bones, where new blood cells are finished off....

    Uranium's long half life means it takes more weight of it to make the same amount of radiation per second than for other hotter stuff like cesium 136 ( a fission reactor byproduct we all use to calibrate our geiger counters and gamma spectrometers), where a tiny amount will do you in, and which lasts just long enough to do that to you. We get those samples encased in epoxy for that very reason - you're not going to inhale this thing.

    But in a drum, even with a loose lid, and in rock form...nope, U ore (even refined) is not really an issue. People panic over the dumbest things, evaluate risk poorly. Yes, there is stuff so hot (reactor waste products for example) that's more or less lethal and right away, but this isn't it or even close. Just don't breath the dust or eat the stuff and you're fine (And gee, don't sleep with it either...).

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

      Hehe, only yesterday (in the Reg article about sundials and a resulting thread about watches being readable at night) I noted the practice of putting radioactive materials in epoxy or glass.

      Tritium, once widely used to excite phosphors that then emit visible light on wristwatches, can only be used in watches if it is encased in a small glass vial, roughly the size of a grain of rice. Tritium watches never really presented a hazard to a wearer, but a watch repairer working on hundreds of dismantled watches might inhale enough to dobhim no favours ( the tritium would often turn the phosphor and binding agent to dust, presenting a risk of inhalation, not to mention gum up the watch's mechanism)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

        There was a time when you could by glass vial Tritium key fobs here from "The Register's" store. I got 5 for my kids, but only one still has hers. As it's approaching a couple of half-lifes it's only a quarter as bright as it used to be but still lets her locate her keys in the dark.

        1. muhfugen

          Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

          They're still widely used here in the US for glow in the dark gun sights

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

          I've still got my Tritium key-fob, too. :-) I even managed to get it imported to the USA.

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

      I'd put money on the cancer risk being higher in the car park (all those exhaust fumes!), than if you spent eight hours a day stood next to those barrels.

      In fact, if the ore came from the surrounding rocks, it's probably safer in a bucket where it won't be disturbed, than the rocks outside which will be getting slowly ground into dust by people's feet. That dust might be breathed into someone's lungs, which is something to be avoided.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

        I once camped at a small creek down in the Canyon that flows from rock layers up near the rim where there's an old U mine. It's said the water is a tiny bit radioactive, but I didn't see my piss glow in the dark so I guess it's pretty minor. I must have gotten a larger dose than visitors to that building, yet this geiger counter nut wants to create a panic anyway.

        What little exposure happened can't be undone, so all he could accomplish is to scare ignorant people and maybe harm the careers of a few workers and officials at the park. Wonderful fellow.

    3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: Amazingly reasonable reporting here

      How dare you bring logic, reason and facts into the debate! Everyone knows that EvilRads will kill you!

      (On a side-note - my wife was brought up in Plymouth, the daughter of a stone mason - who worked most of his life with granite - something that gives off radon. Most of her relatives have died from cancer of one form or other - her father of stomach cancer, her mother of lung cancer (that moved to her neck and lymph nodes) and her grandmother of breast cancer. I'm hoping that her long time away from Devon has reduced her risk..)

  4. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

    Another mountain, another huge hole in the ground

    I remember flying over a mountain of the stuff heaped next to the Ranger mine in Kakadu. It's all been dug out now and the mine is closed. People are wondering what to do with this huge hole in the ground which used to contain radioactive ore. Nobody wants to put radioactive waste at the bottom but it's got to go somewhere and this would be as good a place as any, wouldn't it?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Another mountain, another huge hole in the ground

      Depends on the water table, but yeah, probably.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: Another mountain, another huge hole in the ground

      Surely you coat the walls of the mine in bouncy padded material, and turn it into a kids soft play activity centre. Few climbing walls, turn the lifts into rides by having them drop rather than winching and you're good to go.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Another mountain, another huge hole in the ground

        Obviously you fill it in with rock you quarry from a new mine next to it.

        .... and repeat ....

        1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

          Re: Another mountain, another huge hole in the ground

          "Obviously you fill it in with rock you quarry from a new mine next to it."

          That would be the Jabiluka mine. They tried, but it's not going to happen.

  5. revenant Silver badge

    "ADHS takes public health and employee safety concerns seriously"

    Ah, the usual magical incantation meant to calm the worries of the common folk. The moment I read them, whatever else ADHS had to say promptly vanished from memory.

    Fortunately, the knowledgeable comments have allayed my fears somewhat. So I won't panic.

  6. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Some people want to heroes, some just don't care.

    Given the way things have been going, I'm sure the Democrats will be blamed for it. Or not. But then I gave up years ago wondering why people did certain things.

  7. DougS Silver badge

    Usual alarmism bullshit regarding radiation

    Park visitors have nothing to fear from this, unless they went to the museum and stood by the taxidermy exhibit all day every day. The park employees might have a bit more of a case since they were there every day, but still pretty hard to get enough exposure to matter.

    The average person will read this and think "they had a bucket with 15 pounds of uranium in it, what if terrorists had got their hands on it", not knowing that they might have a chunk of uranium ore among the rocks in their garden.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Usual alarmism bullshit regarding radiation

      Those same people, if they were also concerned about fire risk, would likely be horrified to hear that they'd bought americium-241 and installed it in their kitchen. And let's not scare them further by telling them the brutal truth about the bananas they give to their kids...

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Usual alarmism bullshit regarding radiation

        Yes, you're right. Bananas are disgusting. Slimy, weird tasting, and go from unripe to soft brown and icky in about 30 seconds. I'd much rather gnaw on some uranium ore...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Usual alarmism bullshit regarding radiation

        > "And let's not scare them further by telling them the brutal truth about the bananas they give to their kids..."

        Scare me, I can take it. Just how radioactive are those disgustingly shaped fruits? And more importantly, do we need to stop using them...?

        1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

          You have a choice

          One BED (banana equivalent dose) is 0.1 microsieverts so you can stand by the bucket for an hour or you could eat approximately 1000 bananas. I happen to like bananas so that's around three years for me.

          1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

            Re: You have a choice

            I happen to like bananas so that's around three years for me

            Likewise. Bannannannannas are somewhat good for you (lots of minerals and trace elements in them - probably why they are slightly radioactive) and help to reduce my migraines.

            Not so good for the diabetes though :-(

  8. KittenHuffer

    Risk assessment

    On occasion I've tried to explain to my other half that unless someone makes a bomb using the stuff (nuclear or dirty) then the chances of you dying due to man-caused radiation are probably on the same order of magnitude as the chances of being attacked by a shark and a swarm of bees while winning on a jackpot scratch card!

    Saying that the industry that releases the most radiation into the environment does have quite a history of killing employees, but I don't think any of the coal miners were actually killed by the radiation!

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Risk assessment

      But there as a very small amount of radiation - so anybody susceptible to homeopathy might have received a critical dose

      1. DougS Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Risk assessment

        I was going to get vaccinated against homeopathy, but I'm afraid of the side effects.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Risk assessment

          So if you don't believe in homeopathy and skip the treatment do you get an overdose ?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Risk assessment

          Aren't the side effects the important part?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Risk assessment

        You can't really remove every single unstable atom from an environment (except for hard vacuum), so it's not possible to get a homeopathically critical dose.

  9. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    This is the perfect genocide of tourists, killed slowly by seemingly random cancers with no witnesses left to tell the tale

    1. ratfox Silver badge
      Happy

      Probably some anti-government type planted those ages ago and has been expectantly following cancer rate statistics ever since.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Occam says no.

        There are buckets of ore sitting around at many (most?) Natural History museums all over the American West. They are either part of a display of mining in the local area, or leftovers from such a display. I rather suspect it's the later in this case.

  10. LDS Silver badge
    Alert

    We knew US aren't still very good at recycling waste...

    ...yet this looks too much!

    "Hey, where do I put this uranium?" - "Ehhhm, don't know, maybe behind that stuffed animal? Who knows, maybe we'll get a radioactive monster, with time!"

    Next in the news "North Korean tourists spotted around Orphan Mine"

  11. Winkypop Silver badge
    Coat

    New attractions coming to Grand Canyon NP this summer!

    Ever wanted to explore an old mine...?

    --> Rad suit

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Chap at my school nicked a small heavy dull grey lump of rock from the physics lab because it had a blob of glowing paint on it. He hung it on a necklace and wore it for a year or so... until the physics teacher recognized it as the chunk of uranium they used for demonstrations...

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Worrying over nothing

    Quite apart from the existing facts showing there was nothing to actually worry about, other versions of this story also mention that the H&S guy has a bit of a history for making loud announcements over non-problems.

    Putting together long presentations, writing lots of emails and going public when you don't get your way is not normal behaviour. One you'd have thought he'd have learnt when he apparently had to leave the Navy over the same thing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Worrying over nothing

      While the material itself posed little harm, I'm more concerned about the buckets. The article makes it sound like they just kind of showed up and no one knew where they came from. Were they part of an exhibit or just sitting in the open? If the former they should have been displayed as such on a pedestal behind a rope or glass with a placard describing them and recorded in an inventory tracking system with more information. If the latter, then how the hell can some random buckets with unknown material be left in a public space for 18 years and no one working at the facility ask what they are? Did they assume they were leftovers from some long completed remodelling and were too lazy to dispose of them? Perhaps something the cleaning crew left out and again laziness prevented anyone from saying or doing anything about it?

      Apropos, as part of our security audits we'll place a random electronic device with blinken lights to see how long anyone notices. When in the datacenter it is usually noticed within an hour. Out in the open cube farm it can take weeks, if ever.

    2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: Worrying over nothing

      the H&S guy has a bit of a history for making loud announcements over non-problems

      I tought that was business as usual for most H&S types? I've met a few good ones (last place I was at[1] ours was excellect - actually worked to reduce the level of stupid rather than increasing it..) but the majority seem to focus on "being seen to be Doing Something"..

      [1] Manufacturing company of about 40 people - interestingly we had very reactive solvents stored next to some low-level radiation sources (beta radiation) used in the process. Our fire alarm generated *very* rapid action by the Fire Service even though we were relatively low-risk.. Our H&S person insisted that we all had proper fire extinguisher training with regular refreshers. Which (of course) didn't degenerate into mass spraying of each other.. Honest!

  14. Aquilus

    Wow that's a lot of fuss for a few buckets of maybe-slightly-glowy rocks :V

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yeah, terrible dumping raw ore, especially when disposal was basically dumping it back into a mine full of the stuff 2 miles away inside the park.

      Rocks are rocks. Even the hot ones.

      1. Aquilus

        I love hot rocks :D

      2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Rocks are rocks. Even the hot ones.

        Are they better for banging together to make fire?

  15. jake Silver badge

    Kinda makes me wonder ...

    Back in 1970 I found a small chunk of pitchblende on one of Hoy's friendly beaches. I carried it home to California and added it to my mineral collection, next to a similar sample I found not a million miles from the Museum in the article. When I say "carried" I mean just that; it was a last minute addition to my carry-on luggage (a freebie from TWA that we used to call a "flight bag" ... ugly red thing it was). On a new-fangled Boeing 747, no less ... Heathrow to SFO, non-stop! Ain't modern life wonderful?

    So I wonder ... what would happen today if some kid tried to get such an obviously "dangerous" specimen past the security theater of a major International airport? Or worse, tried to import it into the USA or the UK?

    The mind absolutely boggles at how afraid of our own shadows we've become ...

    1. Dave 32
      Mushroom

      Re: Kinda makes me wonder ...

      Not to worry. Some 747s contained 622 pounds of depleted Uranium metal (not ore), as ballast. That made for a bit of a fun time when one would crash, and the Uranium was consumed in the ensuing fire.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_747#Development_and_testing

      Dave

  16. Milton Silver badge

    "What if terrorists ..."

    Yes, a slightly credible dirty bomb would be a possibility. Imagine grinding the stuff down to a powder, packing it around some crude 5-lb ANFO bombs left up high on some city buildings and phoning in a threat about "twenty-pound uranium dirty bombs". The real peril would be low but once authorities' radiation counters started clicking all over NY, they'd have to act as if the thing was potentially deadly. Chaos.

    Good job terrorists are (a) stupid and (b) unable to procure or manufacture nasty things. Let's keep it that way.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "What if terrorists ..."

      Don't imagine that! That feels like thought crime!

      Like imagining getting really annoyed at the western powers surveillance regimes and deciding to launch a few tonnes of sand and ball bearings into orbit and to blow it up and destroy literally trillions of dollars of spying hardware and completely remove a superpowers information warfare advantage with literally the cost of some sand and a launcher that can get to low orbit.

      That kind of idea.

    2. I&I

      Re: "What if terrorists ..."

      (c) ...don’t read The Reg ?

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. DougS Silver badge

      Re: "What if terrorists ..."

      Such a small amount of radiation dispersed widely by a bomb wouldn't register on a geiger counter. The threat/fear by a dirty bomb would be equally bad whether you used bomb grade refined uranium, uranium ore, or dirt to fill that "dirty" bomb, because it would be hours after it exploded before authorities figured out there was no radiation - and conspiracy theorists would immediately go into action claiming the government was covering up the truth!

  17. ukgnome

    is it only me?

    Is it only me that read that and thought - I wonder what the ore tastes of?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: is it only me?

      I believe you'll find it tastes of uranium.

      Glad to help.

      1. zuckzuckgo

        Re: is it only me?

        More like Yellow Cake.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: is it only me?

      It's probably yellow, so... mustard?

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: is it only me?

        It's probably yellow, so... mustard?

        Not everything yellow tastes of mustard. For example - yellow snow doesn't.

        (I assume)

  18. I&I

    “The dose dropped to nothing five or more feet from the buckets”. Wow, that really is impressive... ;-)

  19. Tikimon Silver badge
    Megaphone

    Radon warning for the applicable...

    If you live in an area that's considered to have a high radon risk, TEST YOUR DWELLING. In-home radon gave me and a cat lung cancer a year apart. Killed the cat, I only lost a lung lobe. Never smoked.

    Use a digital tester, not the stupid vials that must sit for weeks and test one spot only. We used a couple of those that gave low readings, but the expense kept our test points few and we missed the hot spots. Since then I got a digital tester (~$200 on Amazon) and have checked every room in the house. I've got the radon under control now, and use the tester to monitor ongoing levels. Mine shows daily, weekly, and monthly levels since last reset for the location it's in. Quick check, or long-term average, digital has you covered.

    Trust me. DO THIS.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Radon warning for the applicable...

      If you live in an older house it doesn't matter much - they are too drafty for the radon to build up. This is mostly a problem in newer homes built to be energy efficient (which is why new construction with basements are required by code to have radon mitigation, at least around here) or older homes where you've sealed all the gaps and cracks. One reason why I've never bothered to upgrade the energy efficiency of my 70 year old house, then I'd probably have a radon problem and need to spend another couple thousand retrofitting a mitigation solution!

    2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: Radon warning for the applicable...

      If you live in an area that's considered to have a high radon risk, TEST YOUR DWELLING

      Especially if you are a stone mason, mostly using granite. And have made a lot of decorative stuff for the home using your favourite material.

      (Which is why I never met my father-in-law (a stone mason and son of a stone mason in Cornwall who had their own granite quarry) since he died of cancer about 11 years before I met my wife)

  20. imanidiot Silver badge

    Here's my impression of this guy:

    *foaming at the mouth* WHAAAARRRRBLGGLLLLLWRRAAAAA Radiation!!! WHAAARBBBBLLLBBLLLGGLABLBLBLBLAAALAAAAA!

    The reaction of anyone sane: *Shoulder shrug*

    This is some of the stupidest "OMG radiation!" stories I've read in a LONG while. And that's saying something after all the Fukushima FUD.

  21. AgentMyth

    What a great sentence

    "Unless folks were licking the rocks, or breathing in dust from the material, or sticking their heads inside the open containers to gnaw on the ore, they should be fine."

    Laughed out loud at this one - bravo!

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