Three buckets of radioactive uranium ore were stored at the Grand Canyon Museum Collection Building for nearly 20 years, potentially exposing millions of tourists to harmful radiation. Federal officials reportedly learned of the uranium ore last year and have since removed the buckets from the site.
However, officials neglected to notify the public that visitors may have been exposed to radiation. In fact, many of the park’s employees themselves weren’t even notified of the risk.
Earlier this month, Elston “Swede” Stephenson, safety, health and wellness manager at the National Park, blew the whistle on the cover-up when he sent an unauthorized email to all Park Service employees warning them about the uranium stored at the Grand Canyon. According to AZCentral, Stephenson said:
“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. 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. My first interest is the safety of the workers and the people. Of particular concern are 1000s of children attending ‘shows’ in very close proximity to the uranium.“
“Respectfully, it was not only immoral not to let Our People know, but I could no longer risk my (health and safety) certification by letting this go any longer,” he added.
The email was a last resort for Stephenson, who was pleading with his managers to warn the public and other Park Service employees after the material was removed.
Stephenson says the buckets were in the basement since it opened sometime around the year 2000. It is not clear why this spot at the Grand Canyon was chosen to hold radioactive material or if it was some kind of mistake.
The material was discovered by chance when the son of a park employee was playing with a Geiger counter, an instrument used for detecting and measuring radiation, in the area and detected unusual levels of radiation coming from the room.
Stephenson estimates that close exposure to the amount of uranium that was in the buckets could expose adults to 400 times the “healthy limit” of radiation. It is even worse for children, with Stephenson saying that it could be 4,000 times beyond what is considered safe.
The containers were stored in an area that received plenty of foot traffic. Tours often stopped nearby for presentations, staying close to the radioactive material for 30 minutes or more. Stephenson says that just under a minute is still dangerous for adults.
Despite Stephenson’s concern, representatives with the Park Service are downplaying the risk, saying that recent tests show only small, normal amounts of radiation.
Emily Davis, public affairs specialist at Grand Canyon National Park, spoke only of the current risk when asked about the situation:
“There is no current risk to the park employees or public. The building is open. … The information I have is that the rocks were removed, and there’s no danger.”
However, there are still many people who passed through the park for the many years that the radioactive material was stored there.
Stephenson said that he has been cut off from any involvement in the investigation and that his superiors have attempted to hide reports from him. “They’re in cover-up mode. I’ve been cut off from any kind of information. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said.
The Grand Canyon has an average of 4.5 million visitors each year.