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[cdn-nucl-l] Me and My Geiger Counter
Posted in the New York Times on June 28, 2002 and at:
Some very good web sites for monitoring radiation levels. I think the
TMI-area monitor is a little off, though...
> Me and My Geiger Counter
> By FRED BERNSTEIN
> SHOULD I keep my Geiger counter running during dinner? Will its
> constant clicking keep me up at night? Those are the kinds of
> questions I've been asking myself since a black plastic Geiger
> counter, a camera-size device designed to measure gamma, alpha, beta
> and X-rays, arrived last week. All I had to do was switch it on and
> set it on my dining table.
> The clicks - about 10 per minute - announced the presence of
> background radiation (generally considered harmless) in my Greenwich
> Village apartment. In a nuclear emergency - an attack or a reactor
> meltdown - the rhythm would become more urgent. "At 100 clicks a
> minute, I'd start to worry," said Tim Flanegin of Mineralab in
> Prescott, Ariz., who sold me the $279 unit. Geiger counters, it seems,
> are the new Cipro. "Since 9/11, orders have doubled," said Mr.
> Flanegin, whose company uses the Web address www.geigercounters.com
> <http://www.geigercounters.com>. Prices start at $170 for a kit and
> climb past $900 for a particularly sensitive model. The company's
> original customers were mineral collectors, Mr. Flanegin said, "but
> then this whole other market developed." First came Sept. 11, he said,
> and then another surge this spring, as tensions rose between India and
> Pakistan, and the Justice Department announced that it had foiled a
> plot to set off a crude radioactive weapon - a "dirty bomb" - in the
> United States. International Medcom, a manufacturer in Sebastopol,
> Calif., that also sells units to the public at www.geigercounter.com,
> is having trouble meeting demand, said its president, Dan Sythe.
> "We're hiring people and trying to increase production," he said.
> In my case, the decision to buy a counter followed a decision to buy
> potassium iodide, a drug that reduces the chances of thyroid cancer
> exposure to fallout from a reactor. More than a dozen states plan to
> distribute the drug to people near nuclear power plants. (I live 40
> from a nuclear plant, but the drug could also be useful after a
> Once I got the pills - a three-month supply, available on the Internet
> $18 - I began wondering how I would know when it was time to take
> "The question is, do you trust the government to keep you informed?"
> Lionel Zuckier, director of nuclear medicine at the New Jersey Medical
> School in Newark. Even assuming a policy of full disclosure, there
> be delays - possibly breakdowns in communication - in getting
> to the public.
> Debbie Baker, who lives near the nuclear power plant at Three Mile
> in Pennsylvania, has kept a Geiger counter on her window sill for 14
> In 1979, when an accident at the plant released radiation into the
> atmosphere, Ms. Baker recalled angrily, "We didn't get information for
> three days." At the time, she said she had a 9-month-old daughter at
> The window-sill counter "represents peace of mind," said Ms. Baker,
> president of a citizens' monitoring committee.
> Not everyone, though, thinks the Geiger counter should take its place
> alongside the home smoke detector.
> David Allard, who oversees radiation-disaster preparedness for
> Pennsylvania, advises against the purchase of personal Geiger
> For one thing, "you have to know how to interpret the data," he said.
> "If someone who had just ingested radioactive material in connection
> a medical procedure walked past your house, the thing would start
> like crazy," Mr. Allard said. "And there are trucks that carry nuclear
> material in the normal course of things. You'd be in a constant state
> For an actual emergency, "there are plans in place, response teams
> know what to do," he said. "The best thing is to turn on the TV and
> official instructions."
> Told of Mr. Allard's advice, Ms. Baker scoffed. She said her detector
> set to sound whenever radiation hits three times the background level
> her area, an event that she said typically occurs once a year, after a
> heavy rainfall brings down naturally radioactive dust.
> So if a bona fide alarm went off, what then?
> Dirty bombs, nuclear weapons and reactors present different issues, of
> course. The Council on Foreign Relations, in an encyclopedia of
> on the Web (www.terrorismanswers.com
> states, "In the case of a dust cloud thrown up by a dirty bomb,
> stress the importance of prompt decontamination - taking off outer
> of clothing and washing any exposed skin."
> In the case of "penetrating radiation" like gamma rays or neutrons,
> site advises those affected "to minimize the duration of their
> getting as far away from the radiation source as possible."
> In other words, act quickly.
> Still, $279 is a lot to spend for an alarm that probably will never
> So what about some sort of communal early-warning system: public
> counters transmitting data around the clock?
> One such network, in central Pennsylvania, was installed in the early
> by Ms. Baker's nonprofit group, the Three Mile Island Citizens'
> Network. It posts the readings at www.tmi-cmn.org/map.htm
> <http://www.tmi-cmn.org/map.htm>, although Ms. Baker said that recent
> thunderstorms had knocked out part of the system.
> A larger network with 178 counters has been operating for more than a
> decade in France, which relies heavily on nuclear power; it can be
> monitored at www.opri.fr/html_opri/web_mesure_som.htm
> <http://www.opri.fr/html_opri/web_mesure_som.htm>. About eight years
> the designers of the French system, called TÚlÚray, installed a unit
> a federal building at Varick and Houston Streets in Manhattan for the
> United States Department of Energy. The department has since added its
> monitors at the site, and posts results, updated every 15 minutes, at
> www.eml.doe.gov/homeland <http://www.eml.doe.gov/homeland>.
> Mitchell Erickson, director of the department's Environmental
> Laboratory, said his agency was trying to secure $5 million to install
> some 30 monitors around the city. "We don't have that kind of money in
> budget," he said.
> Dr. Zuckier of the New Jersey Medical School said he had proposed such
> system for the city over three years ago. Linked by the Internet, the
> units could generate a kind of weather map of radiation. But he said
> got nowhere, in his view because officials feared that real-time
> information could cause panic. But that was before Sept. 11. Francis
> McCarton, deputy commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency
> Management, said this week: "We have a new commissioner in place. We'd
> happy to take a look at the plan."
> Dr. Zuckier's own demonstration unit, at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx,
> feeds data to a graph at www .awel.com/nyc. A disaster would send the
> on the graph shooting up, Dr. Zuckier said.
> Certainly, during an emergency, the radiation monitor or its Internet
> connection could fail. (Indeed, if the attack generated an
> pulse, most Geiger counters would be rendered useless. Some older
> including government surplus counters, would probably survive a pulse,
> according to Radmeters4U.com, a company that says it has 100,000
> from the 60's and 70's at its warehouse in Gonzales, Tex.)
> For a newer, PC-compatible model, Dr. Zuckier referred me to Brian
> Boardman of Aware Electronics of Wilmington, Del., the company that
> the unit at Jacobi (www.aw-el.com <http://www.aw-el.com>). Aware's
> counters lack dials or displays and feed information to PC's instead.
> (Other companies make similar models for Macs, including Black Cat
> Systems, which is online at www.blackcatsystems.com
> For $149, I ordered Aware's RM-60, which arrived the next day.
> it to my PC took less than five minutes. Almost immediately I had a
> of radiation levels in my bedroom - a chilling if fascinating sight.
> Boardman advised that as long as the reading remained flat, at around
> microroentgens per hour, there was nothing to worry about. (The unit
> be programmed to sound alarms or even send e-mail warnings when
> levels increase.)
> Mr. Boardman had enclosed an egg-size rock containing uranium ore.
> held it near the small round opening on top of the RM-60, the line on
> graph shot up. The same radioactive stone helped me confirm that my
> hand-held counter from Mineralab was working.
> Of the two devices, the RM-60, at half the price of the stand-alone
> seemed the better buy. Its PC feed allows you to compare radiation
> over time and to check data accumulated while you are sleeping or
> otherwise engaged.
> And yet, if I needed to evacuate in an emergency, I would want to take
> Geiger counter with me. Mr. Boardman recommended that I buy one of two
> accessories - an attachment that generates audio clicks, for $19, or
> L.C.D. display for $159 - or that I connect my RM-60 to a palmtop
> of my desktop computer.
> I went ahead and ordered the $19 attachment. It has been a week since
> first Geiger counter arrived, and I am beginning to find its slow