'Citizen scientists' track radiation seven years after Fukushima

March 11, 2018 by Sara Hussein
Japanese priest Sadamaru Okano is one of the 'citizen scientists' collecting radiation readings in the Fukushima region

Beneath the elegant curves of the roof on the Seirinji Buddhist temple in Japan's Fukushima region hangs an unlikely adornment: a Geiger counter collecting real-time radiation readings.

The machine is sending to Safecast, an NGO born after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that says it has now built the world's largest radiation dataset, thanks to the efforts of citizen scientists like Seirinji's priest Sadamaru Okano.

Like many Japanese, Okano lost faith in the government after the nuclear meltdown seven years ago.

"The government didn't tell us the truth, they didn't tell us the true measures," he told AFP, seated inside the 150-year-old temple.

Okano was in a better position than most to doubt the government line, having developed an amateur interest in nuclear technology two decades earlier after learning about the Chernobyl disaster.

To the bemusement of friends and family, he started measuring local radiation levels in 2007, so when the disaster happened, he had baseline data.

"The readings were so high... 50 times higher than ," he said of the post-disaster data.

"I was amazed... the news was telling us there was nothing, the administration was telling us there was nothing to worry about."

That dearth of trustworthy information was the genesis of Safecast, said co-founder Pieter Franken, who was in Tokyo with his family when the disaster hit.

Franken and several friends had the idea of gathering data by attaching Geiger counters to cars and driving around.

A geiger counter operated by the Safecast group is attached to a fence near the stricken Dai-ichi power plant
"Like how Google does Street View, we could do something for radiation in the same way," he said.

"The only problem was that the system to do that didn't exist and the only way to solve that problem was to go and build it ourselves. So that's what we did."

Making informed choices

Within a week, the group had a prototype and began getting readings that suggested the 20 kilometre (12 mile) exclusion zone declared around the Fukushima plant had no basis in the data, Franken said.

"Evacuees were sent from areas with lower radiation to areas with higher radiation" in some cases, he said.

The zone was eventually redrawn, but for many local residents it was too late to restore trust in the government.

Okano evacuated his mother, wife and son while he stayed with his flock.

But a year later, based on his own readings and after decontamination efforts, he brought them back.

He learned about Safecast's efforts and in 2013 installed one of their static counters on his temple, in part to help reassure worshippers.

"I told them: we are measuring the radiation on a daily basis... so if you access the (Safecast) website you can choose (if you think) it's safe or not."

Japanese teacher Norio Watanabe work with Safecast to teach his pupils how to measure radiation

Forty kilometres away, in the town of Koriyama, Norio Watanabe was supervising patiently as his giggling teenage pupils attempted to build basic versions of Safecast's Geiger counter.

Dressed in blazers and tartan skirts, the girls pored over instructions on where to place diodes and wires.

Watanabe has been a Safecast volunteer since 2011, and has a mobile Geiger counter in his car.

In the days after the disaster evacuees flocked to Koriyama, which was outside the evacuation zone, and he assumed his town was safe.

"But after I started to do the measurements, I realised there was a high level of risk here as well," he said.

'You can't ignore it'

He sent his children away, but stayed behind to look after his mother, a decision he believes may have contributed to his 2015 diagnosis with thyroid cancer.

"As a scientist, I think the chance that it was caused by the Fukushima accident might be 50-50, but in my heart, I think it was likely the cause," he said.

His thyroid was removed and he is now healthy, but Watanabe worries about his students, who he fears "will carry risk with them for the rest of their lives."

"If there are no people like me who continue to monitor the levels, it will be forgotten."

Schoolgirls check an app connected to a geiger counter to measure radiation in a classroom in Fukushima prefecture

Safecast now has around 3,000 devices worldwide and data from 90 countries. Its counters come as a kit that volunteers can buy through third parties and assemble at home.

Because volunteers choose where they want to measure at random and often overlap, "they validate unknowingly each other's measurements," said Franken, and anomalies or exceptions are checked by Safecast staff.

The NGO is now expanding into measuring air pollution, initially mostly in the US city of Los Angeles during a test phase.

Its data is all open source, and has been used to study everything from the effects of fallout on wildlife to how people move around cities, said Franken.

He says Safecast's data mostly corroborates official measurements, but provides readings that are more relevant to people's lives.

"Our volunteers decide to measure where their schools are, where their workplaces are, where their houses are."

And he believes Safecast has helped push Japan's government to realise that "transparency and being open are very important to create trust."

"The power of citizen science means that you can't stop it and also that you can't ignore it."

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3 / 5 (4) Mar 11, 2018
"The readings were so high... 50 times higher than natural radiation," he said of the post-disaster data.

"I was amazed... the news was telling us there was nothing, the administration was telling us there was nothing to worry about."

The average natural radiation exposure in Japan is 1.5 mSv/a and 50 times higher would mean 75 mSv/a. Notice that this is a dose rate per year. The radiation levels did not remain that high, and the total doses for the people in the affected areas are estimated to fall between 1 and 15 mSv. That's why it's difficult to believe the guy's "50-50" estimate.

To put things into perspective, one Sievert (1000 mSv) of radiation absorbed over time is thought to increase your lifetime risk of cancer by 5.5%

To get an extra 15 mSv of radiation, all you have to do is fly to Brazil and have a beach holiday on Guarapari beach. You get up to 250 mSv/a. If you decide to live in the city though, all you get is 5.2 mSv per year.
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 11, 2018
The main problem here is that the government didn't bother to educate the public about the exact risks they're facing, so these "citizen scientists" didn't have adequate information to interpret their findings.

Saying something is 50 times higher than normal sounds bad if you have no context or a yardstick to compare how bad is bad.

Then there's also those who deliberately omit the context to incite panic and spread propaganda for their own cynical purposes. There are also those who believe that their own paranoia and panic over nuclear power permits them to lie to other people, despite the actual harm and loss of life it causes.
2 / 5 (4) Mar 11, 2018
"To put things into perspective, "

To put it in perspective, my solar panels produce sufficient power for household and two cars, without deadly radiation threatening Humanity.

Give it up, Eikka.

You nuke apologists should start helping to clean up these disasters before promoting more.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2018
[qThen there's also those who deliberately omit the context to incite panic and spread propaganda for their own cynical purposes. There are also those who believe that their own paranoia and panic over nuclear power permits them to lie to other people, despite the actual harm and loss of life it causes.

Tell you what, Ike-- rather than making a wild guess about these claims-- why don't you actually LOOK UP the relevant figures for the are --NOT the average for the entire nation-- and check with Safecast for the data in question from beginning to nend of the record, and then report back to mus with your findings.

No one is interested in your f**king opinion.
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 11, 2018
Paranoia? How about educated concern? We tried and tried and tried to tell you pro-nukers about he dangers and costs of this disastrous technology, but you thought you knew better.

After PL-1, TMI II, Brown's Ferry, Rancho Seco, Fermi I, and the Hanford Babies, you have no ground to stand on but that contaminated by Fukushima and Chernobyl.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 12, 2018
I've wanted to have a Geiger counter-recorder installed in my car for many years, partly inspired by the accidental detection of radioactive rebar at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1984. I never had the money to buy the counter, though. I paid $50 to a hobby group a few years ago to build one with them, but then the leader couldn't figure out how to build the counting circuit, and he held onto the tube I bought, so I have nothing. My goal is to be able to map out the radiation levels across the country. When I first had this idea, I was driving between Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma fairly regularly. It would be nice if I could map this data, like I do with photos.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2018
Reading over the anti-nuke comments, I can see why Japan's government lied. Some people can't handle the truth! Solar panel manufacturing generates 300 times more volume of toxic waste than nuclear power does, amounting to million of pounds of toxic waste per year. Then, when the panels reach end-of-life, they currently just get dumped in a landfill (not enough volume yet to recycle commercially), where they continue leeching toxic materials. Further, more people die per TWh of electricity generated in the solar and wind industries than in the nuke power industry. Take the moat out of your own eyes before you lecture us about nuclear!
2 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2018
No one is interested in your f**king opinion.

"La la la, I'm not listeniiing".

The problem is twofold.

1) Anyone with an uncalibrated ebay or homebuilt geiger counter can claim to be measuring background radiation levels. We don't know if these citizen scientists are being accurate, precise, or reliable in their measurements.

2) People incite panic by blogging "huge numbers" because they themselves are panicking. Bad news travel faster, even if they're false or inaccurate.

We can't tell where these numbers are really coming from, or whether some Greenpeace activists are deliberately injecting false data to the network for propaganda purposes.

NOT the average for the entire nation

I didn't quote nation averages. I quoted the figures at Fukushima Daichii

And the safecast snapshot database for the disaster period shows rates of 10.09 µSv/h for the areas closest to the exclusion zone, which is about 88 mSv/a which isn't very far off from my 75 mSv/a
2 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2018
So guess what - having good basic understanding of the phenomenon you're talking about allows you to make fairly accurate estimates about the state of reality - avoiding falling for hyperbole like "It's 50 times higher!"

Relative metrics without a given baseline or comparison are meaningless, and typically only used for their propaganda value.

They didn't tell you that the amount of natural background levels varies by couple orders of magnitude between locations where people actually live, and within an order of magnitude (10x) even if you're not seeking the particularily radioactive places. Giving this information would have put the narrative in a different light - that the governments were right in telling you not to panic because the panic puts you into more danger than the danger you're fleeing from.

But since we've been fed with all sorts of "single hot particle in the lungs!" theories by cranks since 1986, it's no wonder that people panic.
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2018
Yeah, eikka, in fact, it never happened. That's your next post.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 13, 2018
There is a difference between external radiation exposure and internal (breathed in or ingested with food) exposure. The damage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not accurately measured as no attempt to follow those exposed to fallout was done. No attempt to calculate where the fallout went was made. It is amazing to me (no its not) when 3 mile island happened, they did not use the prevailing winds and rainfall patterns to calculate where the radiation went but just drew concentric circles around the plant and went from there. This is done to dilute the actual radiation and make the effects less statistically significant. If I were Watanabe I would not doubt that my thyroid cancer was from Fukishima. the children of Belarus from the tiime of Chernobyl can be sure that their thyroid cancer came from Chernobyl. Even today 80% of the children of Belarus are diagnosed unhealthy.
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2018
Fukushima will be an eternal source of scary stories in the hand of faux-greens in order to supposedly favor intermittent renewables but that in the end benefits the fossil fuels.
"Wind and solar are proven technologies. They've proven they can't replace coal and natural gas as a primary energy source."
5 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2018
Fukushima will be an eternal source of scary stories in the hand of faux-greens in order to supposedly favor intermittent renewables but that in the end benefits the fossil fuels.
"Wind and solar are proven technologies. They've proven they can't replace coal and natural gas as a primary energy source."

Nice pitcher, weewee.

To bad it comes without any relevant Science in support of the glaringly false claim.

Now, piss off.
Da Schneib
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2018
Apparently @Eikka "forgot" the part where it said that the baseline had been established. It's clear from the article that 50x means fifty times the baseline for the same location. And it's a location where the Japanese government says there isn't any radiation. Fancy that. Looks like @Eikka is lying again. And busted again.

Apparently @Eikka also "forgot" that Sv are measured in vivo. Geiger counters, however, do not measure Sv. They measure counts. You have to convert that with a large number of assumptions, including what kind of clothes the person was wearing, whether the radiation was only received externally or there was ingestion or inhalation, and many other factors. So using Sv in this case is hand waving, not at all unusual for @Eikka.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2018
If anyone is interested in the dangers of exposure to radionuclide's check out the Petkau Effect. As Dr. John Goffman has stated, there is no safe level of radioactivity!

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