How Citizen Science Changed the Way Fukushima Radiation is Reported

  • February 13, 2016 | Ari Beser

Photos By Ari Beser

Tokyo – “It appears the world-changing event didn’t change anything, and it’s disappointing,”said Pieter Franken, a researcher at Keio University in Japan (Wide Project), the MIT Media Lab (Civic Media Centre), and co-founder of Safecast, a citizen-science network dedicated to the measurement and distribution of accurate levels of radiation around the world, especially in Fukushima. “There was a chance after the disaster for humanity to innovate our thinking about energy, and that doesn’t seem like it’s happened.  But what we can change is the way we measure the environment around us.”

Franken and his founding partners found a way to turn their email chain, spurred by the tsunami, into Safecast; an open-source network that allows everyday people to contribute to radiation-monitoring.

“We literally started the day after the earthquake happened,” revealed Pieter. “A friend of mine, Joi Ito, the director of MIT Media Lab, and I were basically talking about what Geiger counter to get. He was in Boston at the time and I was here in Tokyo, and like the rest of the world, we were worried, but we couldn’t get our hands on anything. There’s something happening here, we thought. Very quickly as the disaster developed, we wondered how to get the information out. People were looking for information, so we saw that there was a need. Our plan became: get information, put it together and deseminate it.”

An e-mail thread between Franken, Ito, and Sean Bonner, (co-founder of CRASH Space, a group that bills itself as Los Angeles’ first hackerspace), evolved into a network of minds, including members of Tokyo Hackerspace, Dan Sythe, who produced high-quality Geiger counters, and Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s former Chief Technical Officer. On April 15, the group that was to become Safecast sat down together for the first time. Ozzie conceived the plan to strap a Geiger counter to a car and somehow log measurements in motion. This would became the bGeigie, Safecast’s future model of the do-it-yourself Geiger counter kit.

Armed with a few Geiger counters donated by Sythe, the newly formed team retrofitted their radiation-measuring devices to the outside of a car.  Safecast’s first volunteers drove up to the city of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, and took their own readings around all of the schools. Franken explained, “If we measured all of the schools, we covered all the communities; because communities surround schools. It was very granular, the readings changed a lot, and the levels were far from academic, but it was our start. This was April 24, 6 weeks after the disaster. Our thinking changed quite a bit through this process.”

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With the DIY kit available online, all anyone needs to make their own Geiger counter is a soldering iron and the suggested directions.

Since their first tour of Koriyama, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Safecast’s team of volunteers have developed the bGeigie handheld radiation monitor, that anyone can buy on Amazon.com and construct with suggested instructions available online. So far over 350 users have contributed 41 million readings, using around a thousand fixed, mobile, and crowd-sourced devices.

According to Franken, “We’re working with communities to install these sensors in people’s neighborhoods. We’re financed by donations only. We get donations so we put together a plan, volunteers provide space, and Internet access, and agree that the data collected are public.

“What we’ve come to determine in Fukushima is that radiation levels are spotty. They can vary from street corner to street corner. We’ve also been able to determine that the levels over the last five years have reduced, partly because of half life of cesium, and because of environmental factors. We’ve also seen an increase in official government data being released in a similar style to Safecast’s drive-by method versus spot checking.”

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A map of the radiation levels in Fukushima Prefecture compiled by Safecast on top of a map compiled by the Japanese government made in December 2014.

According to Franken, “There is no safe dose of radiation as it’s debated by scientists; the higher the level, the higher the risk is that it will trigger a cancer. Though, at low levels the risk is much smaller, it is not zero. However, irrespectively of what we do, we will all be exposed to naturally occurring radiation. This varies worldwide a little, but in general you could say that if you’re exposed to those levels you’re not worse off than anywhere else. That level,” he says, “is somewhere between .05-.3 uSv/hr.”

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Joe Moross voluntarily manages operations at Safecast. He poses here at their lab in Shibuya, Tokyo, a space that is donated to them by Loftworks, a working environment shared by multiple companies.

“When Fukushima happened all of my education led to this moment,” said Joe Moross, a Tokyo-based radiation and environmental sensor engineer with 35 years of experience in radiation and environmental sensing in the U.S. and Japan. He has voluntarily driven and measured over 50,000 km [31,000 miles]. “I fit in this crisis better than I have ever before. Being trained in nuclear physics, and sensor technology, this is what I’ve been made for. One of the biggest problems in Fukushima is the anxiety and the uncertainty that people are suffering from the incident. I think what were doing is trying to alleviate that by giving them ways to educate themselves about the problem and giving them solutions where they can be empowered to do something about it, as a opposed to just going along with the current of the crisis.”

Ari M. Beser  is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.  Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. 

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