Mon, Mar 12, 2018 - Page 4 News List

‘Citizen scientists’ track radiation seven years after Fukushima disaster

AFP, KORIYAMA, Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend a lower house budget committee session at the parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 13.

Photo: Reuters

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 data to Safecast, a non-governmental agency (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 said, 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 natural radiation,” he said of the post-disaster data.

“I was amazed ... the news was telling us that there was nothing, the administration was telling us that there was nothing to worry about,” he said.

That dearth of trustworthy information was the genesis of Safecast, said cofounder 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.

“Like how Google does Street View,” he said. “We could do something for radiation in the same way.”

“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,” he said. “So that’s what we did.”

Within a week, the group had a prototype and began getting readings that suggested that the 20km 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.

However, 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] Web site, you can choose [whether you think] it’s safe or not,’” Okano said.

Forty kilometers 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 realized that there was a high level of risk here as well,” he said.

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