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Citizen science and Fukushima radiation

Being Clear-Eyed About Citizen Science in the Age of COVID-19

An anthropologist explores the network of citizen monitoring capabilities that developed after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 for what they might teach all of us about such strategies for the covonavirus pandemic. Sapiens MAXIME POLLERI / 15 JUL 2020 “……………  The earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to core meltdowns within some of the Fukushima power plant’s nuclear reactors. This malfunction, along with other technical incidents, resulted in the atmospheric release of radioactive pollutants, which spread predominantly over the northeastern part of Japan, forcing a widespread evacuation of Fukushima residents. By March 12, the area around the power plant had been evacuated; those living and working within 20 kilometers of the radius of the plant were forced to relocate. In the days, weeks, and months following this disaster, uncertainty around the scale and extent of contamination grew swiftly—much like what we see occurring throughout the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most notably, the public grew increasingly concerned about the legitimacy of institutional experts’ ability to control and explain the risks of residual radioactivity, while citizens like Natsuo were unable to get adequate information through traditional media venues. Initially, data about radioactive contamination came sporadically and was often explained in hard-to-understand metrics by scientists who were cherry-picked by the state to send reassuring messages to citizens.

Moreover, radioactive contamination was later found to be present in some food products and in school yards where children had been playing that lay beyond the official zone of evacuation. Over the ensuing months and years, the public lost confidence in the state’s response and began to take matters into their own hands, mobilizing expert practices of their own. Widespread grassroot actions led to citizen science networks in which people tracked radiation in their environment, organized learning workshops on radiation dangers, and tested food for contamination, often through local organizations or individual households.

As an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork on the Fukushima nuclear disaster between 2015 and 2017, I came to realize that citizen science can rise up to fill in the gaps of state responses toward crises, for better or for worse. As we’ve seen play out throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in various parts of the world, governance and leadership have often been confusing, mismatched, and at times utterly misleading. The case of Fukushima offers lessons about both the promises and pitfalls of citizen science and how civil society is playing an increasingly important role in managing various disasters, catastrophes, and crises.

The Geiger counter of Masayuki was not silent for long before it began to emit the distinctive “clicking” sound associated with radiation monitoring devices. The “click” grew louder in intensity as we located a hot spot, an area where the level of radiation is significantly higher than elsewhere. Masayuki dutifully noted the number provided by the device before leaving to search for another hot spot. We were standing in the Japanese village of Iitate, situated in the prefecture of Fukushima. It was common at this time for citizens to own their own Geiger counters—often purchased off the internet using international donations or made at home as DIY devices—to measure the level of radiation around them.

When I first came to this rural village in the spring of 2016, more than five years had passed since the nuclear disaster. The forced evacuation of citizens from Fukushima and the surrounding areas had proved short-lived; by 2012, the Japanese state had already embraced a policy of repatriation to irradiated areas like Iitate village, which is where I met Masayuki and citizens like him in 2016. ……….

While happy to be back in their beloved region, many residents were critical of the state radiation-monitoring networks that were supposed to provide them with adequate information to allow them to live safely in the village. Indeed, state data on radiation was often provided through fixed monitoring in precise locations or through an average radiation level taken in the village. This kind of information was not practical enough for residents, who wanted to know the specific radiation levels behind their houses or in their rice paddy fields.

Likewise, official depictions of radiation levels through clear-cut chromatic zones did little to offer the citizens reassurance. As a result of the perceived limitation of state measures, residents quickly decided to track radiation themselves as a means to keep the map of their village relevant—often finding contamination that was not evident from state mapping. In the house of one farmer, I witnessed homemade models that exhibited a 3D topography of Iitate’s geographical landscape. These models had been made using 3D printers, and the level of radiation had been monitored by the citizens themselves.

In particular, the local knowledge of the geography of Iitate helped citizens to attain a level of precision that far exceeded that of the government map. Citizens soon learned that radiation doses could be higher at the bottom of a hill than farther upslope or that the woods behind one’s home, having trapped radiation, might impact the radiation level inside houses. These practices helped strengthen a community that had previously felt helpless in the face of an imperceptible radiation threat. Geiger counters became the ears and eyes of citizens like Masayuki, enabling them to make sense of and gain some semblance of control over a hazard that cannot be registered by the senses.

After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, one of the main sources of radiation exposure stemmed from consumption of food products such as milk or wild mushrooms that had been contaminated by radioactive fallout. In an effort to make sure that this did not happen in Japan, the government took on the task of testing the food produced in Fukushima, implementing a limit to the allowable amount of radioactivity in food products.

Within months after the meltdowns, the government assured the public of the safety of its food products, encouraging citizens to consume foods sold at public fairs and other public events. However, citizens of Fukushima also consume food harvested from streams, forests, home gardens, and mountain areas—where state monitoring was largely absent or insufficient.

Again, citizens mobilized to fill in the gaps in food testing: With the help of public donations, citizen scientists were able to purchase scintillation detectors, which are used to measure radioactive contaminants in foodstuff. Such testing enabled citizens to gain an understanding of the types of foods most prone to radioactive contamination, such as mushrooms, green leafy vegetables, citrus, sea cucumber, and seaweeds. This in turn helped people avoid eating the most risky foods. Together with state monitoring, such citizen science practices resulted in lower consumption of contaminated foods.

While such examples demonstrate the power and potential of citizen science, there are inherent political complexities involved when citizens or nongovernmental organizations step in and claim expertise in areas typically reserved for state agencies and experts. Like those entities, citizen science has its own potential pitfalls……..


July 15, 2020 - Posted by | Japan, radiation, Reference

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