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

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July 15, 2020

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.

In March 2011, one of the strongest earthquakes on record struck the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant in northeastern Japan. Combined with a subsequent tsunami, the disasters triggered massive nuclear meltdowns and widespread evacuations.

On the quiet Friday afternoon of March 11, 2011, Natsuo* was working in Fukushima, the capital city of Fukushima prefecture. At 2:46 p.m., a devastating earthquake of 9.0 magnitude hit the Pacific coast of Japan, where the prefecture of Fukushima is situated. Natsuo recalled to me the sheer power of this earthquake: “The whole office shook like hell, everything began to fall from the walls. I thought to myself ‘That’s it … I’m going to die!’”

Natsuo quickly returned to her hometown of Koriyama City, unaware that the earthquake had triggered a massive tsunami, which inundated an important part of the prefectural shoreline and ultimately claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 people. On top of the initial devastation, the tsunami severely damaged the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant, in Ōkuma, Fukushima, located on the east coast of Fukushima prefecture. She later learned on TV that something “seemed wrong” with the nuclear power plant. “During that time,” she said, “I tried to get as much information as I could, but the media weren’t being clear on the situation.”

Something was indeed very wrong: 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.

 

2Following the meltdown, school children helped sell food items to serve those who were displaced by the disaster.

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.

3Due to growing concerns about the government’s response, many citizens began purchasing Geiger counters to monitor the 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.

Under this repatriation policy, Iitate had become a patchwork of three different safety areas, with boundaries defined by the annual level of atmospheric radiation projected to be received by residents if they remained within the zones. Citizens could only reside in “green zones,”

areas where evacuation orders were ready to be lifted. These areas were considered safe enough for all community activities, such as hiking and school events. The “yellow zones” represented areas in which citizens were still not permitted to live, and the “red zones” were areas considered off-limits to any form of entry due to their high level of radiation.

Those who had willingly returned to Iitate were typically elderly farmers for whom Iitate was one’s native land, a concept that the Japanese call furusato. As an elderly man explained to me in 2017: “It’s the place where I was born. I always wanted to come back to this place. Seeing the sun rise, seeing the moon at night. Seeing the blueness of the sky of Iitate.”

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.

4The author (center) stands with two community members in front of a citizen science center.

 

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.

For one, corporate polluters or state agencies can potentially exploit citizen science, delegating the monitoring of contamination to the victims of a disaster. For instance, by the end of this year, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency plans to remove 80 percent of radiation monitoring posts in Fukushima, arguing that the radiation levels in many areas have stabilized themselves—owing also in part to the presence and efficiency of monitoring networks provided by citizens. This decision has been controversial, since problems of radioactive contamination persist in Fukushima. For instance, one of the main radioactive pollutants, Cesium-137, has a long lifespan and can emit radiation for nearly 300 years.

Retiring these posts will force citizen scientists to take on the burden of monitoring, shifting liability for ensuring safe living conditions onto the shoulders of the nuclear victims. In addition, the growing impact of citizen science can lead to reduced public expenditure, minimal government intervention, and risk privatization, meaning that risk becomes individual and private. Too much delegation to citizens runs the risk of creating societies where individuals have to take care of themselves in increasingly polluted environments, while interpreting complex data about controversial environmental dangers. And not every community can afford to purchase expensive monitoring devices or test food in a consistent manner.

Citizen scientists also risk reproducing forms of ignorance around certain hazards. In post-Fukushima Japan, what is meant by the “science” of citizen science is often synonymous with a tracking and monitoring agenda, where individuals resort to the very same technologies and knowledge forms used by states, nuclear lobbies, or radiological protection agencies.

Yet many anthropologists and historians have argued that what we know (and don’t know) about the extent of radiation hazards and dangers was embedded in a culture of secrecy, denial, and propaganda that was shaped by the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Considerations over international security and political stability were often prioritized over the safety of workers or citizens who had been exposed to radiation. As a result, some of the negative effects of radiation were downplayed through different tactics.

One such tactic, which was witnessed after Fukushima, occurred through the reframing of radiation risks as simplistic and natural, unrelated to the specific risks associated with Fukushima. For instance, the government distributed pamphlets that explained that radiation naturally exists in our food, such as the potassium levels present in bananas.

Yet such information is irrelevant to the hazards of internalizing fission products from a nuclear power plant. While bananas have naturally occurring potassium, it would require eating around 20 million bananas to get radiation poisoning. On the other hand, each radionuclide released during nuclear meltdown events like Fukushima possesses specific biological signatures and presents particular risks when inhaled or ingested. During my fieldwork in Fukushima, I witnessed that this legacy of misinformation was carried on by some citizens who unwittingly replicated these propagandist forms of knowledge by making similar naturalistic or overly simplistic comparisons.

As citizen science efforts grow, it is also critical to consider to what extent citizen involvement might put individuals at risk of adverse health effects. This is a tricky question when one considers that certain members of the population, like children, are more sensitive to radiation than others. In Fukushima, some Japanese parents have understandably opted to evacuate rather than rely on citizen science, arguing that doing so would expose their children to unacceptable levels of radiation and that forcing children to be responsible for their own safety is unethical.

Citizen scientists are hardly homogeneous groups, as mothers, farmers, and urban citizens do not experience hazards and recovery in the same way. In that regard, factors such as gender, employment, and social class strongly influence why people enter citizen science, how science is mobilized, and how data about a controversial hazard ends up being interpreted. For instance, people like Natsuo have used the results gathered by citizen science to highlight the dangers of living in Fukushima, while other citizen science organizations help bring people back to their beloved region. These conflicts can result in even more fragmented communities and conflicts within and around citizen science.

5Public protests and outcries from parents increased as distrust deepened toward the government’s response to ongoing radiation pollution from the Fukushima meltdown.

 

With the continuing uncertainties, frustrations, and misinformation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can expect civil society to rise up—perhaps as it did in the months and years following the Fukushima disaster. Indeed, early on in the pandemic’s spread across the U.S., there were calls for citizens to submit their COVID-19 symptoms, with the aim of tracking the rise of cases and filling in for incomplete testing at the federal and state levels in order to aid public health efforts.

Another citizen science initiative attempts to produce real-time epidemiology by enlisting individuals to use their smartphones to fight COVID-19. We have also seen a rise in 3D printing or DIY medical equipment, such as nonmedical face masks, to meet the urgent demand. The Citizen Science Association lists dozens of citizen science resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like in Fukushima, these movements will have unintended societal implications, legal ramifications, and ethical impacts—especially as they surround issues of public health safety, patented medical technologies, or data quality and interpretation amid the surge of a novel virus replete with uncertainty.

Yet, more strikingly, citizen science perhaps best demonstrates how lay people can directly draw from their own experience and scientific tools so as to provide concrete solutions beyond the traditional top-down control measures that too often epitomize post-disaster policies. In that regard, Masayuki once angrily told me, “For us, state experts are people who have 90 percent of knowledge (shiru), but no wisdom (wakaru)!”

In Japanese, two words—shiru and wakaru—can be used for the verb “knowing.” Shiru means “to find out” or “to learn.” It implies a process of acquisition of knowledge and information. Wakaru, on the other hand, is closer to “understanding this knowledge.” Shiru comes before wakaru, and in a way, one can know but not necessarily understand. Wakaru consequently shows a greater and more personal level of comprehension often based on a given context.

For Masayuki, state institutional experts possessed shiru, but not wakaru. Having been directly affected by radioactive contamination, Masayuki strongly believed that the inhabitants of a place, the jūmin (literally, the people who resided) were best suited to manage their life in a post-Fukushima Japan.

* Pseudonyms have been used to protect people’s privacy.

https://www.sapiens.org/culture/fukushima-citizen-science/

July 20, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , | Leave a comment

Citizen science takes on Japan’s nuclear establishment

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Joe Moross, center, and Pieter Franken, right, teach Kohei Matsushita how to assemble one of Safecast’s Geiger counter kits at the group’s Tokyo office on July 6, 2016.

As other Tokyo office workers poured into restaurants and bars at quitting time one recent evening, Kohei Matsushita went to the eighth floor of a high-rise for an unusual after-hours activity: learning how to assemble his own Geiger counter from a kit.

Hunched over a circuit board, the 37-year-old practiced his soldering technique as Joe Moross, a former L.A. resident with a background in radiation detection, explained how to fit together about $500 worth of components – including a sensor, circuit board, digital display, GPS module, battery and case.

“My family has a house near a nuclear power plant,” Matsushita said, explaining his motivation. “I want to take this there and collect data, and contribute to this pool of information.”

“This pool” is a stunning set of data – 50 million readings and counting, all logged and mapped on a website anyone can see – collected by volunteers with self-built equipment. Known as Safecast, the group was founded just days after the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that shocked Japan in March 2011.

Though the immediate threat of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has waned, interest in Safecast’s data has not. The organization, which takes no position on nuclear power, is supported by foundations, grants and individual donations.

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Safecast teaches Japanese citizens how to monitor radiation

Volunteers from Safecast teach people how to build geiger counters that are networked together to give them access to realtime data about radiation levels remaining after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down as a result of an earthquake and tsunami.

Part of the growing movement known as citizen science, the idea is to give people the knowledge and the tools to better understand their environment, and make more informed decisions based on accurate information.

Trust in both nuclear power plant operators and the government has not fully recovered since the disaster. As authorities push ahead with the contentious process of restarting dozens of nuclear reactors taken off-line in wake of the disaster, Japanese like Matsushita say a network of monitors controlled by ordinary people could serve as an early warning system in the event of another disaster.

Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration continues with its extensive effort to decontaminate areas around Fukushima Daiichi and reopen evacuated towns and villages, potential returnees say they want a way to verify official numbers that indicate radiation really has dropped to safe levels.

“They want people to come back, but there’s no decontamination in the forest areas and those cover 75% of this village,” says retired engineer Nobuyoshi Ito, 72, who in 2010 opened an eco-farm retreat in Iitate, about 20 miles northwest of the nuclear power plant. Recently, he had Safecast install a radiation monitor at the retreat, which is still in a restricted zone.  “We have to check ourselves.”

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Joe Moross straps a GPS-enabled Geiger counter the size of a small brick to the back window of his red station wagon on the outskirts of Tokyo and begins a 16-hour day driving north through the most contaminated areas around the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the last five years, he calculates he’s driven 90,000 miles gathering data for Safecast.

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Joe Moross has driven 90,000 miles gathering data for Safecast. A Geiger counter equipped with a GPS module hangs from the back window of his station wagon.

 

Through a Bluetooth connection, he can monitor the Geiger counter’s readings on his cellphone as he goes. But he also keeps a mental log of more qualitative signs of the region’s transformation.

“That 7-Eleven reopened in 2014,” he notes as he nears the town of Tomioka. “That Family Mart came back in 2015.” In the town of Naraha, he gasps. “That’s the first rice growing in the fields here in five years!”

Along the way, he passes several dozen fixed-point radiation monitors installed by the government along the roadsides. Their solar-powered, digital displays provide readouts in microsieverts per hour (μSv/hr); today’s show relatively low readings from 0.1 to 3.8 between the towns of Hirono and Minamisoma. That is less than what one would be exposed to on a long flight, although that exposure lasts only as long as the flight.

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A roadside sign installed by the Japanese government south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant displays radiation readings.

Moross’ much more granular, mobile data, recorded every five seconds and uploaded to the Web the next day, generally matches the government signs, though when passing near the Fukushima plant, Moross’ counter produces readings above 4 μSv/hr. (Not long after the disaster, Safecast found readings higher than 30 in the region).

In the town of Iwaki, Moross drops in on Brett Waterman, a 51-year-old Australian who’s been teaching English in the area for 11 years and was having some technical issues with a Safecast monitor.

“Like most people, I knew nothing about radiation” when the disaster hit, says Waterman, who acquired an early Safecast Geiger counter through Kickstarter and has since upgraded to more sophisticated models as the group has refined its designs. Waterman says the data indicate Iwaki is now safe, but it’s important to keep generating frequent readings to provide a reference of what’s “normal” in case circumstances change.

Safecast holds regular sessions for adults to teach them to assemble their own devices and is planning a kids’ workshop as well. Plans and directions for building the devices are also available online for free. Organizers say that people who build their own monitors are much more motivated to use them.

“If they just buy one, they may use it once, throw it in a drawer and never upload any data,” says Moross. “If they make it themselves, they’re more invested.”

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Safecast’s tiny Tokyo office feels like a combination tech start-up, old-school shop class, and comedy club for middle-aged expats. As Moross inspects Matsushita’s soldering progress, English teacher Jonathan Wilder, 59, is busy gathering switches, resistors, batteries, and sensors and parceling them out into plastic bags that will become kits for Safecast’s current workhorse Geiger counter, known as the bGeigie Nano.  

Moross and Wilder trade jokes as Azby Brown, 60, an expert on traditional Japanese architecture, sits at another table typing up news for the group’s blog; he has just led Safecast’s efforts to publish its first scientific paper, in the Journal of Radiological Protection. Pieter Franken, a Dutch expatriate and chief technology officer for a large securities firm, looks over some materials for the group’s upcoming kids’ workshop.

“Safecast is an interesting social experiment, in a fairly anarchistic kind of way,” says Franken, one of the group’s founders. “It taps into trends including maker-spaces, the Internet of things and even artists. We attract people who want to break out of the traditional way of solving problems.”

Safecast grew out of an email conversation among Franken, L.A.-based tech entrepreneur Sean Bonner and MIT Media Lab director Joichi “Joi” Ito immediately after the March 11, 2011, disaster. As the Fukushima crisis unfolded, Safecast’s effort to produce and distribute Geiger counters and collect data snowballed, drawing in more expertise and volunteers. The group has successively iterated smaller and smaller Geiger counters with more functionality for data collection.

In the last five years, Safecast volunteers have taken radiation readings all over the world, from Brisbane, Australia, to Santa Monica. The group is also working on monitoring air quality in Los Angeles and elsewhere; recently, volunteers took methane readings around Porter Ranch during the gas leak there. Now, Safecast is trying to figure out how to depict that kind of data meaningfully online.

Moross says the potential applications for citizen-based environmental monitoring are vast, pointing to incidents such as the recent scandal over the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Mich., as an example of where deeper community-based scientific knowledge could have improved debate and policymaking.

“Flint and Fukushima have parallels,” says Moross. “Democracy should start from facts, and we need to give citizens facts to understand what’s happening.”

Safecast has taken heat from both pro- and anti-nuclear activists, Brown says. “But if people spend some time with us, they find we are valuable.” Even Japan’s postal service has cooperated with Safecast, putting its monitors on carriers’ motorbikes in some towns and gathering data.

Safecast’s goal now is, essentially, “base-lining the world,” says Franken, crowdsourcing environmental data from every corner of the Earth.

“We should start with measuring our environments,” he says. “Then we can talk about things like global warming and air pollution; from there, activism can start. Once you know, for example, that your street is polluted, you can start to make a change. That’s where we can make a difference.”

http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-japan-safecast-snap-story.html

July 27, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , | Leave a comment