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‘Citizen scientists’ track radiation seven years after Fukushima

11th March 2018
Safecast now has around 3,000 devices worldwide and data from 90 countries
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Japanese priest Sadamaru Okano is one of the ‘citizen scientists’ collecting radiation readings in the Fukushima region.
 
JAPAN – 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, 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 did not tell us the truth, they did not 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 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.”
 
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.
 
“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 did not exist and the only way to solve that problem was to go and build it ourselves. So that is what we did.”
 
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A geiger counter operated by the Safecast group is attached to a fence near the stricken Dai-ichi power plant
 
 
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.”
 
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.
 
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Japanese teacher Norio Watanabe works with Safecast to teach his pupils how to measure radiation
 
 
‘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.”
 
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 radiation 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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March 15, 2018 Posted by | Fukushima 2018 | , , | Leave a comment

A book “Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima”

978-0-8223-6199-2_pr
By Kimura Aya Hirata (August 2016)
Description
Following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011 many concerned citizens—particularly mothers—were unconvinced by the Japanese government’s assurances that the country’s food supply was safe. They took matters into their own hands, collecting their own scientific data that revealed radiation-contaminated food. In Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists Aya Hirata Kimura shows how, instead of being praised for their concern about their communities’ health and safety, they faced stiff social sanctions, which dismissed their results by attributing them to the work of irrational and rumor-spreading women who lacked scientific knowledge. These citizen scientists were unsuccessful at gaining political traction, as they were constrained by neoliberal and traditional gender ideologies that dictated how private citizens—especially women—should act. By highlighting the challenges these citizen scientists faced, Kimura provides insights into the complicated relationship between science, foodways, gender, and politics in post-Fukushima Japan and beyond.
About The Author(s)
Aya Hirata Kimura is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the author of Hidden Hunger: Gender and Politics of Smarter Foods.

November 17, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , , , | Leave a comment

Food contamination fears after 3/11 make the invisible visible

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Radiation brain” was a pun that made the social media circuit after March 11, 2011, deriding people whose brains () had become unduly contaminated with fears about radiation after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They had, people claimed, “radiation brains” (hoshanō), a kind of soft-minded hysteria that made them figures of fun but also figures of potential danger to society and the economy. Their lack of confidence in government regulation of foodstuffs, people argued, became the source of harmful rumors that hurt farmers and dairy producers in disaster-affected areas. Such citizens, usually mothers in charge of providing meals for their children, were reckless in their caution.

Aya Hirata Kimura, a sociologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, presents case studies of mothers with such anxieties and examines citizens grappling with post-Fukushima food safety concerns in “Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination After Fukushima.” Kimura does not make claims about the extent of actual dangers to the food supply, but she does argue that the reality of the post-disaster threat is far from certain. The government, in other words, may be right about the limited health risks posed by irradiated produce, dairy, and meat; but skepticism on the part of citizens is a rational, rather than a hysterical, response. She also examines the various constraints that made many citizens — mothers, in particular — turn to scientific activities such as running citizen radiation-measuring organizations rather than engaging in out-and-out criticism of government and industry responses to safety concerns.

Immediately after the disaster, many expected a surge of specifically anti-nuclear political activism in Japan, and indeed protests and demonstrations flourished in the spring and summer of 2011. However, just five years on from the worst nuclear disaster in decades, political activism remains a fringe activity. Part of what interested Kimura was why citizens seemed to be “more concerned than outraged.” As she noted recently, “so many seem to be perplexed why Japan, after the major nuclear accident, has not seen transformative politics.” Her book offers some answers to that question.

Kimura makes the point that avoiding confrontational politics and direct dissent is not, as is often claimed, a characteristic particular to Japanese culture. It’s a characteristic particular to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is one of the key concepts that guides Kimura’s analysis, and she traces how the neoliberal shift to limited government, rule of the free market, and individualism has determined what kinds of demands citizens in post-Fukushima Japan can make of their government. In a neoliberal society, the government is no longer responsible for ensuring citizens’ rights to safety, economic factors rule in cost-benefit analyses and the good neoliberal citizen is willing to take on individual risk and make individual choices, while they are less willing to act collectively.

Alongside neoliberalism, Kimura introduces us to the concepts of scientism and post-feminism. Scientism indicates a tendency in which science holds authority in society to determine the “reality” of controversial and uncertain situations, although culture and society influence the creation and application of science itself. Post-feminism is the idea that systematic oppression of women has been eliminated and collective feminist activism is no longer necessary, since motivated individual women can empower themselves.

An example of how these three larger forces of neoliberalism, scientism and post-feminism play out in post-3/11 society and constrain citizen activism is the case of fūryōhigai, or harmful rumors. The term “fūryōhigai” apparently originated in the 1980s, and indicated a decline in seafood sales because of nuclear reactor accidents. After agricultural producers in areas near the distressed Fukushima No. 1 plant suffered economic losses, the term gained new currency and shifted blame onto concerned consumers, particularly “radiation brain” moms, and away from government and business interests. The prioritization of economic recovery and the individual consumer’s responsibility to participate in this effort reflected neoliberal priorities. The view of scientism insisted on the scientific authority of nuclear experts, although many of those experts had an interest in promoting nuclear power, and the science of post-Fukushima health impacts remains contested. Contradictory demands placed women at the center of controversies about food safety as mothers responsible for the health of their families but also as targets of gendered stereotypes of women as particularly unscientific and irrational, while the post-feminist social context deterred them from making collective political demands of the powers that be.

The role these three ideologies play in Kimura’s analysis might put off a nonacademic reader, but Kimura employs them to make the power dynamics to which we are all subject visible, much as her citizen scientists labor to make the invisible threat of radiation visible. Speaking about her book, Kimura noted that “all these ‘-isms’ tend to be normalized and taken for granted.” So scientism, for example, makes science’s objective authority something that is taken for granted in spite of the fact that science is shaped by social forces. Kimura works to make the ideologies of neoliberalism, scientism and post-feminism visible, because “invisibility is at the crux of their power. The more they are named, the less they can masquerade as apolitical.” Just because we cannot see these forces does not mean that they do not impact our world, and they are very real in their consequences for potential political activism.

Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists, by Aya Hirata Kimura. 224 pages Duke University Press.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2017/02/04/books/book-reviews/radiation-brain-moms-citizen-scientists-aya-hirata-kimura-224-pages/#.WJZl1fLraM8

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Workers at a consumer safety center in the city of Fukushima prepare to conduct radiation checks in March 2012 on vegetables brought in by residents

February 5, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima

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by Aya Hirata Kimura (Author)

Following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011 many concerned citizens—particularly mothers—were unconvinced by the Japanese government’s assurances that the country’s food supply was safe. They took matters into their own hands, collecting their own scientific data that revealed radiation-contaminated food. In Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists Aya Hirata Kimura shows how, instead of being praised for their concern about their communities’ health and safety, they faced stiff social sanctions, which dismissed their results by attributing them to the work of irrational and rumor-spreading women who lacked scientific knowledge. These citizen scientists were unsuccessful at gaining political traction, as they were constrained by neoliberal and traditional gender ideologies that dictated how private citizens—especially women—should act. By highlighting the challenges these citizen scientists faced, Kimura provides insights into the complicated relationship between science, foodways, gender, and politics in post-Fukushima Japan and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

Review

“Riveting and smart, Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists tracks the efforts made by citizens in post-Fukushima Japan to ensure the safety of their food from radioactive contamination. In the face of state neglect and criticism from fellow Japanese, these initiatives display a ‘soft’ boldness (versus activist politics). Interweaving stories of citizen scientists and ‘radiation brain moms’ with sharp theoretics that deconstruct the entanglements of science, neoliberalism, and postfeminism at work, this book is at once powerful and timely.”

(Anne Allison, author of Precarious Japan)

“Based on careful research, extensive fieldwork, and a judicious use of political and feminist theory, this book’s relevance to political and social developments extends beyond Japan’s borders. It is a reminder of the ongoing effects of the Fukushima disaster in Japan at a time when these effects are being increasingly ignored by the global media. A timely and important book, Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists will appeal to scholars of contemporary Japanese society as well as science and technology studies scholars, especially those interested in the gender dimensions of science and technology.”

(Tessa Morris-Suzuki, author of Borderline Japan: Foreigners and Frontier Controls in the Postwar Era)

About the Author

Aya Hirata Kimura is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the author of Hidden Hunger: Gender and Politics of Smarter Foods.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01IZOKQWE

October 7, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , | Leave a comment