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PART 2: Radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi: What should be done?



For their part, representatives of the government and TEPCO I have spoken with invariably stress how important it is to them to reach understand and agreement with all stakeholders, the Fukushima fisheries coops in particular, and to respond to their concerns in the decision-making process. They say they are fully prepared to accommodate the fishermen’s desires regarding the quantity and timing of releases, how they will be monitored, and how to adjust the release parameters in response to what is found after the system begins operation. And although when I point out that concern is not limited to fishermen in Fukushima, but that coops in Miyagi and Iwate, as well as Ibaragi and Chiba also consider themselves stakeholders, and that in fact residents internationally along the entire Pacific rim have already expressed concern, officials voice agreement but cannot point to any concrete efforts to communicate with or include anyone outside of Fukushima or the Tokyo power centers. In the same way, the concerns of major food distributors such as supermarket chains, who ultimately make the decision whether or not to purchase and sell Fukushima marine products nationwide, do not seem to be being addressed.

Shuji Okuda, METI’s Director for Decommissioning and Contaminated Water Management, Nuclear Accident Response Office, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, stressed that no decision has yet been made which of the five options for dealing with the tritiated water detailed in the 2016 Task Force report will be chosen. In other words, although TEPCO, government ministries, and stakeholders are proceeding as if it’s a done deal, no-one with decision-making power has yet made a decision. “It will be a decision of the Japanese Government as a whole,” Okuda explains, “not one made by any single agency. And it will be based on ample discussions with all stakeholders.” Since the release of the Task Force Report in 2016, METI has been discussing the social impacts quite a lot, he noted. They are particularly concerned about “damaging rumors”- fuhyo higai – that will result from any tritiated water release, and have been discussing how to counter them. He continues, “Because the risks have been demonstrated to be very low, it’s less a question of safety, and more one of potential public reaction and reputational damage. We plan to hold further discussions with stakeholders and the general public to increase understanding.” Regarding international communication efforts, he points to English-language materials and reports the ministry releases, but says that since any impacts will involve primarily Japanese local area, information dissemination overseas is limited to experts, administrative officials and some media.”

METI recently announced that meetings will be held where the public can hear explanations of proposed solutions and comment on them. The Subcommittee on Handling Water Treated by the Polynuclide Removal Facility is one of several Japanese government committees organized by METI tasked with formulating a response to the problem of the radioactive water. The planned public sessions were announced at its eighth meeting, on Friday, May 18th. This is a step in the right direction, and is long overdue. Nevertheless it may well be a case of “too little, too late.”

METI, Subcommittee on handling water treated by the polynuclide removal facility, 8th meeting May 18, 2018 (Report regarding upcoming public hearings on tritiated water problem – in Japanese)

Good public communication about the release plan, the ocean science it involves, and what the expected risks are and why, cannot by themselves guarantee public acceptance. But this kind of communication is essential, particularly with such a globally contentious and high-profile issue like releasing radiation into the ocean. The public needs to know the environmental effects, health effects, how it will be monitored, what transparency measures are in place, what the process for adjustment and revision will be. Almost two years have elapsed since the Tritiated Water task Force released its recommendations, and a broad and energetic stakeholder engagement and information effort should have been ongoing since then. But such efforts are now only in the planning stage. It seems that METI and other ministries have been paralyzed, faced with taking responsibility for a politically damaging decision, forced to acknowledge that they support the plan but unable to take concrete steps to implement it or prepare the public. TEPCO, while it accepts its responsibility for the decision, seeks full government support, including robust public communication efforts. It seems extremely unlikely to act without a clear government decision in favor of the release and stipulating its timing. We should be prepared for the government to remain paralyzed until the last possible moment, when crisis is imminent, and then to announce a decision suddenly, justifying it by saying that time has run out and that it “can’t be helped.” As a colleague pointed out, this is, unfortunately, the Kasumigaseki way.*

When asked what the official position of TEPCO was regarding the plan to release the water, Kohta Seto of TEPCO’s Communication Development, Fukushima Daiichi Decontamination and Decommissioning Engineering Company, replied, “We recognize that comprehensive examination of technical and social factors is ongoing currently at the national subcommittee. Our response policy will be made in consultation with the government and related stakeholders based on the subcommittee’s discussions.” This echoes METI’s assertion that no decision has actually been made. But in fact the Tritiated Water Task Force, the subcommittee referred to, has been dormant for over a year, and any further recommendations will come from the higher-level METI Contaminated Water Countermeasures Committee and from the NRA.

Others at TEPCO have acknowledged that the company feels ultimately responsible, and is confronted with a decision that could further damage others. Takahiro Kimoto, General Manager, Nuclear Power & Plant Siting Division, Fukushima Daiichi D&D Engineering Company, notes that under the existing plan and at the current rate, by 2020 there will be no more space to store additional tritiated water onsite at Daiichi. Constructing the dilution facilities and pipelines that the release would require is expected to require almost a year of preparation after any decision is made. At the current rate, that means the “go” signal must be given by early 2019 at the latest. Though TEPCO expects that measures such as the frozen wall and subdrain pumps will continue to reduce the amount of treated water that needs to be stored, nevertheless they recognize that there is a narrowing window for decision and action. The company has no plans to try to obtain land offsite to further expand tank space, which could provide an additional margin of time. Though feasible technically and cost-wise, this would be a stopgap measure that merely delays the decision to deal with the tritium more permanently by the other means already being considered. Kimoto explained that the company does not want to act independently. “The policies can’t and shouldn’t be determined by TEPCO alone, but we continue discussing the available options with government and other stakeholders. How much to empty the tanks, how that should be done to minimize environmental consequences, how to maintain trust and transparency, who we need to engage with on this matter, these are all issues we seek stakeholder engagement on. These discussions are taking a long time, but we consider them essential.” Put bluntly, TEPCO knows they will be the bad guys in this scenario no matter what, and prefer to have as broad support as possible.


I initially approached this issue as one of transparency and the need to include a broadly-defined base of stakeholders in the decision-making process and subsequent monitoring of the results. That has been experience of SAFECAST, which prioritizes transparency and impartiality, and tries to get as many people involved in environmental monitoring and decision-making as possible, with unprecedented positive results. We have seen similar benefits where citizen groups in Japan monitor food and their own environments, and seek and often gain a vital voice in decisions that affect them. The Fukushima fisheries coops, TEPCO, and METI all said they would welcome transparent, independent, ongoing third-party monitoring of seawater and marine life if and when the tritiated is released. TEPCO and METI say they understand the need for transparency, and are prepared to change their institutional cultures in order to better accommodate it. Okuda of METI observed, “Having accurate data available to the public won’t by itself ensure adequate understanding, but in the end it is essential.”

Based on many conversations, however, I’m not sure enough people in these organizations fully grasp what true transparency means. Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who has been monitoring Fukushima radiation effects in the ocean since immediately after the start of the disaster, started a very effective crowdsourced program to monitor radiation in the Pacific Ocean along the North American coast. He has long complained of the difficulty of getting adequate access to ocean zones close to Daiichi for scientific research. Regarding the need for transparency and independent monitoring he says, “When I talk about independent monitoring, I don’t mean JAEA or IAEA, or other big government-connected institutions, but universities, NGO’s, and other independent research labs.” He adds, “Even before the decision to release the water is made, someone should get a detailed accounting for what is in each tank for all of the radionuclides of concern, not just that they are below detection (using high thresholds), as the large volume of water means even seemingly small amounts add up. This needs to be independent of TEPCO or whoever is in charge of dumping.”

Buesseler and others share my opinion that robust and effective communication is essential, not to persuade the public that official plans are acceptable, but to better equip them to participate in the debate in an informed way, and to push back where they feel it is necessary. More effort should be made in communicating in general, and this requires a better-educated and more scientifically literate public, which means ongoing efforts that begin years before crisis renders it necessary. Independent groups should be involved in interpreting data and presenting the results in a way which does not damage their independence. It may be necessary to set funds for this aside where they cannot be controlled by government or industry. In the case of the tritiated water at Daiichi, though this kind of transparency and engagement will be essential, it will need to be accompanied by appropriate communication efforts. Those responsible for this should not underestimate the challenge or think it can effectively be rolled out in a short period of time.

According to METI, the content, location, and timing of the upcoming public sessions will be discussed at the next subcommitee meeting in July. People unable to attend in person will be able to submit comments and questions via email. Though hastily-planned events could possibly be held before the end of this year, it seems likely they will need to happen in 2019, bumping up against the decision deadline. While some fishermen are likely to attend, the cooperatives themselves will likely refuse. This situation requires the actual involvement of citizens in the decision making process, but it is difficult to find instances of that actually happening in Fukushima since the accident in 2011. At the central government level in particular, it has almost always been DAD — “Decide, Announce, Defend.” Government planners must think seriously about how prevent this from becoming just another clumsy photo-op, a fig leaf that will allow the government to claim it has adequately consulted the public.


Regardless of whether one trusts scientific opinion or TEPCO, the tritiated water cannot be left in the tanks at Daiichi indefinitely, and releasing it to the ocean, though not without risk, is the least objectionable of the available options. As it stands now, given the depth of public mistrust and the nature of misinformation in our current era, the situation is ripe for the maximum misunderstanding and negative social impact to occur if and when this tritiated water is finally released. Unfortunately, I think we should be prepared for things to be done the “Kasumigaseki way,” with much insincere hand-wringing and expressions of regret. There will be negative social impact no matter what, but unless responsible government officials step up soon, own the decision, and ensure that public engagement is genuine, broad, and effective, these negative impacts will be unnecessarily magnified.

* Kasumigaseki is the part of Tokyo where central government functions are located.  It’s similar to Capitol Hill.

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.

June 7, 2018 Posted by | Fukushima 2018 | , , | Leave a comment

PART 1: Radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi: What should be done?


850,000 TONS

Of all the conflicts and consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP disaster, the contaminated water issue is one of the most complicated, contentious, and potentially long-term. It’s a multifaceted problem ultimately rooted in the influx of groundwater into the damaged reactor buildings. A large volume of water is pumped into and out of the damaged reactors each day to keep them cool. This is treated to remove salt and most radionuclides and recirculated back into the reactors. If there were no additional water leaking into the reactor basements, this could function as an essentially closed loop. But a volume equal to the additional groundwater inflow needs to be removed from recirculation. It too is treated to remove all radionuclides except tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen known as H-3, and is being stored in the now familiar rows of tanks onsite at Daiichi. A partially effective underground dam of frozen earth, together with a system of subdrain pumps, has reduced the volume necessary to be removed from about 400 cubic meters per day to about 150-200 cubic meters (though appreciably more when it rains heavily). About 850 large tanks now hold 850,000 tons of tritiated water, and TEPCO says that it will run out of space to store additional water onsite by 2020, so something must be done soon. As far back as 2014, the IAEA recommended a controlled release of this water to the ocean as the safest course of action, and Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA) has made similar recommendations. A Tritiated Water Task Force convened by METI in 2013 examined five options in detail, including evaporating it and releasing it into the atmosphere, releasing it into the atmosphere as hydrogen gas, injecting it into deep geologic strata, storing it underground, and diluting it and discharging it into the ocean. For reasons of cost, available technology, time required, and safety, in its final report issued in June, 2016, the task force concluded that ocean discharge was the least objectionable approach. TEPCO has made it clear that this is its preference as well, and in July of last year Takashi Kawamura, chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc., said publicly that the decision to release the tritiated water had already been made. Many people were alarmed, particularly Fukushima fishermen who expected to be consulted, and the company backpedalled immediately. So far no decision has been officially announced. The reason for the delay in the decision is the very reasonable expectation of a strong public backlash. Meanwhile the window for the decision to be made is rapidly closing.

METI Tritiated Water Task Force Report, June 2016 (English version)

Preliminary Summary Report: IAEA International Peer Review Mission On Mid-And-Long-Term Roadmap Towards The Decommissioning Of Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Units 1-4
(Third Mission), Feb. 2015

Japan Times: Regulator urges Tepco to release treated radioactive water from damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the sea, Jan. 11, 2018

Japan Times: Fukushima’s tritiated water to be dumped into sea, TEPCO chief says, July 14, 2017

TEPCO: Response to the article about the release of tritiated water into the ocean, July 14, 2017

Asahi Shimbun: New TEPCO executives tripping over their tongues, July 20, 2017



The strongest and most meaningful opposition comes from Fukushima’s fisheries cooperatives, which have suffered tremendously due to the disaster. Not only were their ports and fishing fleets destroyed by the tsunami, but the market for their fish collapsed after the sale of 44 marine species was prohibited by the Japanese government in 2011 due to radioactive contamination. The public seems largely unaware that in the years since the bans were initiated, the percentage of Fukushima marine products exceeding the 100 Bq/kg allowable level of radioactive cesium has decreased rapidly, and has actually been zero since 2015. People are right to be skeptical of this, perhaps, but it has been confirmed by official testing, by independent researchers, and by testing done by independent citizen groups. Testing is done for each marine variety on a fishing ground-by-fishing ground basis, and as they have gradually been demonstrated to meet the requirements, 34 of the 44 initially banned seafood varieties have been allowed back on the market. Thanks to incrementally improving consumer confidence, the market for Fukushima seafood has slowly improved. The Fukushima fisheries coops justifiably fear that if the tritiated water is released to the ocean, the resulting consumer backlash will totally destroy their livelihoods once again.

Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations

Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF): Results of the monitoring on radioactivity level in fisheries products: Summary of Monitoring on fishery products (As of Mar. 31, 2018)

METI has jurisdiction over contaminated water releases from nuclear reactors like Daiichi because it is responsible for overseeing energy production systems as a whole, including accident consequences. The NRA, which is part of the Environment Ministry, has specific jurisdiction for nuclear power, and its evaluations and guidance are also important. But ultimately the decision of whether or not to release the tritiated water is TEPCO’s. A company spokesman explained to me recently that government guidelines and recommendations are taken very seriously, and that the company goes to great lengths to meet government expectations. But ultimately these recommendations are non-binding. TEPCO hopes to get the green light from METI and the NRA, and all of them have been delaying their decisions in the hopes that the approval of the fisheries coops can be obtained as well.

On the face of it, this hope is not totally unfounded, as there is an important precedent. The fisheries coops have been approving the release of water from two specific sources onsite at Daiichi for several years. One is a bypass system uphill of the reactors that intercepts groundwater before it reaches the reactor area. The other is a subdrain system that pumps water from the area around the reactors. In both cases, the water has relatively low levels of radioactive contamination, and is treated to remove radionuclides and then tested by TEPCO and third-parties (JAEA and the Japan Chemical Analysis Center). If the radioactivity is lower than TEPCO’s self-imposed target levels of 1 Bq/L each for Cs137 and Cs134, 5 Bq/L for Gross beta (including strontium), and 1500 Bq/L for tritium — all of which are many times lower than the limits for drinking water set by the WHO — the fisheries coops agree to its release. This agreement has been in place since 2014 for the bypass water, and since 2015 for the subdrain water. It appears to have been functioning smoothly, with over 350,000 tons of bypass water and about 500,000 tons of subdrain water released so far. The participation of third-parties in the monitoring has been the key to gaining trust in the measurements.

TEPCO – Water Discharge Criteria for Groundwater Bypass, February 3, 2014

TEPCO – Groundwater pump-up by Subdrain or Groundwater drain


The tritium in the tanks at Daiichi is much more radioactive than the subdrain or bypass water, however. The concentration levels of tritium in the tanks ranges from about 0.5 to 4 million Bq/L, a total of about 0.76 PBq (trillion Bq) in all. No decision has been made about how much is likely to be released per day, but technical and cost estimates have been based on 400 cubic meters (tons) per day, roughly equal to the maximum daily inflow of groundwater. It is expected that releases would continue for about five years. Under the scenarios being discussed, the water would be diluted to 60,000 Bq/L before being released to the ocean. This number alone seems alarming, but is the concentration level that has been legally allowed to be released from Japanese nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities such as Tokaimura for decades. The science regarding what is likely to happen to the tritium in terms of dispersal by ocean currents and effects on fish and other biota is fairly well understood, primarily because of decades of monitoring done in Japan and near similar facilities abroad, such as Sellafield in the UK and LaHague in France. Data from the French government shows that the LaHague reprocessing plant releases about 12PBq (12 trillion Bq) per year, and the maximum concentration of tritium in the surrounding ocean has been about 7Bq/L. This means that the amount released yearly from LaHague is over 12 times the total being stored at Daiichi, and the daily release rate is over 20,000 times that expected in Fukushima. Dr. Jota Kanda, a professor at the Department of Ocean Sciences, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, observed that the dispersal and further dilution of tritium is rapid, and says, “Based on what we’ve seen at La Hague, it seems likely that under the ocean release scenario being considered now, tritium concentrations in the ocean off Fukushima will not exceed a few Bq/L and will likely remain close to the background level.” Globally, the background levels of tritium in water currently range between 1 and 4 Bq/L, which includes 0.1 to 0.6 Bq/L that is naturally-occurring and more than doubled by tritium remaining from nuclear testing. In oceans, tritium concentration levels at the surface are around 0.1 to 0.2 Bq/L. For comparison, naturally occurring tritium in rainwater in Japan between 1980-1995 was between 0.5- 1.5 Bq/L, and prior to 2011 in Fukushima rivers and tap water was generally between 0.5-1.5 Bq/L. In the US, the EPA standard for tritium in drinking water is 740 Bq/liter, while the EU imposes a limit of 100Bq/L.

Fujita et al, Environmental Tritium in the Vicinity of Tokai Reprocessing Plant. Journal of Nuclear Science and Technology, 44:11, 1474-1480

Matsuura, et al, Levels of tritium concentration in the environmental samples around JAERI TOKAI. Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry, Articles, Vol. 197, No. 2 (1995)295-307

METI Task Force Report supplement: About the physical properties of tritium,
Yamanishi Toshihiko, 2013

LaHague tritium release data, cited in METI Task Force Report supplement, p6

Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII): A survey of tritium in Irish seawater, July 2013

IRSN factsheet: Tritium and the environment

Michio Aoyama: Long-term behavior of 137Cs and 3H activities from TEPCO Fukushima NPP1 accident in the coastal region off Fukushima, Japan. Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry, 2018

Tsumune et al: Distribution of oceanic 137Cs from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant simulated numerically by a regional ocean model. Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 111 (2012) 100-108

Povinec, et al, Cesium, iodine and tritium in NW Pacific waters – a comparison of the Fukushima impact with global fallout. Biogeosciences Discuss., 10, 6377–6416, 2013

Dr. Kanda further explains that biological organisms such as fish have different concentration factors for different radionuclides. When the ambient level of Cs137 in seawater is 1 Bq/L, for instance, some fish species may show values approaching 100 Bq/kg. But for tritium (H3) the ratio is 1:1, and 1 Bq/L in seawater will result in 1Bq/kg in fish. Again, at La Hague, which has had a much higher release of tritium for decades, the concentrations in marine wildlife near the point of release between 1997-2006 has ranged from 4.0 – 19.0 Bq/kg, with a mean of 11.1 Bq/kg. Using this as a guideline, Kanda estimates that even with an ongoing release of 60,000 Bq/L of tritium offshore of Daiichi, the fish a short distance away are unlikely to exceed 1 Bq/kg. This can, and must be, confirmed by conscientious monitoring.

What about health effects to humans? Though the release from Daiichi would be many times smaller than what is ongoing from LaHague or Sellafield, and the levels in the ocean after release seem likely to be close to that in normal rivers and rainwater, it is understandable that people would be concerned about risk. The scientific consensus is that tritium presents a much lower risk than radionuclides such as radioactive cesium, radioactive iodine, or strontium. This is reflected in allowable limits in drinking water which are generally tens or hundreds of times higher for tritium than for these others, ranging from 100 Bq/L in the European Union, 740 Bq/L in the US, 7000 Bq/L in Canada, 30,000 Bq/L in Finland, and 76,103 Bq/L in Australia. The WHO limit for tritium in drinking water is 10,000 Bq/L. Allowable limits in food have in most cases not been established. While these limits reflect a general scientific consensus that tritium presents a very low risk, the wide range of official values suggests scientific uncertainty about how it actually affects the human body.

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC): Standards and Guidelines for Tritium in Drinking Water, 2008


Because in its most common form, known as HTO, tritiated water behaves almost identically to water, it is eliminated from the human body with a biological half-life of 10 days, the same as for water. But when it is incorporated into living things or organic matter, a fraction of it binds with organic molecules to become organically bound tritium, known as OBT. In this form it can stay in the body for years, and its risks, while assumed to be fairly low, are not fully understood. Dr. Ian Fairlie, a UK-based researcher who has published widely on the risks of tritium exposure, believes that current guidelines underestimate the nuclide’s true risk. Fairlie points out that there is a long-running controversy among experts regarding the risks of OBT, which many believe are higher than official guidelines currently recognize. Many official agencies, like France’s IRSN, have issued reports that recognize these uncertainties, and Fairlie believes that the research findings indicate that the dose from OBT should be increased by a factor of 5 compared to HTO.

Fairlie: Tritium: Comments on Annex C of UNSCEAR 2016 Report, March 14, 2017

IRSN factsheet: Tritium and the environment

In the ocean release scenarios being considered in Fukushima, Fairlie agrees that there will be high levels of dilution. Nevertheless, as the tritium disperses, he says, “It will be found throughout the entire ocean food chain.” The ICRP suggests that 3% of the tritium metabolized from water by marine life becomes potentially riskier OBT, while the IAEA estimates the fraction at 50%. IRSN and others caution that the biological exchange of tritium and other aspects of its action in organisms, such as the effects of exposure on embryos and foetuses, is incomplete. The METI Tritiated Water Task Force report of June 2016 explains that, “When standard values pertaining to radioactive material in food were established [in Japan] in 2012, it was concluded that “it is difficult to conceive of the concentration of tritium in food reaching a dose that would require attention.” This must not be assumed to be the case. Any estimate of risks to humans from tritium exposure should take the uncertainties as well as the possibility of higher risk from OBT fully into account. That said, the roughly 1Bq/kg maximum expected by experts to be found in fish off Fukushima after release is roughly from 100 to 70,000 times lower than drinking water limits around the world. Assuming that 3%-50% of that 1 Bq/kg is OBT, with a potentially higher risk factor, the human exposure risks from this scenario nevertheless appear to be extremely low, close to those of normal background radiation. The Japanese Gov’t is arguing that it is negligible.


TEPCO, METI, and other government bodies which share the mandate for dealing with contaminated water from Fukushima Daiichi believe there is no scientific reason to prevent releasing the tritiated water into the Pacific. For them, the largest stumbling bock is the lack of approval from the Fukushima fisheries cooperatives. As described above, these coops agreed to other releases of treated water from Daiichi as long as it’s compliance with safety regulations could be independently confirmed. Since the science indicates similarly minimal risk from releasing the water from the tanks after considerable dilution, what is their objection now? “We are totally opposed to the planned release,” explained Mr Takaaki Sawada of the Iwaki Office of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, known as FS Gyoren. “It’s not a question of money or compensation,” he continued, “nor of any level of concentration we might accept as safe. There aren’t any conditions we would set, saying ‘If you satisfy these conditions then we will agree.’ We do not think it should be our responsibility to decide whether or not to release it. That entire discussion is inappropriate.”

Over the course of our long conversation, Sawada frankly acknowledged that the scientific consensus indicates very low risk if the water is released. “It’s not a question of scientific understanding,” he said. “We understand that tritiated water is released from other nuclear power plants in Japan and around the world. But we think it will be impossible for the public in general to understand why tritium is considered low risk, and expect there will be a large new backlash against Fukushima marine products no matter how scientifically it is explained.” I pointed out that the coops agreed to the release of the subdrain and bypass water from Daiichi, and asked what was different about this. He pointed out that in those cases, the water is pumped out before it is contaminated, and the public seems to understand that the contamination levels are already very low.

Fisheries coops, or kumai, are organized at each fishing port, of which there are 14 in Fukushima, only 2 of which, in Soma and Iwaki, are now operating commercially. The Fukushima coops have a total of about 1400 members at present. FS Gyoren is a prefectural federation, or rengo kumiai, that exists to facilitate communication and cooperation among the individual coops. There is a national rengo kumiai as well, called Zengyoren. These are not companies, and are not top-down organizations. Rather, each local port kumiai maintains independence. And though in meetings with Tepco or the government FS Gyoren communicates the concerns of members based on the kumai’s own meetings, no real full consensus has been reached regarding the proposed releases. It is a difficult situation with many possibilities for dissatisfaction and dissent. As an outside observer, I expected that some trust-building conditions, such as more transparent and conscientious monitoring, or further limits to the concentration and quantities released, could be satisfied which would allow the coops to agree to the ocean discharge. But now I think they won’t budge, particularly after TEPCO chairman Kawamura’s surprise announcement last summer that the decision had already been made without their approval. The kumiai will, I think, force the decision to be made against their strong opposition. I think they’re right that Japanese society is primed for a large backlash against Fukushima seafood no matter what the science and measurement shows.

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast’s lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.

June 7, 2018 Posted by | Fukushima 2018 | , , | Leave a comment

Citizen science takes on Japan’s nuclear establishment


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.


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.”


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.


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.



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.”


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.”

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