Citizen science takes on Japan’s nuclear establishment — Los Angeles Times

” 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.

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.

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.

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.” ”

by Julie Makinen

source with video

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Fukushima parents find relief from radiation at indoor playgrounds — Ari Beser, National Geographic Fulbright

” FUKUSHIMA, Japan—One of the biggest health problems facing Fukushima after the 2011 nuclear disaster are not directly caused by radiation exposure.

Instead, it’s the fear of exposure that has driven rates of childhood obesity in the past five years, according to the Director of Internal Medicine, Dr. Sae Ochi, M.D. who has spent the last five years researching the social impact of the nuclear disaster.

Parents who are worried about their children being exposed to radiation have discouraged them from playing outside, which has led to more sedentary activities among Fukushima youth.

Their fears are not unfounded. For one, radiation levels have decreased in the prefecture, but not disappeared entirely, according to safecast, the citizen science radiation monitoring program.

And children are most susceptible to radiation exposure, according to the American Thyroid Association. It can cause underactive thyroids, thyroid nodules, and even cancer in kids.

“Its not that the parents shouldn’t fear radiation,” says Ochi, “it’s just that radiation concerns have led to unhealthy practices, when it should be the opposite. People living in areas where radiation lingers should take steps to eat healthier, to move more to combat their exposure. Instead we are seeing the opposite. In lieu of eating vegetables, even vegetables from outside Fukushima, people are eating processed junk food, and fast foods, and staying at home at developing sedentary lifestyles.”

Though radiation-related problems may take years to manifest in children, the consequences of a lack of exercise and physical exertion are immediate.

Enter PEP Kids Koriyama, a free, publicly funded indoor playground 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of the crippled nuclear reactor in the city of Koriyama, where parents can let their kids loose without the threat of radiation.

The Benimaru supermarket chain donated the space, which used to be a storage facility, and the local city government funded the transformation into an over-the-top play area outfitted with all of the amenities a kid could want.

The playground’s interior represents Fukushima’s geography. A giant ball pit with a swing is Lake Inawashiro, Japan’s pacific coast, and mountains are painted on the wall. There’s also an indoor sand garden, a giant moon bounce, play houses, and even a kitchen.

“People come from all over Japan to come here. We even get families who evacuated Fukushima as far as Tokyo that come back for the day and let their kids play here,” said Midori Ito, director of PEP Kids. Koriyama is not technically in the evacuation zone, and anyone who chooses to leave receives no compensation.

“I love that I can take my kids here,” mother Chime Fukase told me over the din of cheering and shouting children.

“I can’t say that my concern about radiation is at zero. … I have nowhere else to take my family. I’m grateful for PEP kids to give my daughter a place to enjoy herself,” says Fukase, who is expecting another child.

PEP Kids isn’t Fukushima Prefecture’s only indoor escape: Fukushima City has its own indoor skate park and sports facility called Channel Square. Owner Manabu Tara modeled the facility after Channel Street Skate Park in San Pedro, California.

There people can ride their boards on the ramps, practice yoga, eat and drink at the café, or attend meetings about radiation concerns at the Fukushima 30-Year Project, an NPO that researches the radiation exposure that shares space with the indoor park. It’s name is based on the 30 year half life of the most prevalent radioactive contaminant in Fukushima, Cesium 137.

But unlike PEP kids, Channel Square isn’t publicly funded—which means it’s been more of a challenge to keep Channel Square going.

“Japan doesn’t really have a crowdsourcing culture,” says Tara, “so we have to be creative about how we raise money. We want to compensate for the lack of public land the kids can play on for free, so we don’t want to raise the entrance fee.”

“However if we don’t have money,” he says, “we can’t exist.” ”

source