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Safecast Draws on Power of the Crowd to Map Japan’s Radiation

November 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Eight months after a tsunami caused a nuclear accident in Japan, ordinary people are using new technology and the power of crowdsourcing to find radiation hotspots. NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports from Japan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tracking the spread of radiation in Japan eight months after the tsunami caused a nuclear accident.

Japanese people are using new technology and the power of crowdsourcing to find hotspots.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the second in a series of stories from Japan.

MILES O’BRIEN: In Japan, these days, you never know where you’re going to find a hotspot. We are at a highway rest stop halfway between Tokyo and Fukushima, and we are looking for the kind of hotspot you would just as soon avoid.

PIETER FRANKEN, Safecast Japan: On the roof, the cesium didn’t really stick very well, so it all flushed down and when it hit the concrete or the stone here, it bonded. So this is like a micro hotspot.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s just another Sunday drive for Pieter Franken and his Safecast team of volunteer radiation contamination gumshoes using inspiration, perspiration, sensor technology and the Internet to paint a much clearer public picture of the Fukushima fallout.

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It is crowdsourcing of science in action.

BRYAN MOROSS, Safecast volunteer: We are about 60 kilometer to Fukushima. We should be there in about an hour. We should be there around 12:30.

MILES O’BRIEN: We were heading north to the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, about 40 miles away. We gather radiation readings in the air and on surfaces with Geiger counters in and outside of the vehicle. Using a handful of devices, we measured raw radiation levels, counts per minute, as well as becquerels and microsieverts, which calibrate the raw numbers to their impact on human beings.

SEAN BONNER, Safecast: So these are the microsieverts. You can see they’re considerably lower than they were just a few minutes ago.

MILES O’BRIEN: Sean Bonner is one of the founders of Safecast, an all-volunteer organization that has plotted the most detailed maps of radiation contamination in Japan since the nuclear meltdown in March.

Radiation doesn’t fit that nice, neat little disk they want to paint on the map, right?

SEAN BONNER: Right. Right. Yes. Radiation isn’t looking at a compass radiating outward.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. That’s right. It’s a very arbitrary thing.

SEAN BONNER: Yes. There’s like wind and topography and this crazy stuff that ends up playing into it.

MILES O’BRIEN: Wherever they go, they draw a crowd, a curious, nervous, thankful crowd. In a restaurant parking lot in Nihonmatsu, about 60 kilometers from the nuclear plant, we met Hiroko Ouchi.

“I’m worried about my children and grandchildren,” she told us. “Thank you for measuring. Thank you for your hard work. The government doesn’t release the accurate figures of radiation.”

MAN: Thank you very much. Thank you for working so hard. Thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: But it’s not just a lack of data. There is also a tradition here of not sharing it.

JOI ITO, MIT Media Lab: Japan is notoriously bad about certain types of transparency. And it’s not — this isn’t a new thing that TEPCO covers things up.

MILES O’BRIEN: Joi Ito sparked the birth of Safecast in the desperate days right after March 11. Director of the MIT Media lab, he naturally took to the Internet to try to stay abreast of events in his home country. The scarcity of reliable information prompted him to reach out to experts all over the world. Things snowballed very quickly.

JOI ITO: Within days, we had an email thread that turned into a Skype channel where all of us were constantly there talking. And it really became kind of like across between a sort of government situation room and newsroom, where we were collecting data and just sort of putting new things out, and just trying to get everybody involved that we could.

And it just kind of took a life of its own. We started to realize how important it was when it turned out that the government wasn’t releasing data.

MILES O’BRIEN: The day before we took our drive, Safecast volunteers offered up a seminar on radiation detection in Tokyo. It was standing room only for the talk and many stuck around to get some advice on how to accurately measure the radiation around them.

Many Safecast volunteers come from the computer hacker community. Their intuition and ingenuity led them to design and build some novel devices to gather radiation data.

Akiba (ph) — he doesn’t use his surname — showed me what they call a B-geigie.

What does that stand for?

MAN: Bento geigie. So, when we originally designed it, we tried to design it to be like roughly the same form and factor as a bento, so that’s easy to carry around. Like, a bento is a Japanese lunch box.

MILES O’BRIEN: But instead of sushi, this box contains a Geiger counter, a GPS receiver and an S.D. Card. It costs $850 to build, but Safecast is making them available to volunteers for free.

During our drive north, the Safecast team delivered a B-geigie to Hideki Washiyama (ph), who lives about 90 kilometer from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“It is hard to get high-quality Geiger counter,” he told me, “but I don’t want to use cheap devices made in China or Korea.”

There are plenty of cheaply made, yet disturbingly expensive Geiger counters in Japan. The Fukushima meltdown created an instant global shortage of good-quality sensors. Concerned people in Japan and elsewhere sparked overwhelming demand.

Dan Sythe produces good-quality Geiger counters in Sebastopol, Calif. He says that the shoddy devices so commonly found in Japan are extremely dangerous.

DAN SYTHE, Iospectra-International Medcom: Because people are waving these over their food and thinking the food is safe to eat or they’re thinking that where they’re living is safe and safe for their children to go to school. So it’s — I think it’s almost criminal to produce things that don’t work.

MILES O’BRIEN: Sythe’s small company is shipping out as many Geiger counters as it can, giving priority to Japan, and specifically Safecast.

Volunteer Joe Moross says more comprehensive monitoring is the first step to understanding the real danger.

JOE MOROSS, Safecast volunteer: I don’t think that ordinary people can make a good valuation of the risk, because even the specialists are in quite a bit of disagreement as to what the real risk is.

MILES O’BRIEN: And so the reaction is, I want none. If you don’t know, give me zero, right?

JOE MOROSS: Well, everybody agrees, no matter — you can’t find anyone who doesn’t agree that lower is better, that less radiation is less harmful.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ironically, much of what we know about the effects of an acute dose of radiation comes from studying Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. But radiation contamination at the level found here is a ticking time bomb with a fuse that burns for decades.

There is no question ionizing radiation alters human cells, which can cause cancer and genetic defects, but how much exposure and for how long? The science, like the readings, is all over the map.

This is the town of Minamitsushima (ph). We are about 28 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, about one kilometer from the police barricade announcing the involuntary exclusion zone. This area, 20 to 30 kilometers, is a voluntary exclusion zone. And you don’t see anybody around, for good reason.

PIETER FRANKEN: Yes, this is very high here, really high. We are looking at air one meter, around 7.2 — to 7 to 8 microsieverts per hour. We’re looking here at around 24,000 counts per minute on the pancake and about roughly about 800,000 becquerel per square meter. It’s about 25 times what we’re seeing in Tokyo on the surface.

MILES O’BRIEN: It was five microsieverts per hour, most likely cesium 137, which has a half-life of 30 years. It is the equivalent of six chest X-rays every day, not a problem for us to be here for a short while in street clothes, but how long before people could live here again?

PIETER FRANKEN: If you wanted to get this down to levels that are considered normally to be safe, which will be under 0.3 microsieverts per hour, you would probably look at much more than 20 years or 30 years.

MILES O’BRIEN: But down the road, at the exclusion zone checkpoint, the police officers ordered to be here are hoping for the best.

You don’t worry?

MAN (through translator): They have told us there that we’re OK, so we just need to trust them.

MAN: I agree.

MILES O’BRIEN: Do you trust them?


MAN (through translator): That is what our bosses say, so we need to trust our bosses, yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: But Safecast believes people should trust in the data, and the more people who are gathering it, the better. Volunteers are designing a new, sleek, inexpensive Geiger counter that they hope to begin distributing in the spring.

But the nonprofit is not stopping there or here.

JOI ITO: I think the goal really is, when we started to try to solve the data scarcity problem about Japan, we realized that there was a systemic problem in the way that data is collected and disseminated and interpreted everywhere. And we’re already starting to think about, how do we measure pollution, how do we measure all kinds of other things?

And so, I think a lot of things will come out of this incident. And, so, this democratization of science is really, really important in fixing the world’s problems, because it’s not going to happen top-down.

MILES O’BRIEN: Are you guys anti-nuclear, or do you take a position? Or are you just…

SEAN BONNER: No. No, not at all.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re just pro-data.

SEAN BONNER: We just know that there’s data that exist and there’s data that should exist. And creating it, the data doesn’t take a side one way or the other. And so if we just can get the data and give it to the people that are being immediately affected by it, then that’s a good thing.

MILES O’BRIEN: With light dimming, our Sunday drive for data ended here in the town of Katsurao, adding about 12,000 readings to a database of more than 1.25 million.

No one is here, only the police, making sure we were not looters. And so it is hard to say if this lonely dog will ever see its owners again.

Do we have anything to feed him?

Sadly, no amount of data-gathering can change that fact or erase this scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have launched something new on our Science page online. It’s called Science Thursday. Each week, we will feature a fresh video, slide show or blog post. Tonight, find photos and a story about the fate of dogs and cats abandoned in the exclusion zone. Plus, Miles talked with Hari about his reporting trip to Japan.