9 Mars 2013
March 8, 2013
TWO YEARS ON: NPO continues volunteer activities to provide radiation data in Fukushima
By KAZUHIRO TAIRA/ AJW Staff Writer
As the crisis started to unfold at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, tech-savvy individuals on both sides of the Pacific banded together to help fill the void of information that residents so desperately needed.
For Pieter Franken, his role in the venture was more personal. His Japanese wife had relatives in a city devastated by the tsunami that led to the nuclear accident on March 11, 2011. He also feared for the future of his daughter in Japan.
Safecast, a cross-border nonprofit organization, was set up through online communications one week after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. Since then, volunteers have been exchanging technologies and expertise to help measure radiation levels in the disaster areas and making the information freely available on the Internet.
"Sharing the data not only gives people a sense of assurance, but doing so also helps us know what we should be doing next," said Franken, 45, the director for Safecast operations in Japan. "We have so far made a total of 7 million measurements."
Most of the data has been obtained from portable radiation detectors, called "bGeigies" by Safecast staff. They currently have about 80 bGeigies.
The letter "b" stands for "bento" (lunchbox). The devices are contained in waterproof plastic cases the size of a bento and are designed to be mounted on the side windows of cars and elsewhere. They are configured to measure radiation levels at five-second intervals while in motion.
The readings are recorded automatically, along with the time and location provided by the Global Positioning System.
A bGeigie in a car traveling 60 kph, for example, will take radiation measurements every 80 meters, allowing Safecast to obtain crucial raw data in areas that residents frequent, including residential streets, school commuting routes and school neighborhoods.
They have also installed 300 fixed sensors.
"Radiation levels can vary considerably during the course of short walks," Franken said. "It's nonsense that a single measurement by government authorities is used to represent readings over a broad area."
About 50 core activists and 100 volunteer radiation monitors, including many local residents, currently work for Safecast.
The NPO has also helped measure radiation levels at the request of local governments.
The readings are offered for public view on the Safecast website (http://safecast.org) in simple visualizations. The original, unprocessed data is also available for anybody to download and use.
Franken, a native of the Netherlands, has worked in Japan as an information technology expert since arriving in 1987 as a university student. He is currently a senior executive director and the chief technology officer at Monex Inc., a securities house.
After the magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, Franken was unable to enter the affected areas, including hard-hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where his wife’s relatives were living. They survived.
He said he had an overwhelming desire to do anything to help, not the least for the future of his then 8-year-old daughter. Specifically, he wanted to use his expertise and skills in information technology.
Around that time, Franken was contacted by Joichi Ito, an information technology entrepreneur who is now director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Ito was contacting people online to arrange measures to help victims of the disaster.
The ensuing discussions pinpointed the need for more radiation data.
Volunteers in the U.S. state of Oregon set up a website to help display maps of radiation levels provided by the Japanese and U.S. governments and other sources. But that effort underscored the shortage of such data.
An online network of people helped assemble the necessary resources--human, cash and material. The "human resources" included Jun Murai, a computer communications professor at Keio University who is known as the "father of the Internet in Japan," and Ray Ozzie, a former chief software architect with Microsoft Corp.
By way of "cash," an online public subscription fund collected $37,000 (3.5 million yen) from about 600 donors.
In "material" terms, a California-based manufacturer International Medcom Inc. provided two portable radiation detectors, a vital piece of equipment that had been extremely difficult to procure.
Members of the network, some of them based overseas, gathered in Japan to exchange ideas. They visited the disaster areas and further honed their plans.
Franken first set foot in a disaster area in late April 2011, more than a month after the multiple disasters.
In Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, about 60 kilometers from the stricken nuclear plant, Franken saw a local volunteer fret over the unavailability of radiation levels in places he frequented.
When Franken handed him a portable detector, the volunteer even used the device to test the soles of his shoes.
"The man was very angry," Franken said. "He said the actual readings were far higher than the radiation levels released to the public."
Franken has now visited disaster areas nearly 50 times. He said Safecast’s readings show that radiation levels have fallen 30 to 50 percent in most areas, and up to 70 percent in some locations, over the past two years.
The science ministry said March 1 that surveys conducted by helicopter in October and November showed that radiation levels within an 80-km radius of the Fukushima plant decreased by an average 40 percent year on year.
Ministry officials added that a difference in the measurement methods made it impossible to provide comparisons with radiation levels during the early phase of the disaster.
Attitudes in the disaster areas have changed in a variety of ways over the past two years. While some residents are willing to work as volunteer radiation monitors, others have said they don't want to see any more data on radiation levels, according to Franken.
He added that people overseas continue to ask him if it is safe to be in Japan.
People unfamiliar with nuclear terminology would be at a loss if they were told that the radiation level is 0.1 microsievert per hour in Iwaki, about 40 km from the Fukushima plant.
"But people do understand when I tell them that the level in Iwaki is about the same as in New York or Los Angeles or can be lower in some localities," Franken said.
International Medcom this month plans to begin selling to the public assembly kits for Safecast's "bGeigie Nano," which weighs 400 grams and costs $450, less than half the weight and price of the bGeigie. Franken developed the assembly kits.
"We want to continue measuring radiation levels over the coming decade," Franken said.
"What was not possible when Chernobyl occurred has become possible by using the combined power of ordinary citizens."