A High School Student’s experience Safecasting

My name is Richard Zajac and I am a senior at a St. Louis, MO High School. I first learned about SafeCast when I began looking for information about the radiation levels in Japan in preparation for a visit filming a documentary. I soon discovered that SafeCast was the best source of this data, and that awareness of this data and these efforts should to be raised.

I spent my first few days in Tokyo at the Tokyo Hackerspace (Safecast’s ‘Operation Center’) I soon learned that an eclectic group of radiation industry experts, hardware and software experts, and all-around innovation minded individuals was hard at work developing this ‘Just-in-time’ system to track static and fluctuating radiation throughout Fukushima and Japan.

Meeting Night

Arriving early, we took a tour of the ‘Safecast HQ’, and soon began that evening’s meeting. MAKE Magazine’s Phillip Torrone highlighted the importance of Open Source hardware, and we bantered back and forth about the need for hands-on education in the classroom.

Safecast’s hardware, including the bGeigie was discussed, and we dove into some of the difficulties of measuring radiation in food and water, namely that water blocks the radiation from being detected more than lead plating. After managing to track down ten (rare) CRM-100 Geiger counters, which are integral to Safecast’s devices, I gave them to SafeCast just after this meeting ended.

Typhoon Roke

The next morning, we returned to Safecast HQ as the outer bands of the Typhoon began to roll in, and conducted interviews with Pieter, Joe, and Stig. We learned that the source of food in Japan must legally be disclosed but that ‘source’ defines the farmers market at which the food is purchased, not the farm on which it was grown. This leads to confusion regarding if food is safe, and its potential radioactive content. We also learned how the level of radiation distribution is nonlinear, as in it does not spread in concentric circles as evacuation zones would suggest, and there are high levels spread throughout cities well outside any evacuation area. We spent the next part of the afternoon measuring radioactive samples, including soil from Fukushima.

I used the remaining time to build a bGeigie (with the help of Pieter and Joe) and better understand the history of this turnkey device.

We had planned to travel north and conduct interviews, including one with a Keio University professor, but as the Typhoon set in, and paralyzed the train system, it soon became clear this leaving Tokyo was out of the question.

Safecasting Koriyama

On Thursday, I accompanied Safecasters Pieter and Joe in their Nissan Wingroad north to do some ‘Safecasting’, We mounted a bGeigie (the one built yesterday) and set out for the Fukushima province.

After watching the radiation readings slowly climb, we reached J-Village, the boundary of the legal ‘no-go zone’, and turned onto the coastal highway at the roadblock. This was my first sight of the Tsunami damage, and a firsthand realization that levels only 12-miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant could be lower than my hotel in Tokyo.

Joe theorized that the Tsunami debris and standing water might have blocked much of the radiation from penetrating the ground. A woman stopped us while we were out taking measurements, and was eager to get information about the safety of her home and area, as well as how to become involved in the monitoring process.

We hit the road again, this time headed to Koriyama to interview three high school students about my age. They shared with me their feelings about the disaster, and were eager to try out the gadgetry we had brought along from the Tokyo Hackerspace. The hotel we had booked to conduct the interview kicked us out because they didn’t want anything to do with radiation, or radiation measurement. I resisted the urge to request the Safecast maps be changed to ‘HOT’ for this hotel, which was actually one of the safest places in the city.

After relocating to a nearby community center, I conducted the interview. Afterwards, the students and I embarked on an afoot-excursion to a playground whose sand had been replaced after contamination was discovered, and measured the improvements.

The take-away here is that this city, more than 60 km away from Fukushima Daiichi was even more contaminated than the coastline just 12 miles from the melted reactors. I am reluctant to make the call as to the safety factor of the town, as I am not a trained expert in the field, but I feel it is important to put the levels in perspective, and make the readings known.

“Hibakusha”

The most memorable thing for me came in the form of a conversation with the parents of the three students, and the townspeople of Koriyama. They shared with me a deep concern for the welfare of their children, not endangered by the radiation, but by the prejudice of the rest of Japan in a word they called ‘Hibakusha’, or ‘Radiation-affected-ones’. They are truly worried about the ability of their kids to get jobs, spouses, and achieve acceptance in the national culture. This word was originally coined to describe the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for whom the above fears came true, and they now fear this will happen to their people, and perhaps already has. This was the most emotional moment for me on the trip, and most memorable. It added a humanity perspective to the scientific work of the good people at Safecast, and left me with a strong enough impression that it feels like a good title for the documentary. Thanks to Pieter, Joe, and all those involved for helping this experience happen. It is my sincere hope that Safecast’s rapid rollout can help avoid a second wave of ‘Hibakusha’.

Best,

Richard Zajac

High School Student – Whitfield School

St. Louis, MO