How I spent my Sunday in Fukushima

The Safecasting drives officially started after my last trip to Japan, so I’ve been watching from afar as Pieter and an ever growing volunteer team of total heros have set out time and time again to try and map the radiation levels in the areas surrounding the Fukushima plant, as well as the rest of Japan. Knowing that I was going to be back in Tokyo for a number of Safecast meetings and the Radiation Seminar at the same time that Miles O’Brien and Xeni Jardin were going to be working on a story for PBS News Hour that had some focus on Safecast, organizing a drive seemed like an obvious option.

Me, @xenijardin & @noktonlux heading to Fukushima. #safecast

This morning Pieter, Xeni and I (pictured above) set out with Miles, along with father/son superteam Joe and Bryan Moross. The plan was to drop off a few Geiger counters with volunteers and try to cover some some new ground, perhaps near the exclusion zone. But it ended up being so much more.

Miles O'Brien

(While Miles and Xeni were filming throughout, those bits were for PBS and will certainly be available sometime in the future, so this account is mostly my own observations, unless noted all photos are also by me.)

The day began in Shinjuku around close to 7:30am when we picked up a rental car, this was a large group with a lot of gear so we had a need for two vehicles and the usual Safecast car on it’s own wasn’t quite enough. We wasted no time and started driving north. Depending on where you are in the city, background radiation levels in Tokyo hover right around 50 CPM which is only slightly higher than what we believe they were prior to 3/11 though we weren’t measuring things then so can’t be positive. For our purposes we are assuming the average around the country was 35 CPM which is worth noting before I start mentioning numbers going forward. It wasn’t too long in our trip before we hit our first hotspot in Nasu.


Elevated readings

This way to Fukushima

Our first stop was Nihonmatsu which is not too far from Koriyama to meet up with some volunteers in the area and hand out a few new sensors for them to take measurements with. We met at restaurant and of course started measuring things the moment we set foot in the parking lot. Levels were noticeably higher than we’d seen just a few hours prior in Tokyo.

Over 300 CPM air contamination here

Close to 3000 CPM surface contamination

Another bit worth noting here in case you haven’t been following along with the work Safecast has been doing so far, surface contamination is much higher than air contamination. There are two main reasons for this – “Fallout” literally means this radioactive crap fell out of the sky and found it’s new home on the ground, and much of contents of said crap are beta emitters. Beta radiation is lower energy than gamma so you need to get close to it to measure it – which in this case is the ground. If you only measure the air you miss the betas all together. Anyway. Surface is higher than air, and around 3000 CPM on the ground in the parking lot here is 10X the air levels.

As occasionally happens when we are measuring out in public, people approach us to find out what we’re doing.

JAM asking

Speaking with residents who are very stressed out because they haven't been able to get any info from the govt

People are curious, and often they are concerned.

Hiroko Ouchi was both. On top of that she was upset.

She said that she hasn’t been able to get any information about the levels around them, the levels they are living in from the government or TEPCO. She said at first she wasn’t concerned because residents were told everything was fine and not to worry, but over time people started taking readings on their own and hearing about readings taken by others that suggested things weren’t all fine and this really stressed her out. This area is far enough away from the plant that no one is being officially evacuated, which means anyone who wants to leave has to do it on their own and pay for it themselves. This has caused a lot of trauma in the community as some people leave and some people stay. Ouchi-san said it is very upsetting for people to be in this position and have their questions go unanswered.

Discussions with locals

Concerned folks

Miles filming the conversation for PBS

Ouchi-san went on to say that she’s most worried about the younger people and children who might not have the means to move away, as they are the ones who could suffer most in the long term from exposure to this radiation. She was excited to learn about the mapping that Safecast was doing and took our cards so she could see the site and maps when she got home. Before leaving she thanked us repeatedly and expressed sincere gratitude for our efforts, and again extreme disappointment that the government hasn’t done the same.

This was a totally unexpected event but helped put us in the mood for the rest of the day. Before heading out we have new Safecast volunteer Washiyama-san a brand new bGeigie so he can help map the area street by street. If all goes well we’ll get him several more devices in the coming weeks for his whole team to put to good use and then send the data back to us.

Washiyama-san, safecast volunteer

Once back in the car we decided to head east and see how close we could get to the exclusion zone. We watched the readings rise and fall, though generally increase on the whole the further we went. We have a device outside of the car, and several inside taking readings. At many points we would see a 25% increase depending on which side of the car we pointed a device towards. Very quick changes in very small areas here. At one point things seemed to be increasing very rapidly and at much higher jumps than we’d seen previously. We were so distracted by the drastic readings that we almost ran right into a roadblock staffed by several police officers who were standing around in the street.

We turned past them and drove down the road a short ways and then stopped to look at our devices which were completely blowing up.

Approx 16,000 CPM surface here

On my last transatlantic flight I measured over 800 CPM on the flight. Seeing over 1000 CPM in the car was a bit shocking, opening the door and putting the device on the ground in the middle of the street and seeing it climb, in a matter of seconds, to almost 16,000 CPM was, well, I still don’t even know how to describe it. I was completely taken aback by this. We were maybe one city block from where the officers were standing – outside and unprotected and decided we needed to go back and talk to them.

Officer at roadblock at 20km line

Speaking with the officers

The officers were very polite and happy to talk to us. We asked them if they were concerned that they were standing outside all day with no protective gear and they told us their bosses have assured them it is perfectly safe and so they have to trust them. We told them about the readings we’d taken just steps from where they were and offered to show them personally that the levels were incredibly high – they declined saying they needed to trust the authorities. Which was weird, because to most people – they are the authorities. We measure radiation all the time, and were noticeably shaken after seeing the readings we just had, and these guys were being told there was nothing to worry about. Suddenly some sort of commanding officer arrived and told us we had to leave and everyone stopped talking to us. Like turning off a switch.

We got back in the car and drove about 1km away the other direction away from the roadblock.

Road closed 1km ahead

There was a small restaurant that was closed up and seemed like a good place to stop, take some measurements and talk about what had just happened. This was the first time I realized there wasn’t anyone else around really. All the buildings I could see were closed up, no cars, no lights, no one home. From the look of the weeds and growth, they had been gone for quite some time.

This restaurant had signs taped in the window saying basically “Sorry we are closed for an undetermined period of time. Will try to reopen in the spring.”

Unfortunately I think that’s being a bit optimistic.

Sorry we're closed

Overgrown. Abandoned.


It was here that we took our highest and most concerning readings of the day. The parking lot of the restaurant was active, but less than we’d just seen. But when we walked across the street – maybe 10 feet away, we measured over 20,000 CPM and 9 µSv/hr. We pulled out our SAM 940 to try and identify the isotopes and found things we weren’t expecting at all. So we grabbed some samples to send to a lab for professional analysis and got out of there quick.

We drove for a little ways until we found an area with fairly low levels where we felt safe stopping to film a few interviews for the PBS piece. This was a good 10-15 minutes away from the barricade we’d just encountered and the area was still a ghost town. No one anywhere. With the exception of the sound of a nearby stream, complete silence. Until a police officer rolled up.

Officer: "you aren't from around here are you..."

He started off with the Japanese variation of “You folks aren’t from around here are you…” He was friendly and once convinced we weren’t looters left us on our own. Over the hour or so that we were in the area we saw a police car every 10 minutes or so, at least, but no other people. This was pretty striking, I’d prepared myrself for what I thought I was going to see, but sometimes it’s what you don’t see that gets to you.

Empty streets

Vacant houses

This stream was the only thing we could hear.

Nobody's home

Taped shut

Looters beware

While the people had clearly packed up and moved out, that didn’t seem to translate to the animals. First of all there were giant wasps dive bombing us all day. Luckily no one got stung, but seriously these things had to be close to 3″ in length. Much less scary but more heartbreaking was the pets that had for one reason or another been left behind. We several dogs, with collars and a cat who hung around us. All of them looked fairly skinny despite that there seemed to be several bowls of food left around for there. All the animals seemed a bit nervous and cautious, some came closer than others, all left pretty quickly. Almost as if they were looking for something, or someone. There was also a sign with photos of dogs that had been found and rescued – hoping their owners would claim them. That sign was from May 1st, and hadn’t been updated so no idea what happened next.

Scaredy cat


Rescued pets

Not forgotten

Abandoned pets

As we were starting to wrap up a car drove by and came to a quick stop. Two gentlemen got out, one of them was a reporter for Asahi TV and the other was Tadao Mumakata, a resident of Koroyama who is working on a way to produce geiger counters locally. They knew about Safecast and were excited to run into us. We talked for a while and then decided to go get some food before heading back to Tokyo.

We stopped at a smallish family restaurant and talked about our plans and goals, geiger counts and what we’d learned – hoping to pass some of this on and hopefully help someone skip over some of the early mistakes we’d made ourselves. They were happy for the info and we exchanged contacts for further discussion.

Tadao Mumakata (@telejapan)

(Above photo, with me in it talking to Mumakata-san taken by Xeni)

We bowed, shook hands, and went our separate ways. Back to Koriyama for them, and back to Tokyo for us. Our drive was going to take a few hours longer. Finally around 2:30 am we made it back and started dropping people off at their respective houses/hotels. But no spare moment could be wasted. At the final stop we uploaded the log files from the bGeigie – the geiger counter we had mounted outside of the car all day logging radiation and mapping it against GPS points. This produces a map of the whole drive, and dumps the data into our full database, filling in a few more pieces of the big picture.

And it really is a big picture. These places have never had the kinds of detailed measurements we’re taking, and the measurements that have happened haven’t been shared openly with the residents – who without question are the ones who need to have that info the most. I’ve known this since we started the project but seeing it first hand today and hearing people thank us for trying and for caring was heavy. This project is important and I’m so honored to be a part of it, and so glad to have others involved who have done the impossible to get us this far already.

(photo by Pieter Franken)

I was back in my hotel room by 3am, and I’ve spent the last 3 hours putting this report together while it was all still fresh in my mind. I have a flight to Los Angeles in a few hours, so now it’s time to sleep. As much as it’s annoying to end this on a begging note, driving two cars (granted we usually only need one) around Fukushima all day, including gas and tolls clocks in at just shy of $500. We’ve got a paypal donate button on the top right hand side of this page. If you wanted to throw $5 or $10 our way it would help us chip away at that and help fuel the next one.

About the Author

Sean Bonner


Sean Bonner is a co-founder and Global Director of Safecast. Based in Tokyo, he's an Associate Professor at Keio University and an Associate Researcher at the Center For Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab.