Safecasting the IAEA

Day 1, Feb 16, 2014

Joe and I are in Vienna this week to attend an IAEA expert meeting which starts Monday. SAFECAST was invited to make a presentation about our methods and results, and I’ll be the one giving the talk, which is on Tues. afternoon, Feb. 18.

Information about the meeting can be found here:
IAEA International Experts’ Meeting on Radiation Protection after the Fukushima Daiichi Accident (IEM6), 17-21 February 2014, Vienna, Austria

We debated quite a bit about whether we should participate or not, for a number of reasons. There’s the possibility that our participation would only serve to make the IAEA look good, as in “inclusive and open-minded,” without leading to any constructive dialog.  We recognized that it could also be counterproductive for us, if people felt that we had compromised our independence by agreeing to participate. But our communication with the IAEA staffers who contacted us has been surprisingly candid and gave us the strong impression that many people within the organization are truly interested in what SAFECAST has been doing, and feel that specialists who are unaware of our methods and results would benefit from learning about them. They were also hoping we would have a lot of critical things to say. At the same time, the organizers opened themselves up to criticism by including us, because we are not “established” as legitimate experts in the field.

The conference begins in a few hours. We don’t kid ourselves that anything will change quickly, or at all, because of what we bring to the table. But we think this is a rare opportunity to have our criticisms heard at the highest levels, and a chance to set a precedent for the inclusion of independent, third-party voices in this process.

Vienna as a whole has very normal levels of ambient radioactivity, but the granite base of the statue of Goethe is a bit hot.
[Vienna as a whole has very normal levels of ambient radioactivity, but the granite base of the statue of Goethe is a bit hot.]

Day 2, Feb 17, 2014

The conference began this afternoon, and the registration process meant going through fairly thorough security and receiving photo ID badges. Most of the presentations today were intended to provide an overview of government and regulatory agency efforts to date, and to update people about the current state of the environment, decontamination, health, etc.. Japanese representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), and National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) spoke, and since all talks are given in English, this presented a challenge for some of them. For those of us who have been following developments closely, there was nothing new in any of these presentations, which were basically summaries of developments to date.

The second session had presentations from representatives of WHO, UNSCEAR, FAO, and the OECD. Emile van Deventer from WHO and Malcolm Crick from UNSCEAR summarized the reports their agencies have released (or will release soon), and spent a long time describing how their organizations interact with others, their mandates, and their internal information gathering processes. Again, none of it was really new, but together this clarified that the WHO will not be issuing any further reports about Fukushima, UNSCEAR’s long delayed report on health effects will finally be released on April 2 of this year, and the IAEA’s own report will be finalized at the end of this year and should be available in the middle of 2015.

Again, while a lot of the content was organizational and retrospective, a few important points were clarified. In his presentation, Miroslav Pinak of the IAEA stated clearly that the IAEA accepts the linear-no-threshold (LNT) principle and that there is health risk even at small doses. And I asked Malcolm Crick of UNSCEAR afterward if their report would in fact support the use of collective dose estimates and abandon DDREF (that is, use a DDREF of 1), and he affirmed both. Also, several speakers shared what seems to be a growing consensus that the entire dose/risk estimation methodology is so confusing to the public that it needs to be strongly revised or even replaced with something else. I think we can consider the clear recognition of all of these points to be progress.

It shouldn’t be surprising that at a meeting like this quite a few of the participants have known each other for a long time, and that lends the proceedings a bit of a clubby atmosphere. It also allows them to be frank, though diplomatic. On the one hand, more than one speaker suggested that radiological protection after Fukushima — minimizing doses to people — had been successful, while the regulatory protections intended to prevent accidents had obviously failed miserably. And a number of speakers suggested that almost all parties involved have communicated poorly. This of course will be a major thrust of our presentation. In the midst of the self-congratulation, however, I don’t recall hearing anyone point out that the Japanese people were just lucky that the wind was blowing out to sea most of the time, and that’s what gave the protection measures whatever chance of success the had.

The day ended with a reception, which provided an opportunity to talk with a number of people. Malcolm Crick told us that there are a number of SAFECAST fans within UNSCEAR, and that they had found our dataset useful for cross-checking official data. I had an opportunity to talk to Peter Jacob, a thyroid epidemiologist who recently published estimates of how many cases of thyroid cancer are likely to eventually be found in Fukushima, and how that should be interpreted. And we were able to meet Mayor Nishida of Date City, who took a number of very forward looking and timely steps to measure doses to every citizen of Date through personal dosimeters and WBC screening. He and other Japanese we spoke with were surprised that Joe and I speak Japanese. I think they rarely encounter people who speak their language at these meetings.


The SAFECAST Delegation to the IEM6 Experts' Meeting

[The SAFECAST delegation to the IEM6 International Experts’ Meeting]

Azby describes the bGeigie Nano to the assembled representatives.

[Azby describes the bGeigie Nano to the assembled representatives]

Day 3, Feb 18, 2014

Our presentation was this afternoon, and the response was better than we expected in our wildest dreams. I wish there was video of it, especially the Q&A, but we basically provoked a fight, with delegates from several countries putting us on the hot seat saying, essentially, “We’re not sure it’s ok for you to be putting out so much data if the equipment used isn’t officially certified,” until finally a delegate from Norway, Astrid Liland, gave us a ringing endorsement, saying,”You people are focussing on details and missing the whole picture. These are creative and innovative people developing effective solutions on their own, and if there’s ever an accident in your own countries you will be lucky to find people like them. In fact you should be looking for people like this now!”  The applause after that was tremendous.  You could feel the consensus in the room shift, and we were surrounded afterward and couldn’t get out for over a half-hour. Everyone wants to be our friend, Abel Gonzales wants to help us find grants, the DOE wants our input on their new emergency info system, IRSN wants us to help with one of their projects, NRC is talking with us about how to best include citizen monitoring in their disaster plans, etc..

I was giving the actual presentation, and I started off with Adrian Storey’s excellent 3-minute video, because it tells the story of who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing better than a slide show could. My slide stack described our organization, the bGeigie, the information design thinking behind our maps, and the Street-by-Street program, ultimately showing how much better detail and coverage we provide compared to official gov’t maps. When the Q&A rolled around, even though there had been 9 speakers in our session, 8 of the 10 questions were for us. Most of them were about quality control, which I answered in regards to our policy, how we teach people how to measure radiation, how there’s always a human in the loop to check the data that comes in, how we build our culture and an informed community, how we feel it is extremely important to get people involved and to help them take control of monitoring their environment themselves, and called on Joe to provide more technical details, which he did several times in wonderful detail. There were questions about how we interpret our raw data in terms of “safe” of “not safe,” and I answered that we try to avoid telling people what was safe, but that we are providing information to help them make their own decisions, and that our project includes a lot of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and a lively Google Group where people can discuss and argue how to interpret things. A delegate from Cameroon said, “I noticed in your presentation that your group includes hackers. What is the legality of that?” So I explained that we all consider ourselves hackers, but not the kind that try to rob banks, and explained what the hacker mindset is, why it’s an engine of innovation, and why it’s essential for us. Another participant, Jens Uwe-Schmollack, who works for TUV Rheinland in Japan, also came to our defense, saying, “We were skeptical at first, but after looking at their data and their devices we think they’re really good. The technical issues are not as challenging as you seem to be making it out to be. After all it’s mainly Cesium!”

Even though I had made some pointed criticisms of the official Japanese efforts on providing radiation data to the public, none of the Japanese delegates said a word. But Tony Colgan, the IAEA Scientific Secretary who invited us, said afterward that the Japanese Ambassador was there and was thrilled about us. He said he told her, “Don’t try to bring them in to your projects, because that would ruin it!”

I think we’ve successfully changed the assumptions of the IAEA membership about what independent groups are capable of and why it’s essential in fact to have people like us working separately from gov’t. to provide alternate sources of information. I’m fairly certain that will be reflected in the official report issued for this conference, and could even find its way into the next revision of IAEA disaster response guidelines.


The gift shop is unintentionally ironic.

[The gift shop is unintentionally ironic.]


About the Author

Azby Brown

Azby Brown is Safecast's lead researcher and primary author of the Safecast Report. A widely published authority in the fields of design, architecture, and the environment, he has lived in Japan for over 30 years, and founded the KIT Future Design Institute in 2003. He joined Safecast in mid-2011, and frequently represents the group at international expert conferences.