The bGeigie Diaries: From Six Years Before Fukushima To New Zealand

Allan Lind and his bGeigie in New Zealand

Data Collector: Allan Lind

Data locations: New Zealand, Japan

You started collecting radiation data here in Japan long before Fukushima. What got you interested and when did you begin collecting data?

My initial interest in radiation really got started when I was working at a steel plant in my native New Zealand in the mid 1980’s. It was the time when Chernobyl had happened, and we also had a radiation source on the plant. It was used to automatically detect the edge of hot slabs of steel. There was a Cobalt 60 source under where the slab passed through, and a scintillation sensor above that did the measuring. We were visited by a Japanese contingent from Toshiba who knew a lot about radiation, and that got my interest going. Before too long, I was building my own Geiger counters.

I moved to Japan, and I had my first fixed sensor set up in our house in Meguro about six years before the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused the Daiichi meltdown.

You were in Tokyo during that early period after the earthquake. What are some of your memories of that time?

I can remember going in to work on the Monday, and finding that some of the people hadn’t turned up. We were focused on the weather forecasts, to see if the wind would blow a plume in the direction of Tokyo, which of course happened. I was on a bus with my family when the plume passed over us, and the Geiger counter I had with me clearly showed a peak as it swept over us. The detector back at my house also recorded the plume.

Picture of the actual measurements the Tuesday after the Tsunami. On the bus around
“Makuhari we went through the plume,” Allan remembers.

We were already booked to go to New Zealand for a holiday, and moved the date forward 3 days, so that we left on the Tuesday. I could follow the data logged by the counter back in Meguro, and it showed another clear peak on the Wednesday.

How did you first get to know Safecast?

As far as I remember, it was the summer of 2011. A friend of mine told me about a workshop where you could build your own Geiger counter, which logged the data to a website. I believe they logged to an online database called Pachube at the time. Eventually they updated to a better database, which would grow into the Safecast tile map we know today.

I’d been building my own Geiger counters for a while, so I ended up as a sort of teaching assistant. It was there that I met some of the Safecast team and got involved with making measurements, as well as discussions about which direction the project should take.

What were some of those discussions?

One of the projects I was very interested in from early on was constructing reliable, fixed-station sensors. The GPS tracker devices like the bGeigie are very good, but I see the benefit of fixed stations, as they can keep logging data for many, many years. They’re also reliable, and although they are easy to forget about, they are the first line of data you get in case of an emergency.

Another thing I was interested in was food detection. Buying a detector capable of making reliable measurements of food is often expensive. At the time of Fukushima, there was company from Belarus called Atomtex that had one, but not a lot of people have two million yen to spend on a food detector.

Precision High Voltage Power Supply prototypes under test.

I have been working on a low cost solution for measuring food and other similar projects on and off over the years. While I haven’t done any recent work, I believe that the coming years will be a great time for anyone looking to create crowdsourced radiation detectors and systems like the ones I’ve mentioned here.

What makes this an especially good time, do you think?

A lot of detector hardware and pieces that you need for these projects were mostly vacuumed off the market in the wake of the 2011 disaster and was impossible to get after that. Much of that equipment has lay idle, and I think we’re slowly starting to see it come back onto the market at a much lower price.

Food detection equipment: 3″ and 2″ Sodium Iodide scintillation detectors pictured with a home made multichannel analyzer.

That is one of the reasons why I’m hoping to share some of the work I’ve been doing and perhaps collaborate with other interested people on it.

What keeps you interested in radiation and measuring it?

One of the aspects is certainly that it’s something that most people know nothing about. The time after Fukushima was a clear illustration of this. No one knew if the environment was safe, and fear was the driving factor of a lot of the decisions that were made in the days and months afterwards.

To be honest, I can see how the Japanese Government had a reason for withholding the information that there had been full meltdowns. When people don’t act rationally, in a state of panic, a lot of bad things can happen.

That being said, I also believe that data and information should be free and that people should be allowed to make their own decisions, based on the best possible information available. That was part of what got me interested in Safecast and part of what keeps me logging radiation data.

What’s your strategy for gathering radiation data?

Allan and family on tour with their bGeigie.

I don’t really choose specific locations or go by a set strategy. If I’m going somewhere, be it a steam train excursion, fishing, somewhere new, or moving around my usual neighbourhood, I try to gather data. One of the things that Safecast is good at – and rightly focuses on – is that making readings where you’ve already been before or making readings that show that there is no radiation are just as valuable as any others. There is a need to log as much of the planet as we can.

On another family trip, taking a break from measurements to interact with some of the four-legged locals.

What’s generally been the reaction when you meet people while doing the measurements?

In New Zealand, the general reaction is that there isn’t one. When I went on a fishing trip recently, one person did ask me a couple of questions. Generally speaking, people think that you are looking for something – some level of radiation – and that might make them a bit worried. When I explain that isn’t the case, they quickly lose interest.

What are some of your memories from making measurements?

There are many. One that sticks out was not about the bGeigie, but still something that sticks in my mind to this day.

In Japan I used to carry around a very fast response scintillation detector clipped to my belt. One day while out bicycling, I passed an old lady, and the device immediately went off. I turned around and approached the old lady and said’ I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but do you know that you are very radioactive?’ Her response was that she had just been for a treatment in the hospital, as she was suffering from cancer. She was very open about it, and said that she was undergoing treatment. I was very impressed by her openness and willingness to take the time to explain her situation to a stranger like that.

What is some advice that you would give to others gathering radiation data?

One is to be knowledgeable about radiation and aware that it’s something that surrounds us more than most of the people you meet probably realise. If someone approaches you, it is nice to be able to say that there is no radiation where you are, but that is also a great starting point for a conversation about some of the places where we do encounter radiation in our lives.

The bGeigie on further exploration of New Zealand.

One such place is in the healthcare space. I’ve carried sensors when visiting people in hospital and found that patients who have received PET scans can be extremely radioactive for days afterwards, often without really knowing it themselves.

The same situation has occurred in airports, where my sensors have clearly illustrated that an X-ray scanner has had poor shielding. It can be a tricky situation to navigate with the staff on duty, as you’re essentially telling then something they really don’t want to hear.

On the other hand, I don’t want to sound alarmist. I’ve encountered people who think that potassium is bad for humans, because some it contains radioactive Potassium 40. The first point is that living organisms including humans cannot survive without potassium.

The second point is that it illustrates how we as a species have evolved in environments that have some levels of radiation.

Answering questions like “what is a safe level?” is complicated and depends on many factors.

Currently, many answers to such questions come from large organisations and companies, who by their own agendas get to decide on what is safe and what is not. I believe that this is a flawed system and that there needs to be more informed public discussion about issues such as safe levels of radiation.  However, any such discussion has to build on data and information, rather than emotions like fear, which is part of what makes measuring it so valuable.

About the Author

Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. He started volunteering for Safecast after writing articles about their work following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami - and because he believes that data and technology should be open and readily available.