The bGeigie Diaries: Earthquake Fish, Seaweed, and Safecast’s Apolitical Stance

Jonathan Wilder assembles bGeigie Nano kits..

If Safecast volunteers had CVs, Jonathan Wilder’s would likely be one of the most diverse. Procurement officer, volunteer scientist, and chef extraordinaire are but a few of the roles he has filled since joining the group in late 2012.

You might be one of the non-Japanese members of Safecast who has lived here the longest. What brought you to Japan?

I came to Japan in 1991 and have lived here in central Tokyo ever since. The short version is that back in Massachusetts it was a confluence of several circumstances in my life that made the move to Japan possible: someone here in Japan invited me to stay at his place to start with; a job had just ended; my car lease was up; and I had a little bit of money saved up. The opportunity, combined with old memories of Japan and an appreciation for the culture, particularly the food, was enough to make me decide to come here.

The first time I visited Japan was in 1970. During my childhood, my family lived in New Delhi. Each summer, on home leave, we would stop by other countries and that summer we came to Tokyo and the Osaka Expo.

My first memory of Japan was being on a bus leaving Haneda airport. There were protestors outside lining the road outside the airports gates. I suppose now they were local farmers whose farms and fields were up for demolition to make way for construction projects. One of the other things I remember is visiting Ginza in the midst of a typhoon, seeing the tall buildings in Ginza, which were so different from New Delhi. When walking about Ginza, I felt tall. I don’t feel that now. Japanese people have grown, much like Tokyo.

We took the Shinkansen to Osaka. That was also a great experience for the views of the countryside. In that day and age, people would wear their best dresses or suit and tie to travel on the rapid trains.

And how did you get connected to Safecast?

It starts back in 1994, really. I joined the first Internet bulletin board in Japan called TWICS. One of the first people I met on there was Joe Moross. You could say that he was my connection to Safecast, but I didn’t join straight after the quake. I don’t think there would have been a role for me in the early days in any event.

Speaking of the Tohoku earthquake – and the subsequent Daiichi disaster, what are your memories of that time?

That one felt like it came on very quickly and then kept going. I was at home in our apartment on the 12th floor of a 13-floor building from the 1970’s, so we were swaying quite a bit or rocking and rolling as we joke now. At one point I looked up and saw an overhead solid cement structural beam that dipped down wildly, and I have to admit that I thought that was it – that the building would come crashing down on top of us. The apartment ended up being a jumble of our possessions, some broken with just about all of them scattered about. Every piece of furniture was out of position: some shifted only a few inches with others knocked over.

I have a clear memory of my wife and I on each end of the fish tank, stupidly trying to keep it upright as the water sloshed about, spilling out everywhere, our own local tsunami. The fish made it, but they have since died. We aren’t getting new ones, as we still live in the same apartment, and Tokyo is overdue for a major quake that could be almost as strong – or stronger – than the one that hit Fukushima.

I work as an editor/proofreader and teach business English in companies. In the days after the Fukushima quake, as the severity of the situation at Daiichi became evident, and all my clients were staying home from work, there was a lot of unknowns about the actual severity of the radiation and uncertainly about the prospects for a return to normalcy. In the first weeks of the crisis, my wife and I would wake up every day wondering if this was the day we should leave. We were in daily contact with a small circle of friends exchanging information about what we had heard or could surmise. Small things could have shifted our decision to stay, yet the problem was the information in the media was too little and too late, The US embassy called me three times and asked if I wanted to leave the country, however their offer included an unspecified destination, probably some place in Asia like Korea or Taiwan. Our other options included leaving for Kyushu or the Osaka area, which some friends had chosen to do, or Massachusetts and the family home.

It was around noon every day that we decided to stay another day. It was the unattractive prospect of being a refugee that was part of our decision to stay. The other parts had to do with the fact that we didn’t have kids who would have been more at risk, and my in-laws who were not considering leaving. I’m pretty sure if we had had kids, we would have left.

The first news we saw about Daiichi came in through NHK, I think. My wife, Sachiko, was also listening to broadcasts on the internet from alternative groups that were meeting and discussing the implications of on-going events. I was not sure what exactly was happening, but I was sceptical of the information coming from the Japanese Government via the media. I have lived through Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and numerous lesser incidents and have read a lot about them. In all cases, the first response of the authorities was to downplay the extent of the risk. From my understanding of what had happened at Daiichi a meltdown had occurred, but at that time, the government was denying that was possible.

I think that it’s important to add that the insistence on it not being a meltdown wasn’t only coming from the Japanese Government. Some physicists and experts on nuclear powerplants were saying that it was impossible that a plant like Daiichi would experience a meltdown while others were saying that was what had happened. The evidence lay in the type of radiation spewing from the plant.

What drew you to join the Safecast team?

I was attracted to Safecast by the fact that it seemed to be an organisation that is data-driven and apolitical. Also, they needed some administrative help as they were growing rapidly.

I majored in both journalism and sociology and was fascinated by demography and the use of data to extrapolate information and knowledge. I’ve been interested in statistics for a long time. That being said, I would not consider myself as someone who is necessarily very technically geeky.

This is a message I would like to share with anyone who is considering volunteering – not just for Safecast. No matter your background and professional skillset, there will always be something you can do to contribute. If I look at the resistors and the circuit boards, for example, I don’t have a deep understanding of what they are and how they work together to measure radiation. But I can manage the inventory, shop for them, and assemble kits. That doesn’t only apply to the bGeigie nanos, but also for the kGeigies, which are used in workshops for kids where they learn about electronics, radiation, and the environment.

The Safecast group – like the network of volunteers – is made up of a variety of people with different backgrounds. One common factor seems to be that we talk openly about things, also when it comes to subjects we don’t necessarily agree on.

I am drawn to the apolitical nature of the organisation, because I believe that that kind of balance is necessary. Personally, I am a self-professed environmentalist, fundamentally anti-nuclear power while there is no clean exit when it come to decommissioning, and taxpayers foot the bill when there are accidents, which is a different view from some other members, but there is an atmosphere of learning. Even though there are some justifiably big egos, everybody has the capacity to admit when opposing views have merit and adjust their own views accordingly. A thing that seems to unite us is that we all believe that open access to good, verifiable data is very important to effective policy and decision-making. To generalise I think most members – and populations in countries that have been unfortunate enough to see nuclear incidents, perhaps – have had the experience that Government data can’t necessarily be trusted at face value. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Daiichi plus numerous smaller accidents all saw the authorities issue declarations that everything was fine when it obviously wasn’t.

That makes it logical that a way of collecting and spreading useful information about baseline radiation around the world is needed, making for a solid raison d’etre for Safecast. I think that Safecast is an organisation that has been able to do that and has created something that enable people to make up their own minds. If they can know what the levels are in front of their house, the park, or elsewhere they can make informed decisions about where to live and where to take their kids.

Do you have some advice for people who want to make radiation measurements with Safecast bGeigies?

My general advice would be to carry and use the device with you wherever you go. Whenever I go somewhere – even if it’s in Tokyo, which has generally been covered over and over – I look at the map and if possible take my bGeigie to the areas and streets where data hasn’t been collected.

Don’t worry about taking it travelling. People generally don’t seem to notice. I’ve had mine with me on trains, busses, and airplanes and there have never been any times I have been asked not to use it. Only very rarely will somebody even ask me what that thing is.

Finally, you are one of the key citizen scientists behind a study that I think is a great illustration of how individuals and groups can collect data, make measurements and create insights into environmental issues. Could you tell me a bit about it and its results?

I designed and conducted a study of seaweed along the Japanese coast south of Daiichi. The main purpose was to determine if it was feasible to collect samples from shore, without the use of a boat. Together with another volunteer, we collected seaweed from various locations, dried it and shipped it to a lab in the US for measuring. It turned out that collecting samples from shore was difficult and test results showed none of the samples had significant radioactivity. Evidently, the seas have in their enormity incredible powers to dilute, yet radioactive material could potentially have gathered in specific places like has been seen on land, where there are local hotspots. The potential danger of these underwater hotspots would be that the local fauna low on the food chain would feed on the seaweed growing and absorbing the radiation there. The fish higher on the food chain would then feed on those and then they could enter into humans’ food supply.

I also did some food testing at home. The commercial devices themselves are quite expensive; and sending samples to outfits doing food testing was also expensive with long wait times for results, so some Safecasters got together and built one. It was incredibly heavy to lug home, because of the lead shielding for the sensor. I tested dried food like rice, konbu, and dried vegetables. One interesting thing I found was that shitake mushroom from Okayama, far from Fukushima, actually had higher radiation counts than those from Fukushima. BTW, mushrooms are known for their absorption of radiation and their normally relatively high counts.

If you would like to meet Jonathan, I can recommend keeping up to tabs with Safecast’s parties for volunteers and family in the space on the tenth floor to catch them up on progress on both ongoing and upcoming projects. Jonathan volunteers his time to do the shopping, cooking, and presenting/serving of the food.

At least once a year, Safecast holds a party for volunteers and family in the space on the tenth floor to catch them up on progress on both ongoing and upcoming projects. I volunteer my time to do the shopping, cooking, and presenting/serving of the food. In the last four years, I’ve made Indian, Middle Eastern and North African, and Mexican themed menus with the help of my wife, Sachiko, and other volunteers.

 

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.