Pointcast Rollout, Part 2: Iitate Village

Above: The Pointcast installation in Iitate is at Iitate Farms, in Nodegami hamlet.

(This is the second in a multipart series about the Pointcast realtime radiation sensor system. Part 1, which describes the technical aspects of the system, can be found here)

As mentioned in Part 1, Safecasters Joe Moross, Pieter Franken, and Azby Brown spent a couple of days installing Pointcast systems in Fukushima during the Golden Week holiday (For those who are unfamiliar with it, Golden Week is a Japanese national holiday which falls in the first week of May).  The days were fairly packed and required us to travel quite a bit around central (Nakadori) and eastern (Hamadori) Fukushima. We’ve made similar trips quite a few times before, and have the general routine and logistics down pat. Because we had promised to be in Iitate early Tuesday morning to do our first installation of the day, we decided to drive from Tokyo to Fukushima on Monday evening and spend the night in Koriyama. Our business hotel and pretty much every place in town was full, mainly due to people returning to visit family for the holidays. The site in Iitate is about an hour and a half drive from Koriyama, so we headed out early, stopping at a convenience store along the way to grab coffee and something to eat for breakfast in the car.


Nobuyoshi Ito with the new Pointcast realtime radiation sensor at Iitate Farms

The new Pointcast in Iitate is being hosted by Iitate Farms, founded and operated by Nobuyoshi Ito. Ito-san is originally from Niigata, and had a very successful engineering business in Tokyo. He discovered Iitate several years before the 2011 disaster, and was attracted by the way the town had begun to focus on “slow life” — called “madei life” in the local dialect — and reviving traditional agricultural and cultural practices. Ito began spending an increasing amount of time there, and when he retired, decided to start Iitate Farms. His vision was for it to be a place where urban tech workers could spend time slowing down and experiencing farming and outdoor life, and to think about the larger significance of our dependence on the earth and community. Ito renovated a sturdy house, making a spacious kitchen and dining area, and built a bunkhouse and other structures. He leased several farm fields nearby. Iitate farms was set up to sleep and feed up to 30 people at one time, and to be largely self-sufficient. Ito had operated his “retreat center” happily for almost exactly one year when the disaster struck in March 2011.

The story of what happened to Iitate after March 2011 is probably familiar to most of our readers. We discuss it in some detail in the Safecast Report  but it’s worth summarizing briefly. Iitate lies completely outside the original 20km evacuation zone, and almost completely outside the original 30km “evacuation preparation” zone, where people were advised to shelter indoors and prepare to leave at short notice. US government overflight monitoring data from the week of March 17, 2011, showed high contamination levels in Iitate, as did other surveys, but this was not publicly acknowledged by the Japanese government until early April. An evacuation order was issued for Iitate on April 22, 2011. Most of the town’s 6000 residents had evacuated by July or August, but about 12 households, mostly elderly residents, refused to leave. Ito was one of the refuseniks.

Because of the evacuation order he was unable to legally operate Iitate Farms as he had intended, so he instead made it informally available as a stopping-off place for researchers, and a gathering place where displaced Iitate residents could catch up on news and discuss their situation. Ito also immediately got up to speed on how to test food for radiation, and began growing and testing experimental crops. He has been testing locally grown food consistently since 2011, and posting the results on his blog (currently being renovated). He has also assisted researchers gathering data about the environment and wildlife. We got to know Ito-san back in 2012, and Safecast volunteers have visited him a number of times. We have also introduced him to journalists and researchers seeking a unvarnished view of the situation in Iitate. We’ve kept Ito-san informed about our realtime system development, and were happy when he said he would let us install one there.

Ito had started out as an enthusiastic supporter of Iitate mayor Norio Kanno, whose vision in the decade before the disaster had transformed Iitate from a town with no future into a world-recognized center for progressive environmental practices. After the disaster, however, many Iitate citizens, Ito included, quickly became disappointed with Kanno’s enthusiastic embrace of the central government’s decontamination and resettlement policies. In a town like Iitate, whose small population is closely tied by blood relationships, marriage, and many other connections, it is often difficult for a local individual to clearly express their opposition. As an outsider, however, Ito need not fear offending relatives, schoolmates, or an employer, and can voice his opinions more directly.  Since 2011, Ito has been equal parts outspoken policy critic, environmental monitor, and caretaker of an empty village. In many ways Iitate farms is an ideal location for a Pointcast sensor. There is real concern about the radiation levels, which are significantly elevated. People are wary of official statements about the risks, and welcome independent data. Further, Ito-san is service-minded and technically oriented, and is likely to stay in close touch.


Decontamination crews in Iitate


Bags of decontamination debris line the mountain roads.

We arrived in Iitate Tuesday morning to find decontamination in full swing, and the roads full of trucks and workers, despite the fact that it was a national holiday. Most of Iitate is scheduled to be reopened in spring of 2017, a very ambitious and optimistic timeframe that has caused much outcry and sparked legal action from opponents. The town has installed new radiation monitoring stations, and built a large temporary decontamination waste processing facility. As is the case throughout Fukushima Prefecture, roadsides are lined with large black bags of decontamination debris, which are also stacked into massive flat pyramids in fields throughout the town, awaiting ultimate disposal. Decontamination in Iitate is on the fast track.


Samples of wild mountain vegetables prepared for radiation testing


Ito-san cooked half of each sample so they could be measured as they would be eaten.


Careful soil core samples were taken from each location plants were gathered.


A sample of kotake mushrooms was extremely radioactive.

Ito-san was in the midst of preparing food samples for testing. He and a group of colleagues, including a university researcher and a newspaper journalist, had spent the previous days collecting wild mountain vegetables, known collectively as “san-sai.” As we and others have reported, the monitoring and intervention system for commercially distributed agricultural food products has fortunately been very effective, but wild plants, wild mushrooms, and wild game have continued to show high levels of radioactive contamination, and are likely to be consumed without testing. Although the public has been informed to avoid eating these items, as Ito put it, “Sometimes the temptation is too great, because they’re so delicious.”

Ito and his colleagues have been keeping systematic records of the levels of cesium found in wild food plants in Iitate, including taking soil samples to help understand the correlations between soil contamination and how much ends up in various species of plants themselves. This particular batch of samples included udo (spikenard, aka “mountain asparagus”), koshiabura (Eleutherococcus sciadophylloides), tara-no-me (angelica-tree shoots), cresson (watercress), seri (Japanese parsley), fuki-no-tou (butterbur shoots), warabi (bracken), and kogomi (a larger edible fern). They had decided to measure half of each sample in its raw state, and to prepare the rest as they would be for eating — boiled, sauteed with miso, as tempura, etc.. The broth left over after boiling was prepared for measurement as well. Everything was carefully packaged and labeled, and brought later that day to a well-equipped lab in Nihonmatsu to be measured, along with the soil samples. The journalist was preparing an article about the process and the findings for his paper, and asked us not to scoop him; as of a few days ago the information still had not been released, due to a backlog at the lab.

We rarely find food samples radioactive enough to be clearly detected with bGeigies, but we will say that most of the items hit 100 CPM or more 1 cm away on our bGeigies, and a koshiabura sample hit well over 1000 CPM, as did an older sample of kotake mushrooms. These shouldn’t be considered accurate measurements because of the lack of shielding of ambient radiation, and it is not possible with a bGeigie to convert this to Bq/kg, but these counts are generally indicative of the magnitudes. For comparison, last year Ito had recorded over 20,000 Bq/kg in koshiabura picked nearby. Even if the decontamination of residential areas and farm fields can be shown to be effective, we should expect that sansai, which grow in wild areas that are not likely to be decontaminated, will continue to show high levels of contamination for the coming decade or more.


Joe mounting the sensor unit of the Pointcast.


Pieter prepping the comms unit

While Joe and Pieter worked on installing and connecting the Pointcast, Azby observed Ito’s food sample preparation process, and took notes. Ito filled us in on the local community situation, the progress of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) for compensation, Mayor Kanno’s chances for re-election, and gossip about our mutual acquaintances. Joe installed the Pointcast sensor unit outdoors above the main entryway, sheltered by the eaves. Pieter prepped the comms unit, which was mounted inside over Ito’s desk, using the existing wired LAN connection. As usual, the exterior mount was time consuming (partly because Joe is a neatnik craftsman about these things), but it all went without a hitch, and after about two hours the Iitate Pointcast was live and online. We hung around for a while talking about the food measurements and the likelihood that people in the area would eat wild vegetables like these, and what should be done to better inform them of the risks. Around noon, we packed up the car again, said goodbye, and headed back towards Koriyama for the next installation of the day.


From left: Pieter, Joe, Ito-san, Azby