A Long Safecast Weekend

Above: Joe preps a drone for a pre-programmed flight in Tomioka.

Safecast’s work involves so much technical knowledge that our online team discussions literally run 24 hours a day. Developing and maintaining the hardware and software side is very geeky work and occurs largely in the digital realm. But getting it out into the real world where it can have an impact is the reason we do it. This means that many of us spend a lot time in the field, in Japan and elsewhere, doing technical work and training, and spending time with the Safecast community. 

Two of us — Joe Moross and Azby Brown — recently spent a very busy 3-day weekend in Fukushima that was fairly typical of our activity there. This long post recounts our long and eventful weekend — what we did, who we met, and how it went. We had two main goals for the trip: to conduct a bGeigie Nano-building workshop for students at Fukushima High School in Fukushima City, and to install a Pointcast realtime radiation sensor in Date City. In addition, we were hoping to be able to work in a few meetings, check on some other Safecast sensors, and scope out some future possibilities. 

Two Fukushima High School students working as a team to build a bGeigie Nano.

Saturday — Fukushima High School:

On Saturday, September 16, Joe and I met at Matsudo Station, in Chiba Prefecture just northeast of Tokyo, at 8:00 am. We’ve done this drive many times before, and the red Safecast car had been loaded the night before with tools, parts, sensors, and other equipment. We drove straight from Tokyo to Fukushima High School in Fukushima City, with one quick highway stop for gas and coffee, and arrived at noon. We were greeted by Mr. Takashi Hara, the science teacher who organized the workshop, and six Fukushima High School students — three boys and three girls. They carried all the equipment and brought us to the school’s large physics lab.

Our connection with Fukushima High School began about a year ago. This school is one of several in Fukushima and other parts of Japan that has been participating in a interesting comparative personal dosimetry research project with schools in France, Poland, Belarus, and more recently, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. A paper co-authored by the over 200 participating students was published in Nov. 2015 by the Journal of Radiation Protection, and has had over 90,000 downloads. It found that, surprisingly, the median radiation doses actually encountered by students living in Fukushima, about 0.1 uSv/hr, were very comparable to those elsewhere. The highest median doses were experienced by students in Bastia, Corsica, which is known to have slightly elevated natural background radiation:

Measurement and comparison of individual external doses of high-school students living in Japan, France, Poland and Belarus—the ‘D-shuttle’ project

Joe, Azby, and the Fukushima High School students at the end of our successful workshop.

Safecast had gotten to know some of the organizers of this project over the years, including Dr. Ryugo Hayano of Tokyo University, and they were interested in seeing if the bGeigie, with its GPS and mapping ability, would help the students understand radiation levels in the environment. Last year Joe and I gave a lecture and demo about the Safecast system to the group, and a few units were purchased for the students to use. Fukushima HS recently obtained six more for the project, and invited us to teach the students how to build and use them. The students were extremely diligent, and despite having little or no prior experience building electronics, successfully completed their bGeigies in about 5 hours. We showed them how to log data, how to register on our API and upload data, and gave them other pointers. The workshop was a clear success, and Mr Hara asked if we’d be willing to do a bigger workshop there next year. We’ll be happy to.

Yoichi Tao explains a Saisei no kai realtime sensor installation in Iitate’s still-evacuated Nagadoro district.

Saturday — Saisei no kai:

From time to time in the past we had heard about the work being done in Iitate Vilage by a group called Fukushima Saisei no Kai (“Resurrection of Fukushima”). Headed by Prof Yoichi Tao, a particle physicist at Tokyo University, the group has been organizing farmers in Iitate to measure radiation in their environment and in their agricultural fields and produce. Our first impressions were that it was carefully done. A series of coincidences recently brought us into direct contact. First, a few months ago, immediately prior to the reopening of the town for residence, I visited the Iitate Town Office to speak with staff there about their ongoing radiation monitoring efforts. During the course of the conversation they handed me some very detailed pamphlets containing the results of regular ambient radiation monitoring as well as tests of fields, crops, and other plants. Because the town official told me, “We have this kind of monitoring,” I initially assumed that the programs were run by the town government itself. A few weeks later, Safecast was visited by Mankei Tam, a Hong Kong based social scientist, who was conducting field work in Iitate. When I showed him the pamphlets I had received, he said, “These are from Saisei no kai. They’re hosting me while I do my research in Iitate.”  One thing led to another, and after a direct introduction from Mankei, I paid them a visit along with our French intern Gael Alkan.

We got a good introduction to their project. They have a very impressive and technically competent monitoring program with about 40 farmers participating. They take ambient readings with two dedicated vehicles equipped with large scintillators, do a lot of soil sampling of farm fields, food testing, and other careful monitoring and analysis.

Fukushima Saisei no kai webpage

Prof. Tao had told us that the evening of Saturday, Sept. 16th, they would be having a wrapup party for an exchange program they had organized with overseas university students, at a facility in Date called the Ryozen Training Center. So after the workshop at Fukushima High School ended, Joe and I packed up the car and headed that way, about an hour’s drive. The road was dark, and we had maps and navigation to get us within a few hundred meters, but of course we missed the turn the first time and had to double back. A gravel road took us uphill into the forest, and eventually to a group of utilitarian buildings, one of which was well lit. Inside a big noisy party was in full swing with lots of local residents as well as researchers and foreign students, and tables laden with food from many countries (and lots of alcohol). The Ryozen Center, Tao explained, was established decades ago by a private foundation as a summer camp where children suffering from Type 2 Diabetes and their families could learn how to maintain their insulin treatments and continue active lives. Since the Fukushima disaster, however, which spread significant contamination in Date, few families have wanted to send their children to camp there, so it was lying unused. Saisei no kai obtained permission to use it for local community activities and its foreign student exchange program. Hopefully, before too long it will once again serve the needs of diabetic children.

Joe was surrounded by inquisitive foreign students and local residents at the Ryozen Center.

Joe and I talked to a lot of people there, some of whom already knew about Safecast, others we had met in Iitate previously, and still others who were just sociable and curious. Tao asked us to make a brief speech to introduce ourselves. We got along well. Eventually they showed us the bathhouse and the big bunkroom where everyone was staying, and told us to choose our bunks. During our discussions we came up with few worthwhile collaborative ideas to pursue.

Joe mounts the Pointcast sensor module under the eaves of the building in Date City.

Sunday — Date City:

The following morning, Sun 9/17, we were up early and joined our hosts for a communal breakfast. It was drizzling outside. Our main task for the day was to install a Pointcast unit at a small private building on the other side of Date City. The location was arranged by Larry Richards, a Safecast volunteer who lives in Fukushima City and has arranged other Pointcast sites for us in the past. This is the 17th Pointcast we’ve put up in Fukushima. Each installation presents a different set of challenges, and this was no exception, partly because it started raining harder as we worked. The first hour or so were spent examining the building itself, identifying useable power outlets, thinking about cabling and where to best place the two modules. This is problem-solving work Joe loves and is good at, and when we’re there the rest of us basically fetch tools for him and hold his ladder. This installation went smoothly, with a minimum of cabling needed, but Joe ended up having to do a bit of rewiring of the building’s electrical system to make it happen, which necessitated a trip to a local home center for electrical parts. After a couple of hours the sensors were online, the building was closed and locked, and we said goodbye to Larry and his wife as they drove away. Then we discovered a small problem, and called Larry to come open the building again so Joe could fix it. Long story short, they came back, Joe fixed the problem, and the Date City Pointcast has been sending good data since:



A little extra light came in handy for connecting the Pointcast comms module.

Sunday — Iitate and Soma:

After completing the install in Date, we first headed to Iitate to drop off a Pointcast unit at the Saisei no Kai office and chat with Muneo Kanno, a local beef farmer who co-founded the group with Tao-san. All day we had been exchanging messages with a colleague who was in Soma for a big public event, who told us that several friends and others we were hoping to talk to were there. “Why don’t you come too?” As we left Iitate around 3:30pm, I texted, “We’re on our way.” It was still raining. About 40 minutes later, we parked at the Soma Civic Hall, where the event was being held, and headed for the reception desk. “Sorry, we’re packed. If you don’t have a ticket you can’t enter.” We explained that our friends were inside, and we just wanted to talk to them for a few minutes. We were told we were welcome to wait in the lobby until the event ended at 6:30pm, over 2 hours later. So, we shrugged, texted our apologies, and headed south down Route 6 to Odaka.

Sunday — Odaka:

Safecast has been involved with the community in Odaka, at the southern end of Minamisoma, since 2013, when we installed one of our early realtime sensors at a church there. Evacuation orders for Odaka were lifted in July 2016, and little by little people are returning and the town is taking on a pioneering aspect. There are many vacant lots where damaged buildings have been demolished, as well as a smattering of new construction. But for several years Odaka was a ghost town and visiting there was sobering if not depressing. In fall of 2015 we were introduced to Tomoyuki Wada, an entrepreneur who had opened a co-working space on the town’s main street near the railroad station, called Odaka Workers Base, and he agreed to host a Pointcast realtime radiation detector there.  We wrote about it on Facebook at the time. We were becoming familiar faces in the town.

One of the most interesting people we’ve gotten to know in Odaka is Tomoko Kobayashi, owner of Futabaya, a traditional inn next door to Odaka Workers Base. In the summer of 2015, Joe and I had gone to Odaka to check on our sensor at the church, and decided to take a look at a new government radiation monitoring post that had been installed in front of Odaka Station. When we arrived, the sensor was inoperable, but we saw a woman planting flowers there. We were a bit surprised, as the town was still deserted and eerily silent. We got to talking, and when we told her that we were part of a citizens’ group that monitors radiation, she excitedly exclaimed, “I’m part of a group that does that too! We get together once a month and survey radiation in Minami-soma, and also Namie and Tomioka.”  As we commiserated with her about the difficulties and challenges residents like her face, she said, “Well, what happened, happened. What we have to focus on is how to get on with our lives here.” That was our introduction to Kobayashi-san.

Azby and Joe give an impromptu late night radiation lesson to Keio University students at Futabaya (Photo: Yoshiyuki Ishizaki)

Kobayashi and her husband were allowed to quietly reopen their inn a few months prior to the official reopening of the town, and its been fully open for business since July 2016. It’s a very comfortable place with excellent food. Because it’s one of the only places to stay nearby, it attracts guests of all sorts, and has become a kind of an informal community center. On a previous visit, the dining room filled up with activists and local housewives. This night, we shared a table with two Tepco employees who stay there often, whom we had met before. They were extremely candid and honest about the situation in Fukushima and the difficulties faced by local residents. Joe and I repeatedly steered the discussion to the need for more transparency on Tepco’s part, while they told us about how things feel to them and other staff based in Fukushima. They are part of their local communities and care about them, they said, and every day they have to face the fact that they’re responsible for the tremendous problems caused by the accident. At one point a group of students from Keio University appeared. They were part of an extra-curricular organization that does field work to support social causes, and were spending the week in Fukushima. We ended up giving them an impromptu radiation lesson and demo of the bGeigie and our online map system. 

Monday — Namie and Tomioka:

Karin Taira, who we knew from the Odaka Workers Base, has opened a B&B called The Lantern House in the Kobayashis’ former house, next door to Futabaya, and has started a business giving informative local tours to foreign visitors. She visited us in Tokyo a few months prior, so we told her we’d be coming, and she stopped by at dinner. She said that her first guests were arriving the following afternoon. Monday was a sunny day, and after getting a tour of the Lantern House, Joe and I spent a few hours driving with Karin to sites in Namie and Tomioka that she might want to show her guests, discussing with her their significance and implications.

Some of the dozens of mobile phones recovered in Namie after the tsunami, awaiting their owners at the Omoide no shina tenjijyo.
Hundreds of dolls and stuffed animals have yet to find their owners as well.

One of these is the Omoide no shina tenjijyo, (“Exhibition Space for Remembered Things”), housed in a former gift shop in Namie on Route 6. The shop displays over 17,000 items — photos, toys, school bags, statues, cell phones, and many other things — which were retrieved from the area after the tsunami.  All of them have been carefully cleaned and labeled, and are returned to their owners if they visit the shop. It’s an incredibly emotional experience to browse the shelves, a museum of loss and hope. The shop subsists on donations, and to date about 12% of the items have been reunited with their owners. We also visited the Namie Ohirayama Memorial Cemetery, a new park-like memorial on a hill overlooking the ocean. It has a dignified communal graveyard for victims of the tsunami, and a large memorial stone. All the students of a nearby elementary school were able to evacuate to this hill on 3/11 with no loss of life, but the policeman who made sure they all got there was washed away; he is memorialized as well. The former town and rice fields below have reverted to wasteland, but the school still stands empty in the distance. Joe flew a drone from the memorial, over the school to the ocean, and back.

Karin and Joe at the Namie Ohirayama Memorial Cemetery, overlooking now-abandoned fields and housing plots.

Since we were in Namie, we decided to use the opportunity to check on a Pointcast we installed at a church there last year. The church grounds are incredibly overgrown now, and pretty impassable, but we tramped our way to where the sensor is and it looks fine. We spent some time investigating other neighborhoods in Namie which have recently been reopened to residence. We saw a fair amount of traffic on the main roads, but very few people out and about. Many houses showed signs of repair or occupancy. But quite a few earthquake-damaged buildings remain, some in a dangerous state, as well as vacant lots where houses once stood. 

Though rebuilding has begun in most parts of Namie that have been reopened, many neighborhoods have been essentially untouched for over six years since the disaster.
The roof collapsed, and trees have taken root where the living room used to be.
At a house demolition site in Namie. The debris is measured and treated as radioactive waste. This bag measures 0.36 microsieverts per hour.


Monday — Back to Soma and then to Tomioka again:

Our next appointment was in Soma, so we dropped Karin off in Odaka to meet her guests and headed back north on Route 6. A potential sponsor— we can’t say who just yet — had expressed interest in possibly hosting one or more Safecast realtime sensors. Joe and I needed to get a preliminary look at one of their sites to estimate how difficult the installation would be. We were welcomed by the staff and left alone to examine the building and take photos. After about a half-hour, we agreed on the basic plan we’d propose, said goodbye, and headed back south. At this point we had traveled north and south on Route 6 several times in two days, from Soma to Odaka, from Odaka to Tomioka, back to Odaka and then back to Soma. We decided that even though it would be slower, it would be more interesting to try to take roads closer to the ocean so we could see how rebuilding and seawall repair was proceeding. It was interesting, but the ongoing construction meant we hit several detours and dead-ends. The car was pretty muddy by the time we emerged back onto Route 6 near Odaka. By then it was about 5pm, and there was still a lot of daylight. Joe wanted to stop in Tomioka again and spend time making drone flights over the large decontamination waste processing facility that fills the area between Tomioka Station and the ocean. Joe is an expert drone cameraman, and his drone footage of Fukushima has been used in documentaries broadcast by PBS and others. Documenting the decontamination waste processing facility in Tomioka is an ongoing project of his. He has programmed a preset flight path for his drones to take, and every few months sets them to fly that identical path and shoot video.

The newly rebuilt Tomioka Station as it stood in August 2017.

The former train station at Tomioka suffered severe damage in the tsunami, and for the first few years after the disaster its ruins were a magnet for photographers and film crews looking for “disaster porn.” It was eventually demolished, along with most of the damaged buildings in the town center.  A new station has been built a few hundred meters north of the original, and work crews appeared to be putting in the finishing touches on it when we were there. A new hotel has been built nearby, as well, and the pylons for an overpass that will cross the station to link the main road with the small fishing port currently undergoing repairs on the other side. From the looks of it, the waste processing facility will lie between them for the next several years at least, and we wonder what uses will be found for that site after that.

Monday — Back to Tokyo:

Eventually it was dark enough that the drone could only be seen by its blinking lights, and we decided to wrap up and head home. Joe remarked that it was the first time he hadn’t been approached by police at that particular site. I’ve been stopped by police there several times as well. We saw one police car that day, but it evidently wasn’t interested in us. The police we meet are usually courteous, and actually most of them know Joe by name now, but it’s a waste of time for us to say the least.

As we headed towards the highway entrance in Tomioka, the road was blocked for a few minutes by a family of wild boars foraging for food in the nearly abandoned town. Boars have proliferated enough in Fukushima that they’re now considered a serious nuisance. As has been the case in Chernobyl and other places affected by that accident, Fukushima boars have been found to retain a lot of radioactive cesium from their food even years after the accident. Though we didn’t check, this family is almost certainly measurably radioactive.

We encountered this family of wild boars as we were leaving Tomioka. They’re almost certainly radioactive.

Leaving the boars behind, we hopped on the Joban Expressway headed south, stopped for dinner at a highway rest area, and Joe eventually dropped me off at Matsudo Station again around 10pm. All in all, it had been a very productive trip. We accomplished everything we had set out to do plus a little more. Both of us were reminded that while Safecast’s work involves a lot of hardware and technical capabilities, in the end it’s about people — meeting and talking with them, getting involved with their communities, and doing things together to help address our common concerns.

(We rarely give endorsements, but we can highly recommend that visitors to Fukushima stay at either Futabaya or The Lantern House in Odaka.)

This tanuki (raccoon dog) had been trapped in Namie, so we set her free.