Safecast Visit to Fukushima Daiichi

I can’t count how many images I’ve seen of the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi in the last seven years, easily hundreds, maybe thousands. I’ve seen photos, illustrations, maps, diagrams and even video detailing every angle and perspective. None of that prepared me for the awe of standing in front of them. This is ground zero for Safecast. These buildings, and what happened here in March 2011 would change my life – all of our lives – in one way or another, forever. Some might argue that Tepco is the antithesis of everything that Safecast stands for, so how did I and several of the core Safecast team find ourselves standing here this chilly December afternoon? As you can imagine, it’s not a short story…


Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Reactor buildings 2, 3 & 4

We’ve managed to get bGeigies onsite at Daiichi several times in the past, mostly thanks to our lead engineer JAM, who has a knack for being asked by media crews to accompany them as a technical specialist who can let them know when they’re being bullshitted. We haven’t hidden our onsite surveys at Daiichi but haven’t advertised them either – if you’ve looked at our maps you’ve seen the data already. But Tepco is in a bit of a quandary of late. They know they’re viewed as evil, and are aware that the internet is full of stories claiming that the corpses of dead plant workers are stacked up in secret morgues. Even without the fake stories they know they fucked up stupendously. They’re Big Energy, with all the environmental depredation that implies, but despite that they seem to be hoping that they’ll be given due credit for their efforts to fix the situation. As part of this, they’ve taken steps to make the Daiichi plant more accessible to the public. In the past year over 10,000 people visited the Daiichi plant, and they’re trying to expand their capacity to 20,000 by the time of the Olympics in 2020.

Safecast map showing the data we have logged while visiting Fukushima Daiichi NPP

Safecast’s primary mission is to foster transparency and openness, particularly on the part of government and industry regarding the consequences of their actions for the environment. We’ll talk to anybody about this, and our non-ideological stance enables us to engage with a much wider range of counterparts than most organizations. This past summer our head researcher Azby Brown attended a conference at the IAEA in Vienna at which a couple of guys from TEPCO also presented. Their presentation sucked. And Azby told them so at dinner. That started the conversation. “How can we suck less?” they asked. “By being more transparent” Azby replied. The Tepco staff actually listened for a long time as Azby explained the Safecast viewpoint on what it means to be truly open, and how far Tepco has to go to meet that high bar. The key point being that even though they think they’re being open, and their openness has in fact improved a lot since 2011, it’s still a lot less than what the public has a right to expect, and less than the public can get from other sources, like Safecast.

As we’ve seen in so many situations, organizations who historically resist transparency efforts usually realize that the sky doesn’t fall when they open up. Tepco ended up inviting a busload of Safecasters to Daiichi, encouraging us to bring our bGeigies, knowing that we would upload the data to our open dataset and maps, and allowed us to bring more than one camera to document the whole thing. Someone there decided to take a chance on being open enough to allow Safecast, as an independent third-party, to publish radiation readings for the Daiichi site without the need for any subterfuge. This is a first. But we’re not stupid. We know they’re doing it for the PR. But we see it as a watershed moment when Tepco acknowledges the upside of having independent radiation measurements from ground zero of the disaster.

Here are a few of the photos we took, unless noted all photos by me (Sean Bonner):

Before beginning the tour, our guide explained exactly what we’d be seeing.
While most visitors are not allowed to leave the tour bus, we arranged to get off and walk around to take open air readings, which required additional safety gear. Here are Jam and Pieter getting suited up.
Our tour guide explained many things we couldn’t see in person with photographs
Our people, on the Daiichi tour bus. Plastic wrapping every surface.
Our viewing area provided a good vantage of  the reactor buildings.
Fukushima Daiichi Reactor Unit #1
bGeigie in front of Reactor Unit #1
Our bGeigie and Tepco’s own reading sign
Group photo! We had 10 bGeigies with us. (Photo: Safecast)
Contaminated water and soil in tanks and bags, awaiting disposal.
Tepco has radiation monitors all over the site displaying the current levels. We’re hoping to get this data, and co-locate Safecast sensors with some of them.

We’ll post another round of photos soon, once we have a chance to process them ourselves, and are currently working on plans for a return visit. Our immediate goal is to secure a location where independent sensors and monitoring equipment can be placed to provide a check against the Tepco sensors on site. We’ll update on that when we know more. Keep your fingers crossed.

While much of our work is done by volunteers, keeping servers online, deploying sensors and the day to day of running Safecast isn’t cheap. If you want to support our efforts with a monthly recurring or one time donation or contribute something to our Patreon, we’d very much appreciate it and it would enable us to do even more of this. Thank you.