War and Piecemeal Data

Satellite view of Chernobyl NPP on March 10, 2022 (Credit: MAXAR). Overlay: Nearby gov’t data readout, March 14, 2022, by SaveEcoBot.

Around this time last year, SAFECAST held a 16-hour global livestream event to mark our 10th anniversary and that of the March 2011 triple disaster in Japan — earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima NPP meltdowns. What a difference a year makes. 

The sense of emergency in Fukushima dissipated several years ago, having been supplanted by better understanding of the potential long-term environmental and humanitarian consequences of the disaster. This has meant that we and others have shifted to long-term thinking and action there. But the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine put us all back into our familiar “rapid response” mode of information gathering, verification, and dissemination.

To be honest, we’re saddened that this devastating war has made it necessary. During the invasion there have already been several incidents relating to nuclear safety and security and environmental radiological monitoring that have captured international attention. Was there a radiation increase when Chernobyl was occupied? Will there be an increase if there is a loss of electricity? What might happen at a nuclear power plant being hit by rockets?

What was true in the aftermath of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi remains true now: consistent data, freely obtained and transparently available from a source which engenders trust, can provide reassurance and alleviate the sense of helplessness experienced by people under duress. From the outset, SAFECAST has believed that in order to be considered trustworthy and useful by the public, particularly in times of crisis, data needs it be independent, open, and decentralized (see “DeDa”).

We’ve been very active posting information on Twitter and more detailed analyses on our blog. Our work dovetails well with that of many others who have been making use of publicly available information to help explain what’s happening. Our experience with radiation issues, monitoring networks in particular, has made it possible for us to make a contribution in this area. But we’ve been dealing with very fragmented data availability. It’s been piecemeal at best.

When Russian forces occupied the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) as well as the wider Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on February 24th, we immediately hunted for available radiation data. As we have pointed out, our database contains a considerable amount of data from the site gathered in previous years by volunteers using our mobile bGeigies. But we have no realtime monitors there that could help inform people about recent changes in radiation levels.

In Ukraine, the official sources of radiation data have understandably struggled to stay online, but some information has been available. For example the website of the Radioactivity Environmental Monitoring (REM) group of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission posts readings from the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Center monitoring system. Our colleagues at the Ukrainian non-profit SaveEcoBot aggregate data from many government systems when it is available.

Since the start of the invasion, however, many useful monitoring networks in Ukraine have been intermittent and unstable. Over time all of the official Ukrainian government public radiation data websites have become inaccessible. Some reportedly suffered DDOS attacks, servers lost power due to Russia’s destruction of the power grid, and communication links were reportedly broken by damage to cellular communication towers

Ukrainian authorities are performing heroically trying to provide information under a continuing deadly onslaught. We’ve been informed that the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy eventually decided to keep their systems offline for security reasons, which is plausible. They’re still offline at the time of writing. War has skewed public data provision to the point where an NPO, SaveEcoBot, is providing information the government has collected but is unable to provide to the public itself. That’s a landmark event, and SaveEcoBot is doing really heavy lifting.

The Russian attacks are the immediate cause of the loss of public data. Understandably, the current systems were not designed for war-zone conditions. But we hope a lesson is being learned about the importance of designing monitoring data systems so that they are not overly centralized or have choke points or single points of failure. It shouldn’t be possible for a government or other entity to cut off access to public radiation monitoring data, either intentionally or through human error. This is particularly true when public concern is heightened as it is now in Ukraine. Vulnerability to armed conflict means these systems should be made as resilient and robust as possible.

SAFECAST systems are designed to leverage redundancy and openness from the start. Our entire database is freely downloadable without the need for permission. We’ve made it easy for numerous copies to be stored all over the world so that the data can be made quickly available again in the event of the loss of servers or denial of internet access. Our realtime monitoring data is stored in two separate databases, and a dormant cloud sever can be brought online in a few minutes if necessary. Our devices can store several years’ worth of data internally as well. Over the years we have implemented several data transmission protocols, including WiFi, LoRa, and cellular, eventually settling on the latter due to its decreasing cost and ubiquity. Disruption to cellular networks has been a large contributing factor in the loss of public data in Ukraine, which reinforces our commitment to finding ways to maximize our systems’ survivability and data integrity.

As always, we couldn’t do what we do without our many volunteers as well as experts who are willing to share their opinions with us. There’s huge linkage between Fukushima and Ukraine, and many of our friends there have had long-term working collaborations with groups in Chernobyl. People in Ukraine continue to tell us what they’re seeing and hearing first-hand. We’re extremely concerned for their safety and hope that we’re doing justice to them in how we share their findings with the public.

One can ask whether the right time to discuss the weaknesses of public radiation monitoring systems is in the middle of a devastating war where millions are struggling just to stay alive. Our answer is that recent events should make it clear that radiation monitoring data is part of the ongoing information war. The reckless Russian targeting of Ukrainian nuclear facilities has led to widespread fear of major radiation releases. This fear itself is being deployed by Russia as a weapon against Ukraine and the rest of the world, and we believe that easily available timely and trustworthy information is the only antidote.

Ukrainians known and unknown have struggled to keep online data sharing available for others to be informed by and to act on. Fortunately, despite attacks on several nuclear facilities, major radiation releases have been avoided so far.  We’re in an information war that should be won with truth. We say, flood the zone with open data.