Last week I visited the Fukushima exclusion zone with several other volunteers from the Safecast team for a tour we’ve been trying to organize for quite some time. This is the area directly impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear meltdown in March, 2011. I’ve been there before, but this was the first time we’d gotten official access to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as well. I’ve seen photos and videos of these buildings hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the last 7 years but nothing prepared me for standing there in front of them, and seeing how much work there is still to be done. I’m still processing it to be honest. It’s one thing to say these events killed over fifteen thousand people and displaced almost half a million more, it’s another thing to stand at what is effectively ground zero and feel the weight of the lives still being impacted by it on a daily basis.
We toured the plant and facilities, as well as several nearby cities that were evacuated almost overnight, at a moments notice, and haven’t been really touched since then. We also visited several large empty fields that used to be cities. I still don’t have the words to describe it, so I’ll try to show you a little of what I saw…
It’s worth mentioning that these are not places anyone can just walk into. The exclusion zone is managed by the local governments and the Fukushima Daiichi plant by Tepco, the power company who operates the plant. The exclusion zone continues to be adjusted based on contamination levels, and data published by Safecast has been referenced by decision makers and given citizens a crucial reality check about conditions in their hometowns. We received special invitations to visit both, which is important because it illustrates the deep connections and trust we’ve been able to build over the last several years. By working closely with the communities, being open about our processes and sharing what we learn, we’ve won trust and respect from all parties involved.
Safecast started because of a lack of information, a lack of trust, a lack of sharing, a lack of openness. 7 years ago it was very difficult to find any background radiation data, what you could find was averaged, out of date and locked behind restrictive licensing. Rumors of worst case scenarios were rampant. Today, we have built the largest global background radiation dataset ever assembled, larger than all previous sets combined, and put it entirely into the public domain. It can be yours in one click. It’s used and trusted by governments, activists and industry all over the world. It’s a testament to the power of open.
This isn’t just something that happened a few years ago–it’s ongoing. Tepco estimates it will be 30 years before the Daiichi plant will be completely decommissioned, and during that time the balance between removing the contamination and keeping it from spreading will continue to be precarious. And that is just one of many current situations worth keeping an eye on. A collapse at the location being used by North Korea for it’s ongoing nuclear tests presents a significant risk of fallout. If that happens, without a public sensor network in place, people will end up guessing about rumors, again. This isn’t just speculation: Earlier this year, a tunnel collapse at the highly nuclear-contaminated Hanford Site in Washington state sparked concern; and just this month a new release of radioactive particles from the plutonium finishing plant there seems to have contaminated several workers’ cars. Nearby residents have received no details and are left wondering what–if any–danger they are in. This is exactly the reason we are building out a realtime sensor network (including the just announced Solarcast Nano), but the world is a big place and we’ve got a lot of ground still to cover. Join us.Solarcast sensors in Los Angeles. Online and awaiting deployment.
Earlier this year we deployed our first batch of air quality sensors around Los Angeles. This month, when fires ravaged Southern California, we were able to move a number of these sensors around quickly to help give people an idea of what they might be breathing and where to go to avoid increased exposure. We only have 30 of these air quality sensors and were extremely lucky that they were already so close to where they were needed. Eventually we hope to have them all over the world, reporting and ready. We have significant outreach operations including workshops for children and schools, collaborations with local monitoring groups and explaining to governments why this is all so important.
However sensors, servers and services aren’t free, and building a world class global organization requires people and time. For the last 7 years our team of volunteers has done everything we can to make this happen, and the results more than speak for themselves. Safecast is unquestionably one of the most successful citizen science projects ever. Everything we’ve done so far has been made possible by the amazing support of partners like The Shuttleworth Foundation and The Knight Foundation, like Reid Hoffman and Jesse Powell who trusted us and our vision, and provided resources for us to make it happen. Looking ahead I want to grow a larger base of recurring monthly donors so individual giving can fluctuate without bringing our work to a halt. I want to cover more ground and publish more data, but to do that we need to build more sensors and turn volunteers into employees.Our Tepco guide explains things from inside the bus, in areas where it was too dangerous for us to get out.
Since day one Safecast has been volunteer powered, non-profit, independent to the core. While we could easily get funding from governments, energy companies or environmental funds, this would put our neutrality into question so we regularly refuse these sources of funding. But that’s not to say funding isn’t important — without funding we disappear. This is why your individual contributions matter. Safecast data comes from a collection of devices where — in a sense — no single device matters, but — in another sense — every single device matters. You might think that a $10 monthly contribution doesn’t matter, but as part of a community of donors, each $10 contribution is crucial. All of the individual parts come together to create larger than the sum of the parts, something unstoppable.
This doesn’t happen without you, and your donations enable us to do more every day. If you’d like to join with us by setting up a recurring monthly donation, we’ve got many options on our site including a newly launched Patreon.