Open Dialogue

by David Ewald

From the start, we’ve known that a longer-form dialogue would be necessary for this site. We will be using this blog to help bring a bit of context to the site, what the data means and where it is going. We will have guest columns from nuclear experts in an effort to provide valuable analysis to the information.

To start, we wanted to offer a bit of background.

As we’ve watched the unfathomable footage of the tragedies in Japan unfold, we’ve recognized the critical role reliable information plays in helping people to understand and cope with what’s happened.

This site, and the idea behind it, started with fear. In the past week, the world has been inundated with various reports of radiation. Several government agencies were issuing conflicting reports regarding radiation levels in and around the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Our hope in launching this site is that clear, reliable data can provide focus on the critical relief efforts needed in Japan. It is not, nor should it be considered, a replacement for official information. This site supplements information by providing several data feeds.

We’ve been working day and night to find and integrate new data sources that can help provide reliable data. For the time being, thankfully, it seems that levels are low enough that our friends in Japan can focus on recovery without worrying about increased radiation. In the event that the situation changes, our data will reflect those differences.

Since launching on Saturday, we have been inundated with support alongside thoughtful critique. We are thankful for both, and welcome an open dialogue for how to improve the data, functionality and reliability of the site.

In an effort to start that dialogue, we wanted to discuss some of the themes that have emerged.

Crowdsourcing

Though we’re extremely thankful for the individuals and media organizations who have helped spread the word about this site, we want to emphasize: We understand the sensitive nature of this data and are approaching it as such. Crowdsourcing, while an undoubted buzz word in the media, implies that unfiltered data is being pulled in and displayed as fact.

To help ensure the reliability of data, we will be introducing a flagging system to highlight suspicious readings.

Reliability of Data

Without question, this is a critical issue. We’re aware of it, and are working to make sure this site offers a responsible look at radiation levels. Since launching the site, we’ve been introduced to a number of organizations and individuals who want to help and we’re forming partnerships with nuclear experts to bring context to these important numbers.

We’re aware of the limitations in terms of required equipment, including well-calibrated radiation monitors used by knowledgeable individuals in a set location where background (normal) levels are known.

We understand the issues and are working closely with experts to close those as efficiently as possible. In the meantime, we have been working closely with organizations in Japan and abroad to provide new data feeds.

Mapping

We have had a number of suggestions regarding the mapping of this data. We are hoping to release new versions of maps soon - including average values over time, filters for different data streams, heat maps and data for areas outside of Japan. Though we don’t have an established timeline for these feature sets, they are in our plans.

Data

We have had several requests to provide data for use outside the site. Because of several of the issues above, we are working to produce a reliable data set before introducing an API for use beyond the site.

That said, a publicly available data feed is also being planned for the site.

Financial Aspects

We’ve been asked a number of times why we are doing this. In short, we are five individuals (alongside several partners outside our company) who want to help in whatever way we can. This turned very quickly from an idea to reality. We’re not being paid anything for our work.

All proceeds from our site links go 100% to charity organizations in Japan. We are not, nor do we intend to, seeking financial gain from this project, though we are actively investigating ways to make this a more sustainable endeavor for our company. We have each made independent donations to organizations, and encourage you to offer whatever you can to help the people affected by this crisis.

We will use this blog to continue dialogue in such a rapidly changing crisis — Including blog entries from guest writers. We welcome your thoughts on the site, the data, how to improve and, most importantly, how to help.

Guest Contribution: A Discussion on Radiation and Radioactive Material

by Alan Stinchcombe

Editor’s Note: Alan Stinchcombe is a retired physics teacher who resides in Suffolk, UK. He is currently collaboratively writing a school textbook on computer science.

Radioactive fission or other decay processes occurring in radioactive materials can produce nuclear radiations such as gamma rays and neutrons that have substantial ranges in air.  Industrial or therapeutic exposure to such radiation can occur without any release of radioactive material from its container.  However, the currently raised levels of radiation dose rate in some parts of Japan are the result of environmental pollution by radioactive material following recent damage to several nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage facilities.

The New York Times has been careful to distinguish between radioactive material and radiation (see, for example, its article on reactor status).  However, the BBC has been less scientifically literate in its reporting, using less scientifically-accurate terminology in an effort to simplify complex notions such as using the term ‘radiation’ to refer to both radiation and radioactive material.  For example, one BBC report states: ‘Tepco will have to compensate farmers for losses caused by the nuclear radiation leaking from its power plants’.

Obviously, the two concepts are intimately related and radiation is the simplest method of detecting the presence of radioactive material. Yet we need to distinguish between radiation as a tell-tale marker of radioactive materials and the damaging dose of radiation that radioactive material can deliver once it contaminates our environment and ultimately finds its way into our bodies.

Outside the evacuation zone around a nuclear accident, at a distance of tens or hundreds of kilometres, the intensity of even the most penetrating radiation from the accident is very low.  However, radioactive material ejected into the atmosphere or washed into waterways can travel long distances, although it becomes more and more diluted as it spreads.  A relatively low level of radiation from a relatively small amount of a radioactive substance is not very hazardous provided that we can remove ourselves from the vicinity of the material and keep it out of our drinking water and food chain. The radiation travels rapidly, in some cases at the speed of light, so it does not itself persist.  Depending on the type of radiation, it may be harmlessly absorbed by our outer, dead layers of skin, be absorbed within our bodies, or even travel through our bodies with relatively little absorption.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone, although living cells can accumulate damage from radiation that can cause cancer later in life.

Some radioactive substances are relatively slow to undergo radioactive decay, so that they are long-lived.  These can persist in the soil so that they continue to contaminate water, food crops and animal feed.  If even small amounts of long-lived radioactive materials become incorporated into our bodies, they may remain there irradiating our tissues for decades and present a significant health hazard.

RDTN.ORG is working on ways of visualising the geographical distribution of crowd-sourced radiation dose rates in its Google Maps mashup.  It is worth bearing in mind that, at the time of writing, the highest dose rate currently reported on the site is little more than three times the average individual background radiation dose rate for Americans, who themselves experience slightly above the global average for geological reasons.

The infographic by XKCD helps to put these dose rates into perspective.  However, very little background radiation normally comes from airborne radioactive material, except on rock that releases radon gas.  The current Japanese estimated radiation dose rates are based on measurements of external radiation.  While pollution by radioactive materials presents a relatively low hazard outside the body, it presents a greatly-increased, radiotoxic hazard if these materials enter the body by inhalation of radioactive dust or gases or by ingestion of radioactive substances in food or drink.  The resulting internal radiation is more hazardous since, when radioactive materials are in intimate contact with living tissue, even short-range radiation such as alpha and beta particles can damage the body.

Since both soil and atmosphere naturally contain tiny concentrations of radioactive substances, our whole food chain contains low levels of radioactivity, so that our own bodies are mildly radioactive and are therefore sources of low-level internal radiation, as well as irradiating our nearest and dearest!  For example, it has been estimated that eating a banana can expose a person to a radiation dose that could be equivalent to several hundred hours of exposure to the average background dose rate.

Ingestion of radioactively-contaminated food or drink or inhalation of radioactive smoke or dust has the potential to bring considerably larger quantities of radioactive substances into contact with body tissues.  It is important to avoid excessive permanent accumulation of radioactive substances in the body, as this leads to ongoing exposure to internal radiation, even when the environmental dose rate falls.  For example, when exposed to radioactive iodine, it is important to take iodide tablets to guard against absorption of the radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland. Unfortunately, there is no simple test for the presence of radioactive iodine, so people are dependent on timely information from official sources.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Stinchcombe.