Citizen scientists take on a nuclear crisis

27 February 2014

Ordinary residents are doing extraordinary things in the wake of Japan's 2011 triple disaster, writes Tabitha Carvan.

Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki was devastated by the news of the 3 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, particularly as her husband's family originates from Fukushima Prefecture, the site of the subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown.

Morris-Suzuki immediately began researching the effects of radiation exposure.

"One of the things that made me quite angry was the response of the experts, both in the Japanese government and in some of the international agencies," she says.

"What worries me is that scientists do projections saying maybe the radiation isn't going to be as high as we thought of to begin with, which is reassuring.

"But then some scientists and officials take it a step further and say there's nothing to worry about, the only thing to worry about is being worried - 'Just smile and stop worrying!' - which is really useless if you're one of the people affected."

After traveling to Fukushima prefecture to find out more, Morris-Suzuki discovered groups of local citizens who, like her, were sick of waiting for answers from the experts, and were taking matters into their own hands.

"There's been a really remarkable response to the disaster from ordinary people in Fukushima Prefecture, who have been learning extremely complicated scientific information in order to do their own health checks and radiation measurements," Morris-Suzuki says.

"One group that I've been looking at is a network of volunteers, with eight little centres. They've raised the money to buy quite sophisticated radiation measuring equipment, and then, because all the people doing this are not experts, they've had to go to lectures, go to the library, look up things on the Internet, and learn how to measure radiation in food and in human bodies."

These citizen scientists - including mothers with school-age children, retirees and farmers - work in small lead-lined rooms tucked away behind village shops, testing the levels of radioactive caesium in produce brought in by other concerned locals, and sometimes also providing checks with full body counters.

"The volunteers say that initially they got a lot of people coming to them because the government wasn't doing radiation measurements.

"Now the local government and various medical institutions are doing quite a lot of measurements and health checks, so the numbers have gone down. But people are still coming to the citizens' measuring stations because they don't believe the official health checks, and want a second opinion."

For many of the locals affected by the meltdown, dealing with their own government has been a leap of faith.

"The level of trust for authorities among local residents is very low because when the accident happened they were told there wasn't going to be a meltdown and then there was a meltdown, and there wasn't going to be much radiation, and then there was a large release of radiation," Morris-Suzuki says.

"The people in these citizens' radiation measuring stations are trying really, really hard not to be political either way, because they just want to be able to provide information that people can trust.

"They try to be very open about it. On their website they post all the core food measurements. A lot of the foodstuffs produced in Fukushima don't have any measurable radiation, but some have really high levels."

Morris-Suzuki's research in Fukushima forms part of her broader ARC Laureate project on what she calls 'informal life politics', looking at Mongolia, Taiwan, mainland China, South Korea and North Korea, as well as Japan.

"It's about ordinary people stepping into a situation where ordinarily you would expect the authorities to take control. Because the authorities haven't taken control, or they haven't been trusted, ordinary people have stepped in to fill the gap."

She says her experience with the people of Fukushima Prefecture, who she describes as "amazingly positive", has brought a new perspective to her research, and even changed her approach as a researcher.

"It has made me really interested in what the nuclear accident means for the relationship between academic scientific knowledge and the knowledge of the people on the ground. It's so important for the academic experts to be on the ground and to listen to people's experiences.

"It's really given me respect for the knowledge of ordinary people and the way they can actually play a role in helping to solve their own problems."

This article forms part of the Australian National University's Asia Pacific Ideas series. Read more ideas and vote for your favourite at Vote for this idea here.