There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.
Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.
The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.
It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.
For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?
To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.
Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.
Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning
But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.
Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.
During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)
So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.
I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.
I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.
That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.
That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.
It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.
While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)
And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?
Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?
It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)
If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”