Radioactive Contamination and Citizen Science after Fukushima

By Maxime Polleri, York University

Rising a whopping 13 microsieverts per hour, it took a single step for my Geiger counter to go berserk. Telling a different story about this seemingly undistinguished patch of grass, my radiation detection monitor lit up like a Christmas tree. I was walking around Iitate, a small Japanese village deeply affected by radioactive contamination in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. My guides were former farmers from the area. Most of them were holding some sort of radiation measuring devices in all sorts of sizes and shapes, some small enough to fit into one’s pocket. In a locus where the boundary between the physical and the non-physical is barely perceptible to the naked eye, these devices become essential extensions of the body. Like an artificial sensory organ, they allowed people to (re)learn how to feel, see, and touch; they produce new understanding of one’s self, blurring the edge between the natural and the man-made. After Fukushima, this hybrid of man and machine marks a shift towards the cyborg; a material manifestation of late industrialism.

Image 1: A citizen in Iitate measuring the level of radiation

Seeking to make sense of the ongoing issue of radioactive contamination, an immeasurable number of voices grew and intensified over state management of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In trying to understand the scope, character, and actual effects of radiation danger, a divergence of expertise resulted in controversial debates within public, scientific, and political spheres. In this context of uncertainty, Japanese citizens gave themselves the technical ability to track radioactive contamination, which has been manifested by the creation of citizen science centers.

Building my own Geiger counter with one of those newly founded organizations, I felt as though this device could alleviate the risk of radioactive contamination. Yet, my reason for being in the still contaminated town of Iitate was due to a change of standards in radiological safety protection, in which the Japanese government had increased the permissible exposure dose of radiation from 1 mSv to 20 mSv. Simply put, residents have been forced to accept a revised threshold that is 20 times larger than before and formerly reserved for nuclear workers (see Polleri 2016). The double bind that shapes one’s engagement with toxicity suddenly hit me; results that were not so long ago dangerous were, in this new standard, recoded as “normal.” This new situation offered little flexibility, and forced new ways of thinking, living, and experiencing this altered environment.

Image 2: DIY Geiger counter workshop

A few months ago, I felt overwhelmingly excited about the much needed sensory potential that this device withheld. Yet, now that I was literally standing in a pile of radioactive mud, I began to wonder if the Geiger had not transformed itself into Pandora’s box. After all, I wasn’t really supposed to be there in the first place – that is, according to the former safety standard. I could not help but ask myself: To what degree are citizens actually empowered by such forms of technoscientific practices?

For many people living in Fukushima, the raw data produced by citizen scientists has been perceived as a needed form of empowerment in contrast to the state management’s lack of transparency in data production of radioactive contamination. Since citizen science organizations are not directly linked with governmental infrastructures, their data is often seen through the eyes of an apolitical enterprise; residents of Fukushima, who have lost their trust in the state, deem it much more objective. Such a change quickly peaked my curiosity, and through ethnographical research, I began to explore how sense perception and technical prosthesis produce specific regimes of evidence around radioactive contamination and how this impacts citizen perceptions of personal risk. Over the course of my fieldwork, it became apparent that a newly heightened sensibility to nuclear materials did not just produce more knowledge about radiation risks, but equally, a new set of relationships with what was formerly considered as dangerous. In many centers, I observed that while citizens produced technical knowledge around radiation, at the same time they re-produced forms of ignorance, which could be detrimental to their very own health.

One example among many was during my own Do-It-Yourself Geiger counter workshop. Building the Geiger was no easy task, but there was nonetheless an apparent excitement in the faces of the participants present. The technical prowess required to assemble the device implied a profound sense of investment and participation, which no longer created a clear-cut separation between the individual and the fearful agent of radioactive contamination. As soon as the device was completed, participants started to test it all around and on different materials, having fun in using a device that is rarely a laughing matter for radiation experts. Most people left, having not simply built a tool, but equally new modes of sensing and new forms of subjectivity upon their own capacity.

Holding the finished product, many questions popped into my head, such as how does a Sievert exactly relate to health risks? Yet none of the citizen scientists present on that day had any expertise in radiation biology, so to answer my questions I had to turn to educational materials made available by the Japanese government – the same actor who had changed the safety standards. Furthermore, a Geiger is a simple measuring device and measurement is not an end in itself. A Geiger gives you a number without context. It doesn’t tell you that radioactive pollutants such as Strontium-90 sticks to your bones or that women and children are far more sensitive to radiation. As such, monitoring can also act as a false sense of security – it produces evidence for a specific physical frame, but blinds you to the temporal sense of low dose chronic exposure and its potential harm, which includes a displacement in time.

Many members of the center also refused to take any political position, claiming that they were simply pro-data. Yet, in doing so, they took data as a universal truth, not questioning that radiation safety standards had been supported by social, political, and economic factors that mitigate the risk of chronic low-dose exposure (Goldstein and Stawkowski 2015). This translated into a conviction that knowledge could be apolitical and that citizens could operationalize the “power of raw science” for democratic purposes.

While citizens can produce data, the interpretation of its meaning can also be influenced without the full extent of their knowledge. While I do not want to blindly criticize their contribution, my main concern relates with the finality of data production. If we understand data as a trusted form of knowledge acquisition, which action can be based upon, then we see that data is rarely used to promote the possibility of an evacuation from an irradiated place. Instead of promoting the possibility of evacuation for vulnerable agents (like children), these technoscientific practices can also maintain a population under its existing social condition. This is where the application of specific technoscientific practices can become potentially dangerous. Indeed, data or standards are never stand-alone paradigms; they are the result of specific socio-cultural responses. Even if citizens have good intentions, they can resort to a system of knowledge that has been extremely influenced by pro-nuclear organizations, one in which what counts as an acceptable risk is something that often serve the interest of the nation-state and industrial complex before those of individuals (Cram 2016).

This was the case of a particular citizen science center I encountered during my fieldwork. While the organization in question claimed to be independent, it was in fact born from European financing linked with the nuclear lobby and its chief representative had an expertise in cost-benefit analysis. The purpose of this organization was to involve affected citizens in post-disaster management. Since many individuals had lost faith in the state’s experts, it was the organization’s mission to empower the people through citizen science.

During one of the organization”s meetings, I was surprised to note that every individual present had a small dosimeter attached to the neck. It was almost like a new body part, or a pair of glasses that you put on without thinking about it. With that little glass badge, citizens could follow their exposure level. While comparing their dose, people talked about radiation with a smile on their face, even joking about it. For the children, monitoring devices had almost become like a game; a modern day tamagotchi which taught you about life, but at a much more insidious level. It is this very normalization – of their situation and of man-made radioactive pollutants – which I found extremely uncanny. This normalization of monitoring had become ingrained into one’s daily life.

The organization claimed that they did not force people to stay; but their goal was not to discourage them from leaving either. The technological responses presented promised that citizens could become experts in their everyday life while being sensitive to their new environmental condition. This enacted an affect of empowerment, producing an expert sensibility that was erroneously considered as apolitical. New forms of sensitization could ironically entrain a desensitization of the context in which a politics of risk threshold had been created. What you had was a pro-nuclear organization that spread its network in the very smile of children who felt empowered by learning about radiation, and importantly, a specific mobilization of radiological science that mitigates the risk of radiation so that the situation appears as safe enough to pursue life. This particular definition of empowerment meant assessing the level of risk; it did not imply a complete dissociation toward it. Rather, it meant that one needed to embrace risk, to become one with the very own source of what had ironically caused their suffering, where risk was re-cast as an embodied sensory idiom, a smile. Importantly, the expertise of this center was not merely verbal, but tactile, lively, and embodied. Learning about radiation was an interactive process, in which testing mushrooms for contamination had become, for the children, more of a play time than a safety measure.

Most of the practices that I tracked did not instantiate the sense of being a victim, but rather induced citizens with a feeling of pragmatic expertise, in which they could reclaim control of their lives – something that the government was not able to provide. Yet in doing so, the responsibility for radiological protection is shifted from the state to the individual. This can equally make the narrative of victimization and its possible compensation much harder to articulate for the people who perceived themselves as such. Crucially, if you get sick, it’s not the citizen scientist that will cure you or pay for your operation.

In the end, it became evident that the practices of citizen scientists did not simply consist of tracking radioactive contamination, but that they equally altered the affective relationship that individuals maintain with radiation. Often, radiation was no longer rationalized as a mere harmful agent; it was experienced as a world of scientific amusement and technological empowerment, where an embodied feeling of expertise could eliminate the disturbing aspect of man-made radioactive pollutants. The sensorial attunement of citizen science produces a kind of political sensibility that is more subtle and diffuse, but that is still linked with matters of life and death. I would encourage anthropologists to explore how new modes of sense perception induce new ways of depoliticizing radiation risks, as well as to be attuned to how expert feelings enable the orientation of bodies – bodies of real flesh and bodies of knowledge – in the late industrialism of radioactive contamination.

Image 3: Unrestricted access to radioactive materials

Works Cited

Cram, Shannon. 2016. Living in Dose: Nuclear Work and the Politics of Permissible Exposure. Public Culture. 28(3): 519-539.

Goldstein, Donna M., and Magdalena E. Stawkowski. 2015. James V. Neel and Yuri E. Dubrova: Cold War Debates and the Genetic Effects of Low-Dose Radiation. Journal of the History of Biology. 48(1): 67-98.

Polleri, Maxime. 2016. Tracking Radioactive Contamination after Fukushima. Anthropology Now. 8(2): 90-103.


This essay is part of Sensorial Engagements with a Toxic World, a special series curated by Chisato Fukuda.

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