Japanese nuclear crisis boosts interest in at-home radiation monitoring

By Eric Niiler Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 5:13 PM

Some people are so concerned about the possibility of harmful radiation from Japan they have started their own do-it-yourself backyard radiation monitoring system - just like weather-watchers - except these folks are equipped with handheld Geiger counters and a strong distrust of the government.

"There's a hunger out there," said Tim Flanegin, who runs the Radiation Network Web site from Prescott, Ariz. "People are telling me they can't get any information from the government and they don't believe what's coming."

Flanegin's network uses hand-held Geiger counters connected to laptop computers and his own software program to generate an online map with radiation levels displayed by members of the volunteer group.

"It's a grass-roots effort and we have a lot of good citizens doing their patriotic duty," Flanegin said.

So far, they haven't turned up anything unusual.

Flanegin sells Geiger counters on his Web site that cost anywhere from $260 to $1,200 each. Originally designed for rockhounds to identify gems and minerals in the desert Southwest, Flanegin sold out his entire stock last week.

Mark Krubsack, a 56-year-old retired IRS agent, uses an older radiation counter to explore abandoned uranium mines in the mountains near his home in Fresno, Calif. After the nuclear accident in Japan, he bought a new Geiger counter and hooked it up to a personal computer. He checks the readings several times a day and posts them online. Krubsack said he doesn't trust the information he's receiving from government health or environmental officials.

"I believe they have an agenda not to cause panic or concern and I don't think they provide accurate information," Krubsack said. So far, he hasn't seen anything unusual, though.

"This is hopefully once-in-a-lifetime thing. There's not a whole heck of a lot of things I could do about it. I tried to get potassium iodide pills, but they were all sold out," he said, referring to the compound that can block certain harmful effects of radiation on the thyroid gland and is being given to residents of affected areas around the earthquake-damaged nuclear plant in Japan.

Krubsack is part of a network of radiation watchers led by Chris Smolinski, who runs a home-based electronics business called Black Cat Systems out of his Westminster, Md., home. Smolinski also builds and sells portable Geiger counters. But he doesn't share the anti-government views of some of his clients.

"There are all sorts of people who think there are government conspiracies about everything," Smolinski said. "I think the [radiation] data is completely accurate. I'm just curious."

Some experts say these hand-held devices aren't sensitive enough to pick up radiation from the nuclear plant in Japan and that people might be wasting their time and money.

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