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.
“I think that people who are out to go and get hysterical will fulfill their mission,” said Ed Morse, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.
Morse says that the devices might confuse people who will find small amounts of background radiation in ordinary things like kitty litter, salt substitutes or granite countertops.
To detect the kind of nuclear isotopes produced by nuclear fission requires a device that can sample large quantities of the air over time and then analyze the results in an accredited laboratory. Morse and other experts say these small Geiger counters might come in handy if you live next to a nuclear plant, but not if you are trying to detect radiation from far away.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency runs its own network of 124 air monitors to detect radiation called RadNet. Results are posted online. The Energy Department also maintains the capability to detect tiny quantities of radioisotopes that might indicate underground nuclear tests, according to a statement by EPA officials last week. One of these detectors in Sacramento picked up a small quantity of the isotope xenon-133 “approximately one-millionth of the dose rate that a person normally receives from rocks, bricks, the sun and other natural background sources,” said the EPA statement.
Some firms say the current nuclear crisis is good for business. SE International has shipped several hundred Geiger counters to Japanese residents dealing with the disaster, as well as fearful U.S. residents. The Summertown, Tenn., firm has added three additional workers to its 16-person staff to keep up with demand, said sales manager Beth Cramer. Still, she’s not too worried about potential health effects.
“People are over-concerned,” Cramer said. “There are a bunch of nervous Nellies out there.”