Peer-to-Peer Science: The Century-Long Challenge to Respond to Fukushima

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(Sterneck / Flickr)

More than two years after an earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on a Japanese power plant, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is one of the most serious threats to public health in the Asia-Pacific, and the worst case of nuclear contamination the world has ever seen. Radiation continues to leak from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi site into groundwater, threatening to contaminate the entire Pacific Ocean. The cleanup will require an unprecedented global effort.

Initially, the leaked radioactive materials consisted of cesium-137 and 134, and to a lesser degree iodine-131. Of these, the real long-term threat comes from cesium-137, which is easily absorbed into bodily tissue—and its half-life of 30 years means it will be a threat for decades to come. Recent measurements indicate that escaping water also has increasing levels of strontium-90, a far more dangerous radioactive material than cesium. Strontium-90 mimics calcium and is readily absorbed into the bones of humans and animals.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) recently announced that it lacks the expertise to effectively control the flow of radiation into groundwater and seawater and is seeking help from the Japanese government. TEPCO has proposed setting up a subterranean barrier around the plant by freezing the ground, thereby preventing radioactive water from eventually leaking into the ocean—an approach that has never before been attempted in a case of massive radiation leakage. TEPCO has also proposed erecting additional walls now that the existing wall has been overwhelmed by the approximately 400 tons per day of water flowing into the power plant.

But even if these proposals were to succeed, they would not constitute a long-term solution.

A New Space Race

Solving the Fukushima Daiichi crisis needs to be considered a challenge akin to putting a person on the moon in the 1960s. This complex technological feat will require focused attention and the concentration of tremendous resources over decades. But this time the effort must be international, as the situation potentially puts the health of hundreds of millions at risk. The long-term solution to this crisis deserves at least as much attention from government and industry as do nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the economy, and crime.

To solve the Fukushima Daiichi problem will require enlisting the best and the brightest to come up with a long-term plan to be implemented over the next century. Experts from around the world need to contribute their insights and ideas. They should come from diverse fields—engineering, biology, demographics, agriculture, philosophy, history, art, urban design, and more. They will need to work together at multiple levels to develop a comprehensive assessment of how to rebuild communities, resettle people, control the leakage of radiation, dispose safely of the contaminated water and soil, and contain the radiation. They will also need to find ways to completely dismantle the damaged reactor, although that challenge may require technologies not available until decades from now.

Such a plan will require the development of unprecedented technologies, such as robots that can function in highly radioactive environments. This project might capture the imagination of innovators in the robotics world and give a civilian application to existing military technology. Improved robot technology would prevent the tragic scenes of old people and others volunteering to enter into the reactors at the risk of their own wellbeing.

The Fukushima disaster is a crisis for all of humanity, but it is a crisis that can serve as an opportunity to construct global networks for unprecedented collaboration. Groups or teams aided by sophisticated computer technology can start to break down into workable pieces the immense problems resulting from the ongoing spillage. Then experts can come back with the best recommendations and a concrete plan for action. The effort can draw on the precedents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but it must go far further.

In his book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, Michael Nielsen describes principles of networked science that can be applied on an unprecedented scale. The breakthroughs that come from this effort can also be used for other long-term programs such as the cleanup of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the global response to climate change. The collaborative research regarding Fukushima should take place on a very large scale, larger than the sequencing of the human genome or the maintenance of the Large Hadron Collider.

Finally, there is an opportunity to entirely reinvent the field of public diplomacy in response to this crisis. Public diplomacy can move from a somewhat ambiguous effort by national governments to repackage their messaging to a serious forum for debate and action on international issues. As public diplomacy matures through the experience of Fukushima, we can devise new strategies for bringing together hundreds of thousands of people around the world to respond to mutual threats. Taking a clue from networked science, public diplomacy could serve as a platform for serious, long-term international collaboration on critical topics such as poverty, renewable energy, and pollution control.

Similarly, this crisis could serve as the impetus to make social networking do what it was supposed to do: help people combine their expertise to solve common problems. Social media could be used not as a means of exchanging photographs of lattes and overfed cats, but rather as an effective means of assessing the accuracy of information, exchanging opinions between experts, forming a general consensus, and enabling civil society to participate directly in governance. With the introduction into the social media platform of adequate peer review—such as that advocated by the Peer-to-Peer Foundation (P2P)—social media can play a central role in addressing the Fukushima crisis and responding to it. As a leader in the P2P movement, Michel Bauwens, suggests in an email, “peers are already converging in their use of knowledge around the world, even in manufacturing at the level of computers, cars, and heavy equipment.”

Here we may find the answer to the Fukushima conundrum: open the problem up to the whole world.

Peer-to-Peer Science

Making Fukushima a global project that seriously engages both experts and common citizens in the millions, or tens of millions, could give some hope to the world after two and a half years of lies, half-truths, and concerted efforts to avoid responsibility on the part of the Japanese government and international institutions. If concerned citizens in all countries were to pore through the data and offer their suggestions online, there could be a new level of transparency in the decision-making process and a flourishing of invaluable insights.

There is no reason why detailed information on radiation emissions and the state of the reactors should not be publicly available in enough detail to satisfy the curiosity of a trained nuclear engineer. If the question of what to do next comes down to the consensus of millions of concerned citizens engaged in trying to solve the problem, we will have a strong alternative to the secrecy that has dominated so far. Could our cooperation on the solution to Fukushima be an imperative to move beyond the existing barriers to our collective intelligence posed by national borders, corporate ownership, and intellectual property concerns?

A project to classify stars throughout the university has demonstrated that if tasks are carefully broken up, it is possible for laypeople to play a critical role in solving technical problems. In the case of Galaxy Zoo, anyone who is interested can qualify to go online and classify different kinds of stars situated in distant galaxies and enter the information into a database. It’s all part of a massive effort to expand our knowledge of the universe, which has been immensely successful and demonstrated that there are aspects of scientific analysis that does not require a Ph.D. In the case of Fukushima, if an ordinary person examines satellite photographs online every day, he or she can become more adept than a professor in identifying unusual flows carrying radioactive materials. There is a massive amount of information that requires analysis related to Fukushima, and at present most of it goes virtually unanalyzed.

An effective response to Fukushima needs to accommodate both general and specific perspectives. It will initially require a careful and sophisticated setting of priorities. We can then set up convergence groups that, aided by advanced computation and careful efforts at multidisciplinary integration, could respond to crises and challenges with great effectiveness. Convergence groups can also serve as a bridge between the expert and the layperson, encouraging a critical continuing education about science and society.

Responding to Fukushima is as much about educating ordinary people about science as it is about gathering together highly paid experts. It is useless for experts to come up with novel solutions if they cannot implement them. But implementation can only come about if the population as a whole has a deeper understanding of the issues. Large-scale networked science efforts that are inclusive will make sure that no segments of society are left out.

If the familiar players (NGOs, central governments, corporations, and financial institutions) are unable to address the unprecedented crises facing humanity, we must find ways to build social networks, not only as a means to come up with innovative concepts, but also to promote and implement the resulting solutions. That process includes pressuring institutions to act. We need to use true innovation to pave the way to an effective application of science and technology to the needs of civil society. There is no better place to start than the Internet and no better topic than the long-term response to the Fukushima disaster.

Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute in Seoul, where Layne Hartsell is a research fellow.

  • Randy White

    Thank you Layne and Emanuel for your insightful analysis. I have a three year old daughter, and am vexed at the thought of helplessness – so I am activated to get in the game to help 1) Stop the radioactive bleeding, and 2) Absorb the radioactive blood washing up on the US west coast.

    #1) is beyond my expertise, but #2) is something everyone can get involved with.

    SocialMedia wise, requests are now being made for the sharing of Geiger counters on a nationwide sharing network recently activated at http://www.brightneighbor.com. It can be used to mobilize resources along the west coast, and one technological solution being pursued is to follow the lead of those who helped clean up Chernobyl using Hemp, and turning the hemp into fuel while isolating the radioactive materials for storage or disposal (source: https://www.google.com/search?q=chernobyl+biofuels&oq=chernobyl+biofuels&aqs=chrome..69i57.3547j0&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8)

    To create the soils needed and save limited fresh water, you can see the entire plan here (10 minute video): http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxSoMa-Randy-White-The-Sharin

    With fast political leadership, average folks can be mobilized to try and save the ‘land based’ food system, it seems the demise of the seafood industry is already a foregone conclusion.

    • serious joe

      Having a geiger counter is a great first step to proper awareness. However, so many geiger counters are designed for nuclear holocaust work, and in a normal environment, they sit silent, reading nothing. This is stupidity. If your geiger counter is not clicking at a rate of ten clicks per minute or more, it is likely one of those that doesn’t even start to operate until you are in a field of radiation that is really intense, and then the meter reads, “dead in ten minutes” or “dead in six hours” – all not very useful unless you are going into Fukushima Daiichi itself. If you’re on the coast of California or BC, you need a more sensitive device. Then, you need some experience. Live with the dang thing all day, everywhere. You’ll soon find out that radiation is everywhere, and radioactive material is seldom found. I noticed that my tile floor emits twice the radiation level as does my carpeted floor. No doubt there is some uranium in the tile – the fancy colors in tiles, or their surface glazes, often come from lanthanide or actinide metals. I have a fancy antique ceramic plate, with a beautiful deep blue design in it. It is five times more radioactive than my tile floor (the blue color comes from the element, Cobalt, some of which is radioactive). Potassium is good for you, right? Well, some of potassium is radioactive. Hold your counter near bananas. Want to reduce your total lifetime radiation exposure in half? Sleep alone. The potassium in your partner’s body zaps you with about half of your dose. Once you learn these things, you’ll be less paranoid about radiation and radioactive material.

    • serious joe

      The demise of the seafood industry? That’s silly. Randy, if you don’t live in Japan, your vexation will likely be worse for your health than any radioactive material you might encounter. Relax, the world is not coming to an end.

  • RICHARD RALPH ROEHL

    Not all technology is beneficial. Nuclear fission technology is definitely in this category. Indeed! Nuclear fission technology is evil that even Satan would not do.

    If ewe-man-unkind does not abandon nuclear fission technologies, the surface of the Earth, our HOST ORGANISM, will be rendered uninhabitable for any complex life forms above insects. Humans will become EXTINCT.

    • serious joe

      Have you noticed that Hiroshima has never been left unoccupied? People live there now – over 1.6 million people live and are thriving in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,They don’t have extra arms or legs. Have you seen Chernobyl, or Pripyat? People generally stay away, but wildlife has returned and isn’t mutant.

      • R. R. Roehl

        So… you’re saying the three core melt downs at Fukushima and the ongoing radioactive contamination horror there are a good thing? Nothing to worry about?

        I have nothing more to say to ewe. You’re either in extreme denial… or you’re criminally insane.

    • serious joe

      Here, say this chant out loud, slowly… it will make everything clear to those around you…
      OH, WAHHH
      TA, NA
      SIAM!

  • Definitely

    Highly recommend that Messrs. Hartsell and Pastreich check out the website called ENENEWS . com
    ENENEWS has been following Japan’s nuclear crisis DAILY and is an amazing chronology of events and information on Fukushima.

  • Laurie Ross

    Well done Layne and Emanuel for this beautifully structured paper providing a comprehensive analysis of the Fukushima threat to humanity and the planet. Your insight into the nature of the solution based on international cooperation on all levels of global society is most heartening. I know there would be New Zealanders interested and qualified to help in whatever ways are required. Is this a process that should be coordinated under the auspices of the United Nations?
    I think this is a brilliant proposal which I could present to the UNANZ then we could present the idea to our government for endorsement. What do you think?

  • Lance de Boyle

    Excellent analysis, but there is a pragmatic reality that constitutes the biggest obstacle to implementing this sort of broad based international response – that is big money politics and the energy industry. I’m sorry to voice cynicism, but a fair minded and open public assessment of this tragedy would lead inevitably to the end of the nuclear power industry. There are entrenched economic interests who would actively discourage the recognition of the scope of this problem.

    The next steps to extend the efforts described in this article would include taking on these interests directly and publicly. I am not seeing any national leaders stepping up to address the seriousness of Fukushima.

  • serious joe

    “Radiation continues to leak from the …”

    Radiation doesn’t leak. Radioactive material can contaminate water, and water can leak… Radiation cannot be held in a cup, or spilled on the floor. The distinction between radiation and radioactive material is like the difference between light, and a light bulb. You can hold a light bulb in your hand, but you cannot hold light in your hand. As soon as I read such crap, I know that the author (or the editor who changed the authors words) is an idiot. I know I am unlikely to read a sane discussion of the subject.