Graphic showing average natural background radiation levels around the world

Raising rad awareness

November 1, 2016
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2016

DoseNet radiation detector14 DoseNet devices are monitoring radiation levels around the world. (Photo courtesy RadWatch)Working with high schools across the Bay Area and beyond, members of Berkeley RadWatch have launched a network of wall-mounted devices to measure naturally occurring background radiation. The project, called DoseNet, is a hands-on science education exercise. “Radiation is part of the world around us, and we are using it as a tool to work with students and teach them about science, engineering and programming,” says nuclear engineering professor Kai Vetter, lead scientist for Berkeley RadWatch and the director of Berkeley Lab’s Institute for Resilient Communities, which focuses on preparing communities for diasters by clearly communicating the complexities around science and technology.

Berkeley RadWatch was set up to address fears that radiation from the 2011 tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident could find its way to the U.S. West Coast. The RadWatch team has monitored air, fish, seaweed and other samples for several years, posting results online for maximum transparency. The team found traces of isotopes related to the disaster in the accident’s immediate aftermath, but nothing since — and never enough to have health effects.

DoseNet sensors, which first went online in November 2015, were installed at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, six San Francisco Bay Area schools, and Koriyama City Hall in Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Koriyama was the network’s first international site, about 45 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant beyond the region’s evacuation zone.

Now numbering 16, the DoseNet network continues to add stations, including a site in Sweden and one South Korea, as well as additional Bay Area schools. Future kits will also include air pollution sensors.

Vetter said plans to expand the network include more countries, so that the information exchange truly becomes global. “We want to establish this program as a social network, based on science and engineering, so that kids from around the world can communicate and collaborate on the varying natural background radiation levels in their local communities,” he says.