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About Buying a Geiger Counter

Geiger Counter detecting Uranium
Inspector Alert Geiger Counter detecting Uranium in soil

Geiger Counters are widely available these days during normal times, and extremely hard to find during emergencies.  For those who are shopping for Geiger Counters there has never been a better time to buy one than today, but it is a good idea to ask yourself some questions before you buy.

  1. Do you want to detect Alpha, Beta AND Gamma radiation, or is only Gamma or only energetic Beta and Gamma sufficient for your needs?
  2. Is price your bottom line or do you also want support and a good warranty if you need it?
  3. Would you like to record data or just measure radiation?

If you want to detect alpha radiation with a Geiger Counter then you need one that has a low density mica window.    If you want to detect low energy beta radiation you also need a mica window, but a little higher density is okay.  Thin wall metal Geiger Tubes without a mica window and some thin wall glass GM tubes will detect some energetic beta radiation..

Other considerations when buying a Geiger counter:

  • Do you want your Geiger counter to measure extremely high levels of radiation or is high sensitivity more important?  With a few expensive exceptions most Geiger Counters will do either, but not both.   The old Civil Defense meters designed for nuclear war are not a good choice for detecting radiation on food, granite counter tops, radium dial clocks or ceramic ware in your home.  On the other hand an instrument that has high sensitivity will usually reach a maximum reading with an indicator  when exposed to extremely high radiation levels so you know something serious is going on.  If you want a sensitive instrument make sure you get one with “jam protection” so at high levels the device will let you know instead of “jamming” and showing no radiation at all, or under reporting the dangerous level.
  • Do you want a new or used Geiger Counter?   Top quality brands tend to be expensive, but sometimes you can find a good working used or reconditioned one at a very reasonable price .   Some of the top brands are Ludlum, Mirion, Fluke, and Thermo.   I also consider our 36 year old company, International Medcom, to be a top brand but I need to disclose that I have some bias.
  • If you are buying a Geiger counter on Amazon or Ebay check to see if the instrument has a manual in the language you speak.   Most of the inexpensive models are made in Russia and China and some do not have English manuals, or well translated manuals.
  • Make sure your Geiger counter has a warranty and support.   Medcom Geiger Counters all come with a two year warranty (limited to one year on the GM tube), and a published phone number and a website contact form for email support.
  • If buying a Geiger counter on Amazon keep in mind that fake reviews by some disreputable manufacturers are widely prevalent.  Some studies have concluded that 50 percent or more of Amazon reviews are fake.  Amazon is not good at policing abuse.
  • Beware of Geiger Counter Review Websites.   Most of these seem to have a (sometimes undisclosed) financial interest in the sale of listed products.   Many of the sites obviously do not know what a Geiger Counter is, so how can you trust the reviews.   If you see an electric field meter on a Geiger Counter review website then donʻt think the reviewers know what they are talking about, let alone what a Geiger Counter is and what a Geiger C9unter does.
  • If you want a Geiger Counter donʻt wait for an emergency to buy one.   When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear emergency occurred Geiger Counters worldwide were mostly sold out within 24 hours.   Even the price of used Geiger Counters skyrocketed.   Someone sold a used Inspector Alert on an auction site for $9,000 during that period.

When I was a young boy, back in the fifties, a friend of my fathers took us out on a hike with a Geiger Counter and after that I was hooked and I wanted one of my own for many years.   When I priced them in the mid seventies a professional instrument cost about $600.00.   With inflation – looking at todayʻs dollar – the same instrument would cost several thousand dollars today, and it did not even detect alpha and beta radiation.   It was an analog device with relatively short battery life.     Today’s digital instruments provide a level of precision and stability that was not achievable back then.   There are even models that can link to phone apps by bluetooth that allow mapping and storage and sharing of collected data – such as the Inspector Alert BLE.   These are some of the reasons I say there has never been a better time to buy a Geiger Counter.

One final piece of Geiger Counter advice:   Use quality batteries that don’t leak in your Geiger Counter, so that when you need it you will not find corrosion on the terminals that damage your instrument.    You can also take out the batteries when in long term storage to prevent this.   Medcom Geiger Counters run on one AA battery for 3 to 6 months of 24/7 operation.   We deliver instruments with an Energizer Industrial AA battery that has a shelf life and no leak guarantee of 10 years.   No matter what brand of instrument you buy I can heartily endorse the Energizer Industrial batteries.   I hope this article is helpful if you are thinking of buying a Geiger Counter.


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Geiger Counters and Nuclear Conflict



Einsteinʻs Concern

I donʻt like to talk or think about Nuclear War and Iʻm guessing most people feel that way.   With many world leaders from the Pope to Presidents talking openly about it I think it may be useful for people to have information that can empower them in dangerous situations if they develop.   Geiger Counters detect nuclear radiation and nuclear war produces nuclear radiation, so Iʻm going to share my thoughts on the useful and proper role of Geiger Counters  in a series of posts.

One of the best tools to protect populations during a nuclear event are Geiger Counters, thus the US and other countries built and stockpiled hundreds of thousands of Geiger Counters during the Cold War for use in the event of nuclear conflict. In those days the risk was primarily related to use of traditional nuclear weapons.

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Reflecting on Todayʻs Radiation Safety Environment from the Medcom Lab

Please note this post was hacked and words were inserted into it that were not mine and did not reflect my viewpoint.   I am scanning the website as time permits to remove any offensive content that was inserted without permission.

To me Geiger Counters have always been about inquiry – what is there around us that we cannot see? How does it affect us? What do they tell us about the world and the universe that we don?t know. It?s all fascinating to me, and I love to get time in the lab or the field to satisfy my curiosity in this arena. But, alas, the hierarchy of human needs puts safety first. And Geiger Counters serve a vital role in the safety arena. We will never know for sure how many lives they have saved or how many unnecessary health problems they have prevented, but the numbers are surely very high. Still, there seems to be a continuous stream of news that hits my phone or desk about unexpected events that put people unnecessarily at risk. Some of these incidents are in the public domain. This report in Scientific American highlights the danger of inhalation of radionuclides, even in secure facilities. Another recent published example involving inhalation is the tunnel collapse at Hanford.

When trained professionals like these get exposed to potentially harmful radiation (and don?t realize they are getting exposed) it reminds me once again that you cannot always count on governments or professionals to give you the information you need to stay healthy.

A friend and colleague of mine, Edouard LaFargue, recently explored an area in France that is frequented by members of the general public, but was once a uranium mining site.  He sent me the picture below, which shows that the area is still contaminated even though maps mark it as uncontaminated. He has written about his visit to that site here.

So I am just putting the word out there to be careful if you are working around radioactive material, and be cautious even if you are not a radiation safety professional working in a regulated environment. This environment has to be suitable for the equipment that you are handling.  Carry proper instrumentation when you think there is the possibility to be exposed to unusual radioactivity, and remember to use it. Remember not all instruments detect alpha and beta radiation. Alpha emitters carry the greatest inhalation risk. All of our Medcom instruments can detect alpha, beta, gamma and x radiation, but our Inspector and Onyx instruments have the greatest sensitivity because they use a large gm pancake detector.

Here in our Labs we are continuously working to improve the tools available to increase radiation safety in the workplace, in communities – and for individual homes and families.  One problem in keeping track of contamination during surveys is lack of geospatial information, and radiation data is not very useful without it. To solve this problem we have added a bluetooth radio option to our popular Inspector Alert. The new Inspector BLE can connect with popular smart phones to record radiation readings with time/date and GPS data. Our IMI Gateway App works on all popular operating systems and smart phones. With these tools, mapping becomes easy and the data becomes useful.

We hope these tools will make the world safer. In any case please remember to be careful out there.

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Geiger Counter Evolution – Be Part of the Open Data Revolution

Kickstarter is featuring a new Safecast radiation detector today, July 4, American Independence Day, as part of its Gold program presenting “iconic projects with a twist.” Safecast created something unique in the Geiger Counter World with its Open Source “bGeigie Nano,” which has won much recognition inside and outside Japan, and won a prestigious “Good Design” Award in Tokyo.  The original “Nano” was a kit that required some skill and a soldering iron.   That kit advanced the State of the Art by integrating GPS into the instrument, and by simultaneously rolling out an internet ecosystem to compile and display the data.   Safecast projects have been widely reported on by National Geographic and other respected news outlets.  Safecast is even covered as a model for “surviving our faster future,” in the book “Whiplash” by MIT Media Lab Director, Joi Ito.   While many people have benefitted from kit building workshops, and many more have developed their technical knowledge by participating in the mostly volunteer project, not everyone has the time to build a kit.   The new Raku Nano does not require soldering, so more people can now participate.

Safecast was born during the Fukshima Daiichi reactor melt downs, during a period where reliable and understandable radiation data was largely unavailable.  Safecast is independent and not a political organization, so people of all viewpoints can participate and can see how data is collected and presented.   That in itself is revolutionary, or maybe evolutionary is a better word.  I highly recommend supporting this Safecast Kickstarter Project, which will both advance the radiation detection ecosystem and support a good organization.   There are only seven days left to fund the project, so act fast.

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Radiation Hot Spots in Aviation

Interesting article on hot spots at aviation altitudes published by Space Weather.  Anyone who has traveled with a geiger counter on an airplane knows cosmic radiation intensifies at higher altitudes.  This article explores that phenomena.

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30 Year Anniversary of IMI – International Medcom Inc.


I usually keep my occasional blog posts limited to news of interest on radiation detection, safety and security. I have also  posted on events related to the radiation detection industry. I donʻt usually post explicitly on my own company, but much of my work in Radiation Detection has been through my activities as a Founder, Designer, Engineer, Chief Bottle Washer and CEO at IMI. We just marked our 30th anniversary this week, so I decided to celebrate the occasion with a blog post. I want to thank each of our other Founders, our Shareholders, Employees, Consultants, Advisors, Friends, former Employees, and Families, but especially our Customers for your support and your loyalty.

We have some big news and exciting projects coming up. We think the best years are ahead of us, and that our work is becoming more important as nuclear and radiation safety issues become more complex and critical for a healthy and safe future for our planet . Stay tuned.

Thank you!!!

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Deep Space Radiation – Questions about Human Health Risk

Outside of Earthʻs Atmosphere and Magnetic Field - Cosmic Radiation
       We are shielded from most Cosmic Radiation  by Earthʻs Magnetic Field and Atmosphere

Anyone who has carried a Geiger Counter on a flight knows that radiation levels go up with altitude.  This is primarily because the atmosphere thins, providing less shielding from cosmic radiation.  The magnetic field surrounding the earth also provides some shielding.  Outside, in deep space, radiation levels increase significantly.  Health data for Apollo Astronauts shows need for more attention to deep space effects on human tissue, and also special considerations in shielding.  More on this at and

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Safecast Moves Open Radiation Data Movement Forward

Safecast Moves Permanent Radiation Monitoring Stations into Fukushima Prefecture
Safecast Moves Permanent Radiation Monitoring Stations into Fukushima Prefecture

The Journal of Radiological Protection has published a peer reviewed Scientific Article by Safecast members  on the success of Citizen Science in providing radiation data during and after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor melt downs.

Safecast is also expanding its project by deploying permanent monitoring stations in Fukushima Prefecture.

In Washington DC, during the recent Nuclear Security Summit, Safecast collaborated with NRDC and others to promote the role of citizen science in responding to emergencies and potentially in prevention.  More on that here.  NRDC did a great job at organizing events around the Summit.

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The Bomb – Buzz about North Korea and the importance of Sensor Data

North Korea Nuclear Test
Source: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization

Just when you think progress is being made, things can go backwards real fast. Fifty years of work to advance nuclear arms control seems set back to the stone age recently – but the stones being thrown around are getting bigger and more dangerous,

Technology and sensor data will be playing a big role in determining what happened this morning. Arms control programs advanced during the thaw between the US and Russia led to confirmation that sensor data can distinguish between conventional and nuclear detonations underground. Seismic data is now being analyzed for familiar signatures that can help characterize the event. Independent nonprofit groups such as NRDC also keep a watchful eye on these situations to promote understanding and pathways to arms control.  Other work by governments, IAEA, NGOs  and the scientific community created radiation monitoring technology that can measure the the ratio of key isotopes of radioactive Xenon and Krypton gases in the atmosphere to further characterize the event. Most radiation from the event will likely be contained in the earth, but enough Xenon will eventually escape that sensitive equipment will be able to detect it.  The CTBO, Comprehensive Test Ban Organization, is charged with monitoring these types of events, and many governments also have independent programs.   It will take days or weeks for all the data to come in.  Here are a few links that seem interesting at this moment in time:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Arms Control Association Special Report

The New York Times

The South China Morning Post

The Asahi Shimbun

Yes, Geiger Counters equipped with pancake type detectors can detect the radioactive noble gases Xenon and Krypton better than most detectors, but they cannot differentiate between the isotopes and also would have difficulty detecting subtle levels that would occur at a large distance from the underground site due to dispersion.

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Alpha Radiation – Why it’s important to be able to detect it


All the safety books tell us that alpha radiation is 20 times more damaging than gamma and x radiation. Radiation detectors that don’t have an alpha capability are much less expensive. Is it worth taking a risk to save money? Honestly in many cases an instrument without alpha/beta sensitivity can be adequate for specific tasks such as for x-ray and gamma protection in radiography etc. The instrument will be relatively boring to use, but can afford the needed protection. Sometimes there are surprises, and if you don’t have the capability it can be a serious problem. In this case an alpha emitting radionuclide was not detected by geiger counters without alpha capability.  What happened may never be known but the serious effects of alpha radiation taken internally is clearly illustrated.  Geiger counters equipped with alpha sensitive mica windows can make a big difference for health and safety in many situations, and are worth the extra cost.  All IMI – International Medcom Inc. – hand held geiger counters are so equipped and available from reputable distributors across the globe.  The “two inch pancake” sensors are the most sensitive, and built into the IMI Inspector V2 and Onyx NX10 instruments.  The less expensive but robust Radalert100X and RAD100 instruments have smaller mica windows, but still detect alpha and beta radiation.

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Radiation Safety Basics – How to Protect Yourself

Time, Distance and Shielding are your best friend in radiation protection.
Time, Distance and Shielding are your best friend in radiation protection. Source:

I heard too many stories of unnecessary high radiation exposures in 2015. I feel compelled to remind people about the basics of radiation protection. There are always simple things that can be done to reduce exposure: Time, Distance and Shielding is like the ABCs of Radiation Protection. If you work or live around sources of radiation, or if you suddenly find yourself exposed, always remember that Time, Distance and Shielding are your best friends. Limit your Time near the source. Distance: Moving away from the source will dramatically reduce your exposure in an exponential way. Shielding will always help. Concrete walls, steel, lead, earth, bricks – anything with a lot of mass – will help. If radiation is airborne, always remember to protect your lungs with an air filter, mask, or even some cloth in a pinch. If you know you work around radiated airborne particles frequently then you’ll be wanting to make sure you’re always ready with the protective equipment necessary, heading over to view different online options of a Surgical Mask Canada has to offer, for example, could enable you to find your necessary protective gear in the quantities you’d need!

More on this at the NRC website. Remember to carry a radiation detector if you are working around radioactive materials, and pay close attention to it. Here’s to a safe, secure and healthy 2016!

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What is a Geiger Counter?

There is a lot of confusion these days about what a Geiger Counter is and is not.  Amazonʻs handling of search terms and results for Geiger Counters is especially amusing, even comical at times.  Here is one result that came up for me on a recent Amazon search with the terms “geiger counter.”

Unicorn Meat

Whoa!  What does unicorn meat have to do with Geiger Counters?  Nothing I can think of.  But neither do the devices below that showed up on the same search:

Ghost Meter

The top instrument is designed to detect ghosts by measuring magnetic radiation.  The middle one is for measuring “electromagnetic frequencies.”  Well gamma radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation that is detected by Geiger Counters, but this is not a Geiger Counter and this instrument does not measure ionizing radiation – which is what Geiger Counters do.

Other instruments that show up under a Geiger Counter search include devices that use diodes, CCD camera sensors, other silicon sensors, ion chambers and scintillation detectors.

There are many kinds of radiation sensors.  It’s important to sort through the sometimes confusing  information that is out there to find what you really need – or you could end up with Unicorn Meat, if that really exists.

Geiger Counters are instruments that use Geiger Mueller sensors to detect ionizing radiation.  Ionizing radiation includes alpha, beta, gamma, x and neutron radiation, and also exotic particles from outer space such as leptons and muons.  Geiger Mueller sensors with mica windows can detect beta radiation, while those with thicker metal sidewalls cannot.  Geiger Mueller sensors with thin mica windows can also detect alpha radiation.

If you take a little time to think about what you need, and then do a little research, it can help you understand each instrument and what it is capable of and whether that matches your need.


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An Icon of the Geiger Counter World, Don Ludlum, 1932 to 2015

In the world of Geiger Counters, Don Ludlum built quite a legacy.  Ludlum Instruments, founded by Don, is arguably one of the largest and most successful radiation detection companies in the world.  Ludlum Instruments has a strong reputation for quality and dependability.  Although I have known and respected many people from the Ludlum “family,” I never met Don.  I wish now I had taken the time to drive over to Sweetwater, Texas and shake his hand.  Everyone I have met who knew him describe him as a fair, honest and kind man.  He definitely left an impact in the world of radiation detection.   Condolences to all who knew and loved Don.  You can learn more about Don and Ludlum Instruments at

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Live Reports from Bikini Atoll


Dr. Ken Buesseler is currently on Bikini Atoll, studying the residual radioactive impacts of nuclear testing that took place there.  This picture was taken on January 18, 2015.   We were able to send Ken a Safecast Nano radiation detector, and will be posting data from the instrument to the Safecast website.  Safecast will also be reporting on Kenʻs scientific mission, so stay tuned to the Safecast Website.

We got this report from Dr. Buesseler as he was approaching Bikini Atoll by boat:

“Essentially we left Majuro on Jan 16, are at Bikini atoll sampling 18-20, head 24 hours to Enewetak (with one sampling station in between for waters in upper 2000m) and then 3 days in Enewetak before the 3 day steam back to Majuro.  

This is a privately funded research cruise on the R/V Alucia.  Quite a nice ship compared to our govt. funded ones!  It’s a one off chance to sample an important site of over 100 nuclear weapons tests and about 80% of the total yield from US testing (so many big tests were conducted here).  Given our limits to space and funding, we are not sampling any living animals, plants, marine life, corals, fish, algae etc. so it is more focused on radionuclide concentrations and sources, not on uptake in food chain.  While levels for many will be higher……cesium in the ocean today post Fukushima near the NPP is actually higher than in the lagoons.  Plutonium may be a different story as it was/is? higher here, and quite low from Fukushima.”


Japan was not the only population to experience the devastation produced by nuclear weapons.  The impacts of nuclear testing on the Marshal Islands population was quite severe.   American service men and women were also exposed during these tests.


Things look more peaceful in the images Ken is sending us.  This Nano is one of several instruments Ken is carrying.  The Nano is unique in that it contains a GPS receiver that will log geographical position along with radiation data.  The instrument is an open source device designed by Safecast.  This one was built by my wife, Orapin, at a Safecast workshop in Tokyo, Japan


Orapin Sythe with Nano radiation detector she built in Tokyo
Orapin Sythe with Nano radiation detector she built in Tokyo

Circling back to another Japan connection to all of this, Ken was able to visit the Lucky Dragon ship in Tokyo recently, as he prepared for this trip.  The crew of the Lucky Dragon was not very lucky, and was hit by fallout from nuclear test Bravo on March 1 1946.  Read more on the Lucky Dragon on Wikipedia here.


Ken next to Lucky Dragon
Dr. Ken Buesseler next to the Lucky Dragon ship, Tokyo Japan


There is a lot more to this story, including the data Dr. Buesseler will be collecting.  Iʻm very interested to hear how the ecosystem is holding up there.  Stay tuned here, and keep an eye on Safecast for more news.

Dr. Buesseler is continuing to monitor radiation levels in the ocean worldwide, with particular attention being given to the Pacific Rim post-Fukushima at

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Updates on Earlier Posts

We are continuing to monitor food, plants, seaweed for radioactivity from Fukushima Daiichi at our California lab.  We are upgrading equipment, refining our methods, learning a lot.   Right now any Cesium from Fukushima Daiichi is at levels too low for our equipment to detect.  Weʻll be reporting more on the equipment and techniques we are using.  The basic information is that we are using 3 inch by 3 inch Sodium Iodide detectors, which have pretty high sensitivity when you put enough lead around them to shield out background radiation.

We reported earlier that Dr. Ken Buesselerʻs project is reporting the detection of some Cesium 134 from Fukushima off the coast of Northern California.  The level reported is 2 becquerel per cubic meter of water.  A cubic meter of water, for those of you who havenʻt converted to metric yet, is a cube with dimensions of about 3.3 by 3.3 by 3.3 feet.   To visualize 2 bq per cubic meter imagine random flashes of light in an area of that size, at the rate of approximately 2 per second (which is about 120 per minute).  The fact that we have lived with radioactive cesium in the ocean since nuclear weapons were first tested in the atmosphere in the 1940ʻs does not give a lot of comfort to those of us who love the oceans.  But we still need to see it in perspective, and the levels are still relatively low.

Iʻve been thinking a lot about my earlier post about the radioactive sand at Surfer Beach, Half Moon Bay, CA.  I did determine to my satisfaction that the radiation was not from Fukushima Daiichi.  The State of California and others agreed with me and said it was safe.  While I still think it is a beautiful beach and that the radioactive minerals there are likely naturally occurring, I think making a blanket statement that it is safe is going a little farther than I am comfortable with.   I provide radiation detection instruments to many safety professionals who work to meet regulatory compliance in the petroleum drilling and transportation industries.   The sand on Surfer Beach contains the same NORM class materials that they have safety programs related to, and exceeds the levels deemed of concern by some States and by the EPA.  Both Radium 226 and Thorium 232 emit alpha radiation, which can be hazardous inside the body if these radionuclides are ingested or inhaled.  So people with babies and small children might want to think about whether that is the best beach to play on.   If you want to find out more google NORM, Thorium 232, Radium 226.  There is a lot of interesting information out there.  I did feel a sense of urgency to let people know the radiation on that beach wasnʻt from Fukushima – because people were getting a little crazy over a false rumor.

Back to rumors again, there have been some reports of high radiation levels on beta sensors in the EPA Radnet network.   I have tried to get information on what is happening by going to the source:  The EPA.  I wish I could report anything useful.  I tried emailing them using email links on the Radnet website.   None of the links were functional.  I called EPA on the 2 phone numbers on their website on Dec. 17 2014.  Iʻm still waiting for a return phone call.  With response time like this, I hope we donʻt have a genuine emergency.  I am continuing to investigate and will report here if I find out anything about what is going on.

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Fukushima Cesium Traces Approaching California – Part I

Breaking News this past week – Trace Amounts of Radioactive Cesium from Fukushima Daiichi have been reported  off the coast of California.  See the story on Yahoo News here.

In January of this year a wave of panic swept across the Pacific Rim – based on unfounded rumors of this happening.  Now that it is actually closer to happening, it is important for people to understand it in perspective.  To begin, the levels detected off the coast of Northern California are very low – millions of times lower than levels being detected in the ocean off of Fukushima Daiichi.  It takes specialized and very expensive equipment to detect the subtle levels recently measured 100 miles off of Eureka California.  Read the local story in the Northern California Press Democrat here.

When false stories and rumors circulated in January, I wrote this blog post to show that elevated radiation levels on a California beach were not from Japan.    I have been one of many people and groups that have been keeping an independent eye on things since events of  March 11 2011.   Why is independent monitoring important?  For one thing the U.S. Government is not operating any overt ocean monitoring program.  In Japan, the breakdown of monitoring systems due to the disaster, combined with political and other considerations, led to an information vacuum.   That vacuum was largely filled by  independent and nonprofit Safecast.  People are learning that they cannot count on governments to provide all the information they want or need.

Some countries, notably Germany, Finland and other European countries, have developed improved radiation monitoring systems since they were hit by Chernobyl fallout in 1986.  The United States was relatively  isolated from that event, and has not had a major nuclear disaster since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.   While there is some limited government-funded monitoring of airborne radiation performed in the U.S. by the EPA Radnet system and CEMP, ocean monitoring just isnʻt on the agenda.

Enter Dr. Ken Buesseler.  Dr. Buesseler is considered to be one of the worldʻs leading experts on radioactivity in our oceans.  He has a PH.D. in Marine Chemistry from MIT and has studied both the naturally occurring radioactive elements in the worldʻs oceans, and also the effects of nuclear weapons testing and the Chernobyl incident.  He is eminently qualified to measure and interpret measurements in this type of monitoring program.  Dr. Bueseler has a well equipped lab with some very  sensitive equipment.   Funding for his program is coming from interested stakeholders, people like you and me who are interested enough to invest in the project.  The fact that he is not funded by government or industry gives him some insulation from pressures that can come with grants and contracts.

As a side note, I believe it is in the publics interest to have Dr. Buesseler engaged in this monitoring program.  I am encouraging people to participate, as I am,  in the  sampling project.  I am participating  by pooling resources with others to provide samples from Bodega Head, Sonoma County, California, and Maui, Hawaiʻi .  Our August test in California did not show anything from Fukushima yet.   The data from seawater we collected in August from Baby Beach on Mauiʻs North Shore is expected to be available soon.  The results of these and other readings are posted at Dr. Buesselerʻs website at

How do we tell if radiation we measure is from Fukushima Daiichi?  Dr. Buesseler and others  have monitored the effects of above ground nuclear testing for some time now.  Cesium 137 and Cesium 134 are two radionuclides that were deposited during the atmospheric testing, and are also flowing into the ocean from the damaged complex at Fukushima Daiichi.  Cesium 137 has a half life of 30 years.  Cesium 134 has a half life of 2 years.   Cesium 137 from nuclear testing days is still detectable in very low concentrations, while the 134 is almost undetectable.  Dr. Buesseler believes the only new source of Cesium 134 today is from Fukushima Daiichi.  We have known for some time that it would be the marker that let us know when radionuclides from the Japan reactor meltdowns had reached North America.  Until now, all samples taken along Californiaʻs long coast have shown results in line with pre-Fukushima Daiichi conditions.

What does this mean for people and the environment?  Many scientists, including Dr. Buesseler, believe that the health risk is very low or negligible from these low level readings.  Health risk from radiation is a controversial and hotly debated topic.  Many scientists believe that, even though the risk may be extremely small, the risk from radiation exposure (even at small doses) is not zero.  This understanding is now the official position of the BEIR VII Committee of the National Academies of Sciences.  If this is indeed true, then there is even some risk from natural sources of radiation that humans have been exposed to for millennia.  Indeed, the natural Potassium 40 in ocean water exists in significantly higher concentrations that the radioactive Cesium in the sample off of Eureka.  Weʻll get into this further in future posts.

Coming up:  What is a becquerel?  How do we gain confidence in the data?

From around the web:   Dr. Buesseler on Reddit      Safecast     Our Radioactive Oceans



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Radiation Detection in the News

Radiation Detection is not generally a subject of much interest in the popular media, except during major events such as the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns of March 2011, Chernobyl May 1986, Three Mile Island March 1979.   Today, news of radioactive Cesium approaching California was reported by Dr. Ken Buesseler on Reddit. His announcement produced a lot of good questions and answers – and undoubtedly a preview of some of the controversy that will arrive with aqueous “fallout.”  I think it’s interesting that Dr. Buesseler chose non-traditional media to make this announcement.  It kind of fits because Ken is approaching the whole project in a non-traditional way.  He found little interest for his project from traditional funding sources or from the US Government (which does not have an overt ocean radiation monitoring program).  More on his project here.

There is some radiation detection news in the popular media too recently:  Radiation sensors are going off at landfills due to radioactive materials brought to the surface by fracking activities.  The Pittsburg Post Gazette covers one approach to dealing with it here.

For background on this issue, NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials) have been with us for millions of years, but they become concentrated by various processes in the oil and gas drilling, fracking, transportation and refinement arena.   Wikipedia covers some of this here.  The people most directly affected are the workers in this industry, so radiation detection is important to help minimize exposure.  Then there is the question of whether the byproducts and concentrated NORM materials in landfills will have long term impacts on the water table etc.  There is much debate about these issues.

In France, some people armed with Geiger Counters say it’s time to redevelop a historic and interesting nuclear testing site just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower, covered by NY Times here.

In England, radiation levels have dropped to low enough levels to allow the dismantling of a tower that protected the public during a serious fire at Windscale in Cumbria, 1957.  The Guardian reports that without it much of Northern England could have become a “nuclear wasteland.”  Read the story here.


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On Geiger Counters, Freedom of Information, and Democracy


Orapin Sythe logging radiation levels in Washington DC

A few weeks ago I found myself in Washington DC.

I was engaged in activities I think the activist Founders of the USA would deem profoundly American – though the issues are ones they probably could not  imagine in their day.   The event involved democracy, freedom of information, new technologies, and, yes, Geiger Counters.

Since Fukushima Daiichi events, many Americans have been disturbed by the lack of data provided by governments on any radiation impacts.  There have been a lot of problems with the EPA Radnet monitoring system, and people find it confusing.   See Forbes Magazine article on Radnet.  No U.S. agency is charged with monitoring radiological safety of the oceans, or the food that comes from it.   Assurances that everything is okay would be better received if there were data to back it up.

NRDC Hosted the Event in Washington DC

Security around nuclear materials is also a big concern these days.

Many of the individuals involved in the DC event are trusted representatives of well known (and respected), independent, non profit organizations.  There were also representatives from Academia.  And there were US Government Agencies charged with protecting public health, safety and security.

Natural Resources Defense Council  Rooftop, Washington DC – Geiger Counter Workshop Participants

The common interests of these groups revolve around things nuclear:  preventing bad things from happening, and dealing with the problems if/when bad things do happen.  A complete list of organizations represented is contained in this blog post by Bemnet Alamayehu at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)  .   NRDC sponsored the event with support from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The eventʻs outstanding success was due largely to the good reputation NRDC has achieved over many years by working in the public interest on complex environmental and security issues.   The NY Times calls NRDC  “One of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups.”  NRDC has for decades supported the important role of independent citizens in radiation monitoring programs.  In the nuclear arena there is also tremendous goodwill and respect afforded NRDC for their innovation and success in supporting international nuclear safety and arms control programs.   I have personally been a fan, volunteer and a supporter of NRDC for decades.  Earlier work with NRDC took me to Post-Chernobyl Russia and Belarus to support communities in an independent radiation monitoring program – at a time the old USSR (under which it was illegal for citizens to possess a geiger counter) was crumbling .

The form this particular exercise in democracy took, and how it unfolded on this day, would not have been possible without the participation of the good people from Safecast, who designed the system and the instruments we used, facilitated the detector building workshop, and co-facilitated the deployment and mapping exercise, with NRDC.  Safecast developed a technologically advanced system for rapidly compiling radiation data in response to the March 2011 events at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan.  Safecast covered the Washington DC event at this blog post on their website.  I have also been a supporter, volunteer, technology provider and advisor to Safecast since April 2011.

These “Nanos” were built by workshop participants the first day of the workshop.

To get to the point, we basically hand built a lot of the Safecast “Nano”  radiation detectors.  They are uniquely equipped with satellite GPS receivers, specialized sensors, and micro SD card data loggers.  We fanned out around the centers of power and historic sites in the nationʻs capitol, logged radiation levels, and then published the data to the world wide web – all within 32 hours.  The data can now be viewed on the Safecast iPhone App (available free at the Apple Store)   We also installed a real-time radiation monitoring station at NRDC Washington D.C. Headquarters, just a few blocks from the White House.

Radiation Map of Washington DC around Washington Mall, White House, Congress. Note slightly elevated readings due to granite around the War Memorial.

Could our activities in any way compromise National Security?  I have asked myself that question many times over the years – when I have been asked to become involved in community monitoring projects.  I could not imagine any problems, and have never seen anything but positive impact on communities.  Apparently the Department of Homeland Security and National Nuclear Security Agency agreed.  They sent representatives to observe and participate.

Freedom of Information is a basic tenant of Democracy, and also recognized internationally as a basic human right.  Informed citizenry is considered to be a foundation of strong democracies.  Security is something all communities naturally strive for.  The overwhelming majority of us want our cities, our children, to be safe.

The more radiation detectors and data out there the safer we are, I believe.  If anything unusual surfaces, we all want to know about it – and to feel empowered to take appropriate action.  The good news is that radiation levels around the White House, the US Congress, the Washington Mall all look pretty normal (see color coded map above).  The slightly elevated readings around the World War II Memorial are due to naturally occurring material in the granite monuments.

More events are in the planning stage.   Your city may be next.  Stay tuned.

Dianne DiʻArrigo and Mary Olsen of NIRS, building their Safecast Nano Radiation Data Loggers


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Update on Surferʻs Beach Radioactivity and a Message from California Office of Emergency Services

Opinions expressed in this article reflect only the authorʻs viewpoint.

Earlier blogposts here identified elevated radiation levels at Surferʻs Beach in Half Moon Bay as “not from Fukushima.”  After a trip to the site and further analysis, I stand by that conclusion.  I will publish more on that here soon.   I hope this alleviates concern across the Pacific Rim, because it should.

Independent Safecast has put together a compilation of information on Fukushima Daiichi impacts on the ocean here.

California State Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) has informed me that California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is doing further testing on samples taken from Half Moon Bay. They will post the results here.

I applaud CDPH for taking a precautionary approach.

I think this is a good idea for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, it will help build trust that this beautiful  beach is a safe place for children.  I have requested further details of the nature of the testing.

I hope that a full chemical and spectral analysis will be done to determine without doubt that these naturally occurring radionuclides are native to this beach and not introduced.

Part of my cautious approach to this is the public knowledge that radioactive materials were dumped at the Farallon Islands, approximately 35 miles offshore from Half Moon Bay.  There are also other sites in the Bay Area  contaminated with TENORM materials, notably Treasure Island and Hunterʻs Point.

Further testing will help build public confidence that California is a place where transparency thrives, where our public officials are proactive in protecting the public health, and where our beaches are safe.  I hope and expect that will be the conclusion, and again thank CDPH for further testing.

CalOES asked me to post this message:

“There is no public health risk at California beaches due to radioactivity related to events at Fukushima . The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is not aware of any recent activity at Fukushima, or any new data that would cause elevated radioactivity on California shores from the Fukushima incident.  Recent tests by the San Mateo County public health department and CDPH show that elevated levels of radiation at Half Moon Bay are due to naturally occurring materials and not radioactivity associated with the Fukushima incident.

The volume of water in the Pacific Ocean has a significant diluting effect on radionuclides that are present and it is not anticipated that the concentration will increase in the waters off of the west coast. CDPH has collected and will be analyzing sand samples from Half Moon Bay.  Results of the analysis will be posted on the CDPH Radiologic Health (RHB) website ( as soon as the analysis is completed.”

Other information:

CDPH also performs routine air and milk samples as required by California law.  Slightly elevated air and milk samples were found during the initial phases of the Fukushima incident (March 2011) and the results were reported on CDPH RHB’s website (see link above). CDPH continues to monitor air, milk, kelp, and fish samples. CDPH’s monitoring is part of its on-going environmental monitoring program and will be publishing data on the CDPH RHB website by the end of this week.

CDPH has been in contact with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and they are monitoring the situation with the nuclear reactors in Japan.   The FDA as well as the private entity Woods- Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have monitored fish from the Pacific and while minute levels of cesium were found in blue fin tuna most recent tests show even those small levels are declining. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)  is the coordinating Agency for response to international emergencies involving radioactive materials and the FDA is responsible for food safety.  FDA’s  hotline number is 888-723-3366.  The USEPA, via their RadNet system,  monitors the nation’s air, drinking water, precipitation, and pasteurized milk to determine levels of radiation in the environment. RadNet sample analyses and monitoring results provide baseline data on background levels of radiation in the environment and can detect increased radiation from radiological incidents, such as the Fukushima incident.   You may visit the USEPA RadNet website at and this site has a link regarding public questions.

Some additional useful links:

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) addresses threats to coastal areas. You can see information about their tracking of debris from Japan at:

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides publically available reports on leakage and sea water radioactivity near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The last report can be found at:

The state of Oregon continues to test drinking water, rain water and sea water for radionuclides that could be associated with Fukushima.

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From Half Moon Bay to Fukushima – Managing Fear, Taking Appropriate Action

A good Geiger Counter can be an invaluable tool.  It can tell you a lot.  With one, you can see what is invisible to human eyes and other human sensory systems.   You can then use that information to take appropriate action if you see something unusual.  Knowing that you have that ability can empower you – and give you peace of mind.

The humble Geiger Counter, used with some skill and knowledge, can save lives and prevent suffering.   It can also be used as a tool for learning about the natural world around us, which is truly fascinating.

But Geiger Counters give you a limited view at relatively low cost – only a peak into that invisible realm.  The veil becomes lifted, but you have to use some scientific method, understand the rules, sometimes consult other instruments, to get a definitive picture of a given situation.

Interpreting or misinterpreting what you are detecting can be a learning experience, and, when you share it on YouTube, well….a lot of us got a learning experience over the holidays.

The YouTube video of  a Geiger Counter on a beach at Half Moon Bay went viral.  It was viewed over 600,000 times in a couple of weeks.  Speculation was that unusual readings  meant something from Fukushima had arrived on the West Coast.  People along coastlines throughout the Pacific Rim became concerned.

It was not just the video of  an innocent guy, a concerned citizen, finding something radioactive and jumping to conclusions.   It was the combination of that, combined with a lot of fear mongering  by other people (not connected to him)  on various websites – about crazy scenarios unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi.  Azby Brown at Safecast Japan covered some of those stories here.  I asked people to consider not forwarding email or web links that donʻt ring true here.

During this period I heard reports of people taking potassium iodide, duct taping themselves into rooms, and refraining from eating anything from the ocean, or even fresh vegetables.

I monitor for radiation daily and I volunteer for Safecast.  I trust their data and their team to be rock solid.  I knew there was no massive radiation event happening.  A close friend and trusted partner, Steve Weiss, lives on Half Moon Bay – near the beach in question.   He and I have been working together in the radiation detection field for  over 35 years.  We were designers of the original Inspector almost 25 years ago.  Reports of beach contamination were based an Inspector reading.  Thus we felt an added sense of responsibility in this situation.   Steve rushed me a bag of sand from from one of the areas of concern on the beach.  I analyzed it  and reported the data to Safecast and to this blogpost.

Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements Half Moon Bay
Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements with an Inspector Alert Geiger Counter, Half Moon Bay

Sean Bonner of Safecast also did some research and posted his findings here.  There was a lot of Trans-California and Trans-Pacific collaboration going on.  A few days later, Health Officials confirmed our preliminary conclusions, as reported by Half Moon Bay Patch here.

Dan Sythe in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, December 2011
Dan Sythe on the beach in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, with multi channel analyzer, December 2011

Why did we have confidence that the elevated readings were not from Fukushima?   Hard earned experience, and different technology.   I traveled to inhabited areas of Fukushima Prefecture with Sean and other Safecasters in December 2011, carrying a multichannel analyzer.  The spectra on the sand on the beach in Iwaki did not look anything like the sand at Half Moon Bay.  See the spectra below.

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture
Spectra from Fukushima Prefecture.  Note Cesium 137.

This is the spectra from the beach sample
Spectra from Half Moon Bay.  Note Radium 226 and Thorium 232

I guess the moral of this holiday story is donʻt believe everything you hear on the internet, and also remember that a Geiger Counter can only give you a limited view of a new situation.  Try not to jump to conclusions until you have all the information.  There are many sources of radiation in medicine, in homes and workplaces, and in the natural environment.

The spectra of radioactive isotopes are now well documented in Fukushima.  The data from Geiger Counters are invaluable over there, and there is no need to constantly collect new spectral data.  Half Moon Bay was a completely different situation – and it took some other tools and some research to sort it out.

I hope everyone knows that Potassium Iodide should not be taken lightly.  There are adverse reactions reported, and it should not be taken by pregnant women.  Itʻs value is actually controversial.  If there is value in taking it, itʻs only when radioactive forms of iodine are present in the air, food or beverages.  To my knowledge, this is not an issue at this point in time.

Iʻm very heartened that many people with diverse interests and concerns worked hard over the holidays to counter the apocalyptic internet reports about Fukushima Daiichi problems, and to help the general population calm down.

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On Fukushima Fears and Sensationalistic Reporting

There is an incredible amount of disinformation going on these days about Fukushima Daiichi.  A lot of people are frightened by it and they call me or email me, wanting to know what I think about it.

The situation at Fukushima Daiichi is tragic and difficult.  My heart goes out to the people working there, the people who have been displaced…and those who continue to live in the shadow of this disaster.  Itʻs a sad situation.  Iʻve been to Japan 8 or 9 times since the disaster, and Iʻm hoping I can find new and better ways to help the situation there.

Without downplaying the danger and difficulties, it is important to note that some people are exaggerating the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, for unknown reasons, in very dramatic ways.   I am bombarded these days with links to websites with apocalyptic messages of imminent disaster, which fortunately do not seem to be based on reality.

Itʻs not that we should not remain vigilant, but that we should not believe everything we see and hear.  Stress affects human health.

For a reality check I always look to the people at Safecast.   They do an incredible job of staying in touch with the people of Fukushima…many of them are Fukushima people.  They have mapped over 13 million data points since the disaster, and they are constantly analyzing radiation data in Fukushima Prefecture.  Incidentally, if you want to do something positive to help the situation, I strongly recommend donating to Safecast.

On the rumor that Unit 3 steam is foreboding of an imminent disaster, I found this useful analysis by the Simply Info research team, which says that the situation at Unit 3 is relatively stable at this time.

On rumors that starfish health on the West Coast is being affected by radiation from Fukushima I found these articles, which provide at least an alternate viewpoint to that scenario: Deep Sea News.

On the report that radiation at a beach in Half Moon Bay is contaminated by radiation from Fukushima, Safecast did this analysis, which provided an alternate and reasonable explanation.   I personally tested a sample of sand from the beach and am convinced there is no link to Fukushima.  See my blog post on that here.

I have lost a lot of sleep in the months since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, mostly out of concern for the children of Fukushima.  Iʻm not losing as much sleep about it now.   Well, maybe I am – because Iʻm responding late at night to emails from friends who are frightened by the rumors.

Itʻs not that I trust the governments of the world to tell me the truth.   Part of my family lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site.  Iʻve known and worked with people affected by the nuclear age since my youth.  Many of them were unsupported by the governments and companies who were responsible for their pain.  I was a downwinder as a child.   Iʻm a natural born skeptic about these things.

I think I am more comfortable than many people, even though I live in the midst of the same rumors, because of my scientific curiosity. I monitor radiation on a daily basis at my lab – I have for many years.   The levels I see here in Sebastopol California look very much the same as they did 27 years ago –  when I first started monitoring at this location.   Iʻm expanding my lab to look at seaweed, food, soil, air.  I am indeed concerned – especially for the most vulnerable of our human family, the children and unborn.    I do want independent verifiable information to feel comfortable.

At the same time, Iʻm increasingly concerned about the effects of these terrible rumors that have no basis in fact.  I highly recommend that people check out their sources of these apocalyptic messages before they forward them – and add unnecessary fear and stress to their friendʻs lives.  Please consider doing a little research before you hit the Forward button.

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California Beach Radiation Not From Fukushima

A lot of concern has been expressed about recent reports and videos showing high levels of radiation on a beach in Half Moon Bay, just South of Pillar Point Harbor. It has been attributed to Fukushima. Local officials have been quoted as saying they donʻt know what it is, but donʻt worry about it. See local story.

Here is what we have learned so far: The radioactive areas of the beach seem to be associated with dark sand below the high tide level. The levels detected are about 5 to 10 times what you would normally expect to find on a beach. This level of contamination indicates just how massive the environmental remediation project will be across the pacific.

The radionuclides are in the NORM class of radioactive substances, not from Fukushima. NORM stands for Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. We put a sample in a Multichannel Analyzer and found Radium 226 and Thorium 232. See the measured spectra below.

This is the spectra from the beach sample
This is the spectra from the beach sample

If the sand were contaminated by radiation from Fukushima it would show Cesium 137. See spectra below from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture. The same instrument is identifying Cesium 137 rather than Radium and Thorium.

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture
Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture


The picture below is a geiger counter measuring the activity in a sample bag of the sand. The radiation level is elevated, but roughly equivalent to some granite counter top material from Brazil.


This is a geiger counter with 2 inch pancake detector measuring the activity in the sand sample


Whether this material is naturally occurring at this beach or not remains a question. There are also reports that a pipeline was once at this location. We hope the State will do further testing to determine the origin and full nature of the hot spots on the beach. But we are confident that it is not related to Fukushima, based on the spectral signature. We expect more news later today.

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Fukushima Daiichi News


Inside Daiichi

Spent fuel removal at Unit 4 is in progress.

Safecast equipped a vehicle with one of their Nano sensors that was allowed onsite at Daiichi.  Here is the collected data.

NHK did a video report on the conditions workers are dealing with at Daiichi.   View it here.

IMI is offering special holiday pricing on radiation detectors for people who want to send one to Fukushima communities through Safecast.  The same discount is also extended to instruments to be shipped to people in Japan.  Enter HELPJAPAN as shopping cart code to get 20% discount.  More on this on IMI homepage.

IMI is also offering special pricing for Nano kits, and free Japan delivery,  for people who would like to send one to Fukushima communities through Safecast.  Details here.

Safecast has now collected data well beyond Japan, with some data coming in from all seven continents.  More on that here.

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