– Researchers call for nuclear data release (Nature, June 13, 2011):
Shortly after a massive tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on 11 March, an unmanned monitoring station on the outskirts of Takasaki, Japan, logged a rise in radiation levels. Within 72 hours, scientists had analysed samples taken from the air and transmitted their analysis to Vienna, Austria — the headquarters of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), an international body set up to monitor nuclear weapons tests.
It was just the start of a flood of data collected about the accident by the CTBTO’s global network of 63 radiation monitoring stations. In the following weeks, the data were shared with governments around the world, but not with academics or the public. Now scientists working with the CTBTO on behalf of member states are calling for the data to be released, both to give other researchers an opportunity to use them, and to improve the network’s performance.
“What I’m after is to make this dataset available to the scientific community,” says Wolfgang Weiss, head of the department of radiation protection and health at Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection in Munich. In the coming weeks and months he hopes to persuade member nations overseeing the CTBTO to approve new rules for sharing data with other international bodies and scientific researchers.
The CTBTO was set up in 1996 with the eventual goal of enforcing an international ban on all nuclear testing. The treaty is not yet finalized, but the organization has already set up a global network to verify nuclear tests, measuring seismic, hydro-acoustic and infrasound data as well as radiation. In 2006 and 2009, it confirmed two tests by North Korea, using data from a combination of seismic and radioisotope tracking stations.
Those monitoring stations pick up other things as well. In the latest crisis, the network’s sensitive radiation detection sensors were overwhelmed by radioisotopes streaming out of the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Monitoring posts picked up isotopes such as iodine-131 and caesium-137 that were of concern to public health officials in other countries. Other radioisotopes such as niobium-95 and rubidium-103 were an early indicator of a meltdown inside one or more of the reactors.
In keeping with its remit, the CTBTO shared data with designated scientific institutions in its member states, but not with other scientists or the public. Some members, such as Austria, subsequently released analyses based on the data, whereas others kept it private (see ‘Radiation data from Japanese disaster starts to filter out’).
At a meeting held in Vienna from 8-10 June, scientists working with the CTBTO took a moment to reflect on the network’s performance. Detection stations tracked the radiation from the accident, and atmospheric models worked well; yet questions remained. Why did the radiation spread so quickly to the Southern Hemisphere? Were ratios of xenon isotopes unusual because reactor physics are poorly understood, or because of equipment being miscalibrated? Answering such questions will help the network to trace future weapons tests. “There are things that are not understood fully, and [the data] should be made available to science,” Weiss told scientists during a 9 June panel.
The network itself could also be interesting scientifically, says Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Climate researchers use some short-lived radioisotopes of elements such as beryllium to study mixing between atmospheric layers. And the radioactive debris from Fukushima could help meteorologists to develop their models of how air circulates nearer the Earth’s surface. “It’s clear that there’s a potential to be useful,” Schmidt says. “There’s often interesting science there that wasn’t the focus of the people who designed the network.”
Wider sharing of data from the CTBTO network is not unprecedented. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people, member states decided to incorporate the network’s seismic data into tsunami-warning systems throughout the region. The Fukushima crisis may trigger a similar move to open radioisotope data further, says Lassina Zerbo, director of the CTBTO’s International Data Centre. But ultimately it will be up to the nations that pay for the network. “We do what the member states tell us we should do,” he says.