Lightmapping makes the threat of radiation visible in Fukushima and Chernobyl

Five years after the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, radiation levels in locations surrounding these areas consistently teeter above international guidelines for safe habitation.  

Environmental radiation has had an enormous impact on these communities, but while abandoned houses pay testament to the human impact of the disaster, the persistent – invisible – danger of lingering radiation is harder to communicate.

To visualise the threat of high radiation levels, Greenpeace photographer Greg McNevin has mapped real-time measurements onto long-exposure photographs of areas in Fukushima and the Bryansk region of Russia. To do this, McNevin and his team combined a custom Geiger counter with an LED light stick and an Arduino controller. As the counter is moved through the area, its measurements dictate how many LEDs are lit up.[gallery:15]

The result is a twisting wall of lines, imposed on forests and abandoned office blocks like the midsection of an enormous serpent. The radiation levels are colour-coded – white for acceptable levels according to international standards, orange for contaminated levels when protective measures such as resettlement should be considered, and red for levels where said protective measures should be mandatory.

“Using this tool in areas affected by Chernobyl and Fukushima, we found that places decontaminated by the authorities consistently exhibit radiation levels elevated above official guidelines,” writes McNevin. “We also found that using the same scale, places in Russia’s Bryansk region demonstrated comparable levels of contamination now, 30 years later, as places in Fukushima do today.”


While there are often dashes of red in the photographs, McNevin claims the project is not a critique of government decontamination efforts. Instead, it is a demonstration of the long-term effects disasters such as Fukushima and Chernobyl hold for their environments, and for the communities that live within them.

Images courtesy of Greg McNevin and the Greenpeace photo archive. You can see the whole of the Lightmapping Radiation project on McNevin’s website.

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