THE HISTORY OF THE ARGUS PROJECT

…..the following text is a work in progress…..

Link to: A Chronology of Events Surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.

The Argus Trust was founded in 1989, three years after the Chernobyl No. 4 nuclear power plant exploded. It was located near to the now deserted town of Pripyat in the former Soviet Union and exploded on the 26th of April 1986 at 01:23:44 in the morning. The Trust’s formation was inspired by the absence of any informative regional background radiation measurements and a lack of any meaningful information concerning the radioactive fallout reaching the UK just days later.

After the Chernobyl reactor exploded, it was about three days later when the news broke in the UK media. At that time I was socially involved with a small group of friends, including electronic engineers and computer programmers. Our families were based in the North of England and in the absence of relevant and reliable radiation data were understandably worried. When we heard news on television that a cloud of fallout was on its way and even saw a radiation symbol on the BBC weather map, together we set out to learn more and find out if radioactive fallout was “washing out” around us and if so, to understand if it would harm our families with unborn children, our friends, or even our pets.

By absolute chance1, when the news broke, I was working on a job with a colleague who knew the whereabouts of a portable MINI-680 industrial Geiger counter. Intent to learn more, we headed off to see this instrument and in the following days we kept up with it’s daily readings that continued to be taken for over a month. They were all taken in the early evening and at the exact same position in the middle of an open grassy field.

In the MINI-680 operator’s manual, to my surprise, I noticed a schematic, it was the counter’s circuit diagram. This took me right back to the early sixties when, as a kid of eleven, when I had built a Geiger counter from a design in a monthly Wireless World magazine. I used a second hand Geiger tube obtained on a London visit from an army surplus store. Fortunately, despite learning a lot, I never succeeded in getting my circuit to work, as looking back and remembering the circuit, had I succeeded I would likely have electrocuted myself, maybe fatally !!

It was a Saturday, three or four days after the start of the daily monitoring of the gamma background, when rain falling on that day brought with it radioactive debris. We saw gamma readings increase by around eighty percent and they remained that high for a couple of weeks. Then readings dropped to around fifty percent above normal (the baseline of readings taken long before), plateauing for a further couple of weeks until rain had washed the radioactive contaminants into the damp soil. We soon realised water in  the soil acted as a mask, attenuating the gamma rays. After a month readings had pretty much dropped back to their normal baseline level.

Understanding the gamma readings was a challenge to all of us, they were in nanoGrays, for what that was worth!! To make things worse, the curodians of the MINI-680 didn’t seem to understand the significance of those units, either. They were looking after the Geiger counter for a non-partisan, community group whose plight was to fend off the possibility of a nuclear power station being built in their picturesque Druridge Bay. And, with their concern it might happen, the group were systematically measuring background gamma levels in each of their gardens for £2.00 a go. This was not just to raise campaign funds, but to establish a “baseline” against which any leaks from a future nuclear reactor could be determined and reported. It was an engineering union that gifted the MINI-680 to community group in support of their campaign.

With no understanding of the significance of all the readings, we were introduced to a man that did understand them. In fact he had been instructing the community group on using the counter and explaining the readings’ significance to health.

Building our first Geiger counter was very much prompted by seeing the MINI-680’s schematic and thinking we could easily build our own. So, some twenty five years on from my failed attempt, the task seemed readily doable and with the financial support of good fiends, we succeeded in building a working Geiger counter. This was to be the first of many.

That was the start of our small group, developing our own Geiger counter and soon after connecting it to an Acorn BBC Microcomputer. This in turn, we hooked up to an old scrap, dot-matrix till-roll printer chassis and with a small amount of Basic coding, were able write a program that would print out a reading every ten minutes.

[More to follow, including details of the evolution of our own dedicated, embedded microprocessor computer unit, designed to use an analogue modem to communicate with a central DOS based, Bulletin Board Server at a grand speed of 300 bits per second.]

Whilst developing the first remote logging computer, two or more of us would attend an annual conference on “The Health Effects of Low Level Radiation” with a hope of finding others interested in supporting the construction costs of additional Argus stations for their locales and starting a network of gamma monitors. Eventually we did build a further station that was destined to be installed, as the first privately owned monitor, at a site on the edge of Holy Loch in South West Scotland. This was at a time when the USA had their Polaris nuclear submarine base right in the middle of Holy Loch. The station has remained there, long after the USA base closed, being updated as our technology advanced. It has continuously logged the local background gamma ever since. You will see it on the map with the Argus Station ID of 4001 and known as “Dunoon 1”, it’s a gamma only monitor. (We only developed multi-channel gamma and weather monitors in the early 90’s.)

Three years later, when my job was working at a Polytechnic, I happened to be telling a stranger, sitting opposite me in our staff canteen, about what our group of friends had been doing building our remote gamma monitorsr post Chernobyl and mentioned we had adopted the name “Argus” for our project. By absolute chance1 he was a lecturer and practicing lawyer, specialising in business law. He suggested we should set up a trust and generously offered to write one for us without charge.

We had no funds, apart from those our group members had contributed to build and install our very first remote Argus station with the hope we might build and install many more. Writing The Argus Trust Deed* was to take a number of weeks with me meeting with our lawyer during his lunch breaks. We tried to ensure ideas embodied within the Trust’s text suitably respected the efforts of the many voluntary contributors to the project. We also wanted the Trust deed to provide a framework to continue the dedicated work and considerable commitment of those who had already contributed so much of their time and expertise which for some was then up to three years. By this time we had designed and developed and installed several embedded gamma monitoring computers with remote communications capability to form the rudiments of a network with a central host computer based on Gateshead, Tyne & Wear.

The early Argus computer, often affectionately called “The Beast”, with it’s 300 bits/second dial-up modem, was to slowly but surely provide a network of remote gamma monitoring stations. These were remotely located with  highly sensitive, precision energy-compensated Geiger Muller tubes, continuously collecting high resolution data and sending it to our then DOS based central server each night.

To save the cost of lots of phone calls being made by the server to each station on the Argus network to collect their daily readings. We scheduled a station to call the central server’s phone line each night within a preset time slot. We simply could not afford to have the server poll each station every night, despite it being at cheap rate. This approach distributed the call costs and meant we could extend the network with no additional call costs. The decision was an opportunistic break from tradition, as most networks with dial-up modems would typically poll each of their stations in turn and bare the cost.

As new technology emerged and became more readily available for the project, so the Argus monitors evolved, including the provision of multi-sensor systems. By the mid 90’s these were sending confidence messages and high reading warnings to personal pagers. Today these are sent via user managed emails and text messaging.

….. MORE TO FOLLOW …..

Notes:
1. "absolute chance" highlighted to illustrate just how often the Argus Project was propelled forward by absolute chance.