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Sonoma County firm sees uptick in business amid nuclear worries

Dan Sythe holds an IMI Onyx NX10 radiation detector in front of a computer displaying the readout from the device, at IMI - International Medcom, Inc. in Sebastopol, California, on Tuesday, August 29, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

BILL SWINDELL,

In the midst of nuclear tensions with North Korea, a Sebastopol company that sells hand-held Geiger counters and other radiation detection devices has seen an increase in orders and inquiries.

The role is nothing new for International Medcom Inc., a 31-year-old business that has seen such activity with past nuclear-related incidents such as the Fukishima, Japan, nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979.

“There’s an uptick. A big uptick in concern, and there’s a general uptick in people (calling) just to be cautious,” said owner Dan Sythe, who worked in telecom in Silicon Valley before starting his business in 1986.

Calls and emails have come from Asia — South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan — though the company also is receiving inquiries from across the United States and Canada as Pyongyang continues its missile testing program, including the provocative act of firing a ballistic missile over a Japanese island on Tuesday.

Though gloomy news is a boost for his business, Sythe said he got involved in the sector to help prevent such tragedies. “Our whole thing has been about prevention. My personal work has been involved in nuclear arms control. I much prefer prevention and remediation,” he said.

The devices typically range in cost from $400 to $800. Public safety agencies and hospitals that have to mitigate radiation risk as part of their duties are the majority of its customer base, he said.

Large food manufacturers are another segment because they want to scan for radiation-contamination in food, especially in baby food.

The industry consolidated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Sythe said, as some firms looked to capitalize on new expenditures over disaster preparedness. But International Medcom — which employs five people plus software developers, contractors and consultants locally — had an advantage with its devices already being used by many public agencies, including the New York Fire Department.

“There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions. But people tell us our instruments have become a gold standard,” Sythe said.

In the aftermath of Fukishima, demand skyrocketed as devices that would typically retail for $500 to $600 were going for as much as $9,000 on online auctions sites, Sythe said. “The one thing we learned in Fukishima … is that you cannot buy instruments during a disaster. The manufacturer becomes overwhelmed and there is limited supply,” he said.

“It’s not overwhelming this time. (During Fukishima) we had seven phones ringing a day constantly.”

Sythe, 67, noted there is still concern about the effects from Fukishima contaminating water and sea life along the West Coast. A radioactive isotope, Cesium-134, was found in samples of seawater collected off two Oregon beaches last year. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, has concluded that contaminated water will not affect U.S. public health.

He has worked with local nonprofits and Woods Hole Research Center, an independent research institute based in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to place a device thats monitors cesium levels at Bodega Head. The device eventually became corroded by salt water, though volunteers intend to install a new one this weekend. The instrument has not picked up any unusual readings in the monitoring that has been conducted, Sythe said.

“All I can say at this point is we have done limited testing so far and we would like to do more testing to keep an eye on the situation,” Sythe said.

The station is one across the world that is linked to the Safecast website, where volunteers help provide open, real-time data on radiation and air quality levels to the public. “I’ve always thought a lot of this as a long-term project. These radiation issues are not going to disappear,” he said.