A 41-year old man has become the first worker at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to be diagnosed with cancer that officials recognize as being linked to his work there after the March 2011 disaster.
The unnamed man, who was diagnosed with leukemia in January last year after feeling unwell, spent a year working on reactor buildings that were badly damaged after a magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a tsunami that struck Fukushima and other parts of Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011.
The disaster caused a triple meltdown at the nuclear plant, where so far about 45,000 workers have been involved in a cleanup and decommissioning effort that is expected to cost billions of US dollars and take about 40 years.
Illustration: Constance Chou
Tuesday’s announcement by Japan’s health ministry would come as a blow to Fukushima’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), and could frustrate government efforts to encourage people to return to communities nearby that have been declared safe.
Media reports said the man, an employee of one of the myriad contractors employed by TEPCO, helped install covers on two damaged reactor buildings between October 2012 and December 2013. He was diagnosed with leukemia while still in his 30s.
A Japanese Ministry of Health official said the man had worn protective gear while at the plant and would be awarded compensation to cover medical costs and lost income.
“While the causal link between his exposure to radiation and his illness is unclear, we certified him from the standpoint of worker compensation,” the official said.
Three other plant workers suffering from cancer are awaiting confirmation that their illnesses are linked to the accident, which sent large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents, most of whom are still unable to return to their homes.
TEPCO said it could not comment on the decision to approve the worker’s compensation claim.
“We would like to offer our condolences to the worker,” a TEPCO spokesman said. “We will continue to reduce the radiation dose of the working environment and manage thoroughly workers’ exposure to radiation.”
Before his diagnosis, the man had been exposed to 16 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation at Fukushima Dai-ichi and a further 4mSv during three months he spent at another nuclear plant in 2012.
Compensation insurance is awarded to workers after exposure to 5mSv in a year, the ministry said.
TEPCO said 21,000 of the 45,000 people who have worked at Fukushima since the disaster were exposed to more than 5mSv of radiation between March 2011 and the end of July. More than 9,000 have received a dose of at least 20mSv and six have been exposed to more than 250mSv.
“A dose of 100mSv per annum is very high and 250mSv would be unconscionable,” said Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment. “Clearly, what is happening at Fukushima Dai-ichi is that thousands of temporary workers are being exposed to high radiation levels, then dismissed when their dosimeters reach the limit.”
The man’s exposure to relatively low amounts of radiation — lower, even, than those deemed safe enough for residents to return to their homes — could prompt a rethink of the government’s push to promote the resettlement of displaced Fukushima evacuees.
Experts are divided on whether low doses of radiation — below a threshold of 100mSv — can be linked to cancer.
“This is a landmark decision from the viewpoint of workers’ rights, and it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Dokkyo Medical University associate professor of radiation and hygiene Shinzo Kimura told Agence France-Presse.
He said the decision to recognize the man’s cancer as radiation-related, despite his relatively low dose, was “an alarm bell” for the government.
Imperial College London professor of molecular pathology Gerry Thomas said she was surprised by the health ministry’s decision to recognize the diagnosis as linked to radiation exposure while working at Fukushima.
“Given the low doses that the workers were exposed to, the increased risk is very small at these doses, and it would be very difficult to be certain that this was due to radiation and not to other factors that cause leukemia,” Thomas said. “At these doses, the other factors are a more likely cause of the man’s illness.”
Anti-nuclear campaigners said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Japanese authorities had been premature in saying there would be no discernible impact on health from the disaster.
“This is a massive blow to the IAEA, which stated in September of this year that no discernible health effects due to the exposure to radiation released by the accident are to be expected,” Greenpeace Japan said.
“The statement from the IAEA that there would be no discernible health effects from the Fukushima disaster was clearly premature,” Greenpeace Belgium radiation expert Jan Vande Putte said. “The impacts both from the initial releases and from the ongoing nuclear crisis have yet to be fully seen, as the historical example of Chernobyl demonstrates. Greenpeace calls on the IAEA and the Japanese authorities to retract their unsubstantiated and unscientific statement. The workers on site and the citizens of Fukushima are suffering from the consequences of this nuclear disaster. Denying this reality is both dismissive of their suffering and undermines their fight for justice for themselves and their families.”
There has been a significant spike in the rate of thyroid cancer among children and young people living in Fukushima at the time of the accident, but local medical authorities say the increase is due to the use of sensitive equipment and the unusually large number of people being tested, and is not the result of radiation exposure.
That claim was challenged recently by Okayama University professor Toshihide Tsuda, whose study found that cases of thyroid cancer among Fukushima children are between 20 and 50 times higher than among children elsewhere in Japan.
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