Sat, Oct 24, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Fukushima worker diagnosed with cancer ‘an alarm bell’ for government

The man worked on reactor buildings damaged in the 2011 tsunami and his diagnosis could hamper the Japanese government’s efforts to encourage people to return to the area

By Justin McCurry  /  The Guardian, TOKYO

Illustration: Constance Chou

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.

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.

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