First cancer case confirmed at Japan’s Fukushima plant

Plant worker was one of thousands employed to help clean up meltdown site

Tepco workers standing before the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 28th, 2012. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Tepco workers standing before the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 28th, 2012. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images


David McNeill in Tokyo

The Japanese government says it has agreed to compensate a man who contracted leukemia while working at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It is the first confirmed cancer diagnosis at the plant since the triple meltdown of March 2011.

The news follows the publication of a study claiming thyroid cancer rates among children living near the meltdowns are up to 50 times higher than normal. The study, published in the November issue of the journal Epidemiology has been hotly disputed.

Japan’s Ministry of Labour says the plant worker, who is in his 30s, was one of thousands employed to help clean up the Daiichi plant following the meltdowns. Ministry officials say they will compensate the man, who contracted leukemia while installing covers over the damaged reactors in 2012 and 2013.

“The recognition he is sick from his work at the plant means his hospital bills will be paid along with all costs incurred from being unemployed,” said the spokeswoman. The ministry would not divulge the seriousness of the man’s condition or whether he is expected to recover.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the operator of the plant, says about 44,000 workers have been employed in decommissioning since 2011. Tens of thousands more have been decontaminating the surrounding countryside from the post-accident fallout.

“We would like to offer our condolences to the worker,” said a Tepco spokesperson. “We will continue to reduce the radiation dose of the working environment and manage thoroughly the radiation exposure to workers.”

In 2013 the World Health Organisation said people in the worst- affected areas of the disaster had a small risk of developing cancer. A report this year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said a rise in thyroid cancer among children was unlikely.

Greenpeace International, the environmental watchdog, called the agency’s report “clearly premature”, however, in light of the latest government admission. “The impacts both from the initial releases and from the ongoing nuclear crisis have yet to be fully seen,” said Jan Vande Putte.

Tepco estimates the final tally for escaped radiation from the Fukushima disaster at 900,000 terabecquerels, equivalent to about one-fifth the amount released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Most was vented in the first three weeks after the meltdowns began.

The impact of radiation is notoriously difficult to determine, but one outcome of Chernobyl was elevated rates of thyroid cancer in children. A 2003-05 United Nations-led study cited close to 5,000 cases of thyroid cancers in the most affected areas, probably from drinking contaminated milk.

Scientists in Japan say a large rise in cancers is unlikely because screening is much more rigorous than in the Chernobyl disaster. Regular ultrasound testing of 370,000 children in Fukushima prefecture has uncovered just137 confirmed or suspected cases of thyroid cancer.

But Toshihide Tsuda, author of the Epidemiology study, disputes that more screening is behind the cancer surge. The thyroid rates are higher than expected and emerging faster than expected, he told Reuters last week. “This is 20 times to 50 times what would be normally expected.”

Mr Tsuda’s results have been widely criticised. “In my view they are unscientific,” said Noboru Takamura, a radiation specialist at the Atomic Bomb Disease Institute at Nagasaki University. “They don’t look at individual doses, which is only one problem with the study.”

Neither Tepco nor the government would be drawn into speculation on whether more cancers are expected. “If more cases are confirmed, compensation will be paid,” said the labour ministry spokeswoman. Tepco controversially hiked the maximum limit of cumulative exposure for onsite workers to 250 millisieverts during the height of the disaster but lowered it back to 100 in December 2011.