On March 11, 2011, a powerful magnitude-9 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, unleashing a devastating tsunami. The effects of both natural disasters dealt a savage blow to the region and sent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into a level-7 meltdown. More than 44,000 workers were deployed to the facility to take it safely offline. Their job was messy and dangerous: Millions of gallons of radioactive water had to be stored on site. On October 20th, 2015, for first time since the nuclear meltdown, a Japanese recovery worker has been diagnosed with cancer believed to be directly related to the clean-up mission.
Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare announced in late October that an unnamed man has developed leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Officials say they believe the disease is linked to exposure to radiation during the course of the man’s recovery duties on the grounds of the plant, which is operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco. The victim, said to be in his early 40s, worked at the Daiichi plant near the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors from 2012 to 2013. Shortly after finding out about his condition last year, he filed a claim.
“We are aware that a case of a cooperating company’s worker who worked at [Fukushima Daiichi] was recognized for workers’ compensation through reports,” said Tepco spokesman Satoshi Togawa in a statement. “We offer our sincere sympathy for the cooperating company’s worker, and will continue to tackle [dose] reduction and thorough [dose] management at a work environment.”
Lingering Health Cancers and Claims of Mismanagement
The tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake devastated approximately 217 square miles in Japan. Huge walls of sea water pummeled the coastline, destroying nearly everything in their path. Close to 16,000 people were killed, most of whom died by drowning. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the electrical power and backup generators were overwhelmed by the tsunami, and the plant lost its cooling capabilities. Nearby, more than 160,000 men, women, and children were forced from their homes during, what is considered by some to be, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Since 2011, hundreds of civilian deaths have been attributed to the crisis. Little has been mentioned about health concerns from radiation exposure — until recently. The findings of a new study released in October 2015 indicated that children living near the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a rate 20 to 50 times that of children elsewhere.
Tepco, meantime, has been peppered with claims of mismanagement. The company is accused of inadequate earthquake preparation, and a slow response in the aftermath of the meltdown. In fact, Tepco reportedly fell behind schedule during a project to complete an underground ice barrier that would’ve stopped groundwater from reaching the reactor’s lower levels. Reports have also surfaced that subcontracted workers at Fukushima used lead covers to hide unsafe radiation levels.
Still, Tepco stands behind its efforts to shield recovery workers from radiation. Since the disaster, Tepco officials have provided monthly reports to the Japanese government, documenting their measures to protect employees from reactive materials.
“Keeping firmly in mind that the safety of the workers and employees who are involved in the decommissioning operation is the highest priority,” the Tepco website reads, “we are addressing the improvement of their work environment to increase efficiency through the reduction of exposure via decontamination, etc., and the reduction of their workload by simplifying protective equipment, and ensuring the thorough provision of facilities to support their physical and mental well-being.”
Similarities to 9/11
Concerns about public health surrounding the Fukushima meltdown bears a strong similarity to the health issues facing the thousands of first responders and recovery workers at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Heroic men and women in uniform worked tirelessly, breathing in toxic air at Ground Zero. They were exposed to pounds of fallen asbestos, airborne mercury, and other toxins. More than a decade later, roughly 33,000 of the first responders and survivors suffer from at least one 9/11-related illness or injury, including 4,100 with cancer. They have received federally-funded compensation through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — which, controversially, expires in October 2016.
Due to a long latency period that is associated with many of the diseases resulting from 9/11, lawmakers and victim’s rights advocates are calling for an extension of the Zadroga bill. Cancers like mesothelioma, leukemia, and other illnesses are slower to present and can take 20-50 years to develop. So, unfortunately, we should see an uptick in lethal cancer cases around the year 2020.
Back in Japan, the recovery worker diagnosed with leukemia has also reportedly received some compensation for the loss of income stemming from his inability to work. The amount has not been disclosed. Questions still remain, however, over how many more Fukushima recovery workers will come forward with similar health claims. Clean up following the Fukushima meltdown is far from over. It is expected to take decades to remove melted fuel from the broken reactors — putting many more men and women at continued risk for radiation exposure.