It’s no secret that exposure to high levels of radiation increases the risk for cancer. Nevertheless, showing that radiation exposure causes cancer is notoriously difficult. For the first time, the Japanese government has acknowledged that a worker at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant developed cancer from radiation exposure.
In 2011, a tsunami struck the coast of Japan that engulfed three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Radiation from the power plant has been seeping into the surrounding environment; however, the Japanese government has taken great strides to deny any sort of connection between toxic radiation levels and a spike in cancer rates.
The man is in his 40s and is suffering from leukemia. He didn’t work full time at Fukushima the weeks following the disaster in March 2011, when radiation levels were at their highest. However, he did install covers on damaged reactors at the power plant from October 2012 to December 2013, and was exposed to a total of 19.8 millisieverts of radiation during that time.(1)
Correlation vs causation
Whether or not radiation at Fukushima was the definitive cause of the man’s leukemia is uncertain, though it is very likely. The man had worked at previous power plants before Fukushima. Regardless, he was exposed to nearly four times the annual dose allowed for nuclear workers in Japan, which is less than half the amount US nuclear workers are exposed to each year.(1)
“While the causal link between his exposure to radiation and his illness is unclear, we certified him from the standpoint of worker compensation,” a health ministry official told sources.(2)
The man will receive compensation for medical expenses and paid time off for lost income, said government officials.(2)
Claimants must be exposed to more than 5 millisievert of radiation in order to be considered for compensation for radiation-related maladies.(1)
Since the disaster, approximately 45,000 workers have been involved in clean up efforts at the power plant. About half of those workers were exposed to more than 5 millisievert of radiation, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO). Best estimates suggest that it will take another 40 years to cleanse the power plant. Shielding workers from cancer causing radiation will be crucial in maintaining the workforce in the decades to come.(1)
Only thirteen other Japanese workers in Japan’s nuclear industry have received compensation for illnesses linked to radiation exposure since the 1970s. Since the Fukushima disaster, ten compensation cases have been filed. Among those, seven have been rejected with the remaining three cases still under review.
No deaths at the Fukushima power plant have been directly related to radiation exposure. Still, several workers have died from stroke, heart attack among other health complications.(2)
Children thyroid cancer rates spike in Fukushima Prefecture
It’s not just workers at Fukushima who are at risk for radiation related illnesses. According to a recent study, thyroid cancer rates are 20 to 50 times higher among children who live inside the Fukushima Prefecture than those who don’t. This number is 25 percent higher than thyroid cancer rates reported last year.(3)
These findings make evacuees weary about returning home. Japan uses a 100 millisievert threshold to determine whether residents can return to homes near the power plant. During the height of the catastrophe, approximately 170 workers were exposed to radiation level that exceeded the threshold.
For these reasons and more, the bulk of the Japanese public has been against nuclear energy. Only two nuclear reactors have restarted since the disaster in 2011. With the rise of cancer rates, however, many Japanese citizens believe restarting one reactor is one too many.