Even though Fukushima was the worst environmental disaster to have taken place in the last 30 years, you probably haven’t heard much about it. After the Tohoku earthquake in eastern Japan and subsequent tsunami, one of the cooling systems at Fukushima’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) nuclear power plant failed. The result was a devastating triple reactor meltdown that led to the evacuation of over half a million people and the creation of a 20-kilometer exclusion zone. Ever since the disaster, TEPCO as well as the Japanese government have consistently tried to downplay the disaster’s impacts nationally and globally. The collusion was so blatant that even TEPCO’s company president, Naomi Hirose, admitted that a “cover-up” had taken place.
However, some of Fukushima’s effects are so obvious that even the Japanese government cannot continue to deny the enormity of the 2011 disaster. Within the last five years, many of the workers present at the Fukushima nuclear plant during the meltdown, as well as those involved in its clean-up, have developed cancer. Of the numerous workers seeking compensation, only two workers with leukemia were found to be entitled to workplace compensation by the Japanese health ministry. Yet, neither of these workers have so far received any money from the government for their treatment.
Now, that is set to change. On Friday, Japan’s health ministry concluded that another worker, diagnosed with thyroid cancer three years ago, developed his illness due to radiation exposure during his time working for TEPCO. The man had worked at several nuclear power plants with the company between 1992 and 2012 and was present at the Fukushima plant during the disaster. The radiation present in the man’s body was found to be about 150 millisieverts, with 140 of which were believed to be a result of the 2011 disaster. This marks the first time that a former worker with thyroid cancer has won the right to work-related compensation as many other similar cases were previously rejected by the Japanese government.
This most recent confirmed case of Fukushima-related cancer ultimately forced the hand of the Japanese government, prompting them to release their overall position on workers compensation for those who worked at the plant before and after the catastrophe. Officials said that workers who had been exposed to over 100 millisieverts and developed cancer five years or more after the disaster were entitled to compensation, though this quantity of radiation was said to be a “yardstick” – not a strict standard. According to a joint study by the UN and TEPCO, about 174 former workers are believed to have been exposed to over 100 millisieverts of radiation. However, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that more than 2,000 workers have radiation exceeding 100 millisieverts in their thyroid gland alone.
Though this new policy is good news for former TEPCO employees, it does little to address the growing epidemic of thyroid cancer among Fukushima citizens. Thyroid cancer rates have soared since the disaster. The trend is particularly noticeable among Fukushima’s youngest residents as 131 children have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer since 2011. Despite the spike in thyroid cancer, the Japanese government, TEPCO, and even the United Nations have insisted that there is “no direct link” between exposure to Fukushima radiation and thyroid cancer. However, exposure to Iodine-131, the main radionuclide released into the air and water during the meltdown, is known to increase one’s risk of thyroid cancer and is the most clearly defined environmental factor associated with thyroid tumors. If the Japanese government is offering compensation to workers for radiation exposure, it must also extend help to the disaster’s youngest victims.
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