Almost 11 years have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant catastrophe. But even as Fukushima prefecture gets ready to launch a new revitalization slogan – “Making Fukushima’s reconstruction a reality one step at a time” – it is still struggling to overcome the lingering aftereffects of the accident. Earlier this month, a group of six men and women diagnosed with thyroid cancer as children filed a class action case against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), seeking $5.4 million in compensation.
Eastern Japan was hit by a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake and 15-meter tsunami on March 11, 2011. The disaster shut off power and cooling to three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, triggering the release of radiation for up to six days.
The plaintiffs, who are aged between 17 and 27, are seeking to hold TEPCO responsible for the thyroid cancer they developed. Two have had one side of their thyroid removed and four others have had a complete thyroidectomy and are planning or undergoing radiation therapy. The treatment has forced them to drop out of school or college and give up on their dreams. The plaintiffs argue that their thyroid cancer has created barriers to their education and employment as well as marriage and starting a family.
The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, which was followed by a spike in cancer cases in the region. In Japan a health survey conducted by the Fukushima prefecture found 266 cases of cancer among the 380,000 people aged under 18 at the time of the accident. The lawyers representing the plaintiffs argue that pediatric thyroid cancer is extremely rare, with an annual incident rate of two cases in one million people.
The plaintiffs added that in the past decade they have been forced to stay silent due to social pressure and the risk of public outrage over speaking out about the connection between the Fukushima nuclear accident and their thyroid cancer.
The Federation of Promotion of Zero-Nuclear Power and Renewable Energy, a civic group that includes five former Japanese prime ministers, sent a letter to the EU urging the elimination of nuclear power. In the letter, they stated that many children are suffering from thyroid cancer as a result of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident.
However, the Japanese government believes there is no causal link between exposure to radiation from the accident and the children developing thyroid cancer. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting that “it is not appropriate to spread false information that children from Fukushima are suffering from health problems.”
At a press conference Takaichi Sanae, chairperson of the ruling LDP’s Policy Research Council refuted the letter sent by the federation. She stressed the government’s position that the cases of childhood thyroid cancer have been assessed by experts who have determined the accident is unlikely to have caused cancer.
Fukushima prefecture’s expert panel say there could be the possibility of “over-diagnosis” due to increased vigilance after the disaster, suggesting that some patients diagnosed with cancer did not need treatment. They say they are continuing to investigate the nature of each diagnosis. The Ministry of Environment also said they will continue to disseminate knowledge based on scientific findings to dispel rumors about the health effects of radiation.
Last week, the Fukushima reconstruction and revitalization council met to discuss the “diverse needs of the prefecture” and a long term response to support evacuees. Governor of Fukushima Uchibori Masao acknowledged that the prefecture is “facing many difficulties including the reconstruction and rehabilitation of evacuated areas and rebuilding the lives of evacuees and victims of the disaster.” There are also plans to establish a new national research and education organization in Fukushima that will devise measures to prevent and dispel rumors fueling discrimination toward evacuees and Fukushima food.
Taiwan recently lifted its blanket food import ban on Fukushima produce introduced in the wake of the disaster but there are 14 countries and regions that still maintain import restrictions. Additionally, Japan’s decision to discharge more than one million tonnes of low-level radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea is another issue attracting negative publicity abroad.