|Aihara Hiroko Translation by Yuki Miyamoto Introduction by Eiichiro Ochiai||
January 15, 2017
Volume 15 | Issue 2 | Number 3
This article first appeared in Japan Focus. Please support them here. INTRODUCTION More than five years have elapsed since the great earthquake and the accompanying huge tsunami (on 3.11 of 2011), and its subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Three nuclear reactors there underwent explosions and another, though without explosion, was highly damaged. A large amount of radioactive material has been and is still being released as a result of the accidents. Aside from the very difficult issues of how to deal with the melted nuclear fuel rods and with the increasing amount of contaminated water, people all over Japan, particularly those in Fukushima prefecture, are concerned with the effects of radiation on human health from the released radioactive material. One disease, childhood thyroid cancer, has been recognized even by the authorities including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and International Commission of Radiation Protection (ICRP), as the result of radiation released by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in today’s Ukraine. Hence Fukushima Prefecture initiated a health survey of Fukushima citizens, including evacuees, that included scanning for thyroid abnormalities of all children under age 18 at the time of the accidents. It turned out that a large number of children have contracted thyroid cancers over the last five years: 172 out of ca. 380,000 children by the end of 2015. The majority of them have undergone surgery, and many have been found to have metastasized. This number , and the annual rate per 1,000,000, ca 90, is unusually high, compared with the rate 1 to 3 per 1,000,000 under normal circumstances. The Fukushima prefectural government and the organization charged with conducting the examination are trying to rationalize the results in many ways, without invoking the radiation impact of the reactor meltdowns. If this is indeed unrelated to the radiation from the damaged Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, a similarly high rate of thyroid cancer should be found all over Japan. The survey should be expanded in order to see whether that is indeed the case. In fact, however, as Aihara Hiroko details, the authorities are interested in scaling down the survey in Fukushima itself. They argue, curiously, that the results are causing anxiety and therefore are an example of “reputational damage,” an interpretation that excludes the possibility of actual harm to health and agricultural produce and other commercial activity. Moreover, they throw out the distraction of the need to respect individual choice, that is, the right of families to refuse screening. It is difficult to understand their reasoning as anything other than an expression of their wish to leave ambiguous the cause of rising rates of thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer seems to be increasing even among adults. Indeed, Aihara’s article introduces the case of an adult patient, a rare case in which an individual is willing to be identified by name, given the degree of social anxiety generated by the fear of discrimination in Japan. Thyroid cancer is only one of many health problems observed in the atomic bomb victims and the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Indeed, there are indications that many diseases including leukemia and heart diseases are increasing after the Fukushima accident all over Japan (Ochiai, 2015). Radiation is basically incompatible with life, indeed, everything on this earth (Ochiai, 2013). This fact needs to be recognized by the human race. No activity that releases radioactive materials in large quantities, whether for military use or power generation, should be allowed. Ochiai, 2013: “Hiroshima to Fukushima: Biohazards of Radiation” (Springer Verlag Heidelberg, 2013) Ochiai, 2015: “The Human Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident” Follow Up on Thyroid Cancer! Patient Group Voices Opposition to Scaling Down the Fukushima Prefectural Health Survey2 The total cost of the damage caused by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident is estimated at thirteen trillion yen. Yet, health damage is hard to see, and even when problems become evident, many of them are neglected. One of the most worrisome of these is thyroid cancer. Five years have passed since the accident of 2011, the threshold year when thyroid cancer began to increase after Chernobyl, according to experts such as Yamashita Shun’ichi, known as the “authority on the health risks of radiation exposure.” Here we try to grasp what is happening on the ground. “Although getting a checkup was a financial strain and time consuming, I am trying to view the experience positively as my cancer was detected at an early stage. If treatment had been delayed, the probability of the cancer spreading was quite high.” So says Watanabe Norio, a high school teacher in Fukushima Prefecture who had thyroid cancer surgery in 2015. It was in the summer of 2013, when he and his family had their thyroids checked at a private clinic, that a tumor was discovered. The initial diagnosis was that the tumor was benign but called for observation. After a year, the tumor had grown bigger. Watanabe went to a larger hospital where his tumor was diagnosed, this time, as cancerous, and one side of his thyroid gland was removed. Once Watanabe was discharged from the hospital, several of his current and former students, who happened to learn about his surgery, came to ask him personally about group thyroid screening: what to expect, the nature of the examination and treatment, and his hospitalization experience. All of them suffered from thyroid problems after the Fukushima nuclear accident.
1The website of the Fukushima prefectural government translates Fukushima kenmin kenkō chōsa as the “Residents’ Health Survey,” but in this article, I will employ the term “Prefectural Health Survey”. See here. [All footnotes are by the translator].
2The website of the Fukushima prefectural government translates Fukushima kenmin kenkō chōsa as the “Residents’ Health Survey,” but in this article, I will employ the term “Prefectural Health Survey”. See here.
3Yamashita was a Nagasaki-born second-generation hibakusha. After working at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine, he visited Chernobyl in 1991 in order to conduct research on children suffering from thyroid cancer. Since then, he has visited Chernobyl over a hundred times. In light of his experience in Chernobyl, shortly following the meltdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima in 2011, Yamashita was invited to serve as a radiation risk management adviser to Fukushima Prefecture. He is known for his claims, regarding radiation risk in Fukushima, that exposure to 100 mSv of radiation per year is safe and that radiation does not affect people who are “happy and laughing” but rather affects those who are “weak-spirited” and who “brood and fret.” See “Japan Admits 3 Nuclear Meltdowns, More Radiation Leaked into Sea; U.S. Nuclear Waste Poses Deadly Risks” Democracy Now! June 10, 2011. Transcript is available here.
4The Fukushima prefectural assembly, in response to a petition opposing cutbacks in health screenings, agreed to maintain the program at its regular meeting on October 13, 2016. See “Fukushima Daiichi genpatsu jiko kōjōsen kensa kibo iji o Kenmin kenkō chōsa, kengikai ga seigan saitaku” (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, thyroid examinations will remain at the same scale; Prefectural assembly adopts petition)
5Leukocytosis occurs when white cells (the leukocyte count) are above the normal range in the blood. It is frequently a sign of an inflammatory response, most commonly the result of infection, but may also occur following certain parasitic infections or bone tumors. See here.
6The “maternity passbook” is issued to a woman when she reports her pregnancy to the municipal government of her residence. The book provides health advice, and documents the prenatal development of a baby as well as post-delivery health of mother and child. It also allows the holder to receive free public health services. See the website of Fukushima Prefecture: “Health of prefectural residents”.
7See “Fukushima kenkō chōsa: ‘himitsukai’ de kenkai suriawase” (Prefectural Health Survey: Producing an agreement by a secret meeting) here and here. The original article in Mainichi Shimbun on October 3, 2012 has been taken down from their website.
8Article 26 of the act states: “Based on the Basic Guidelines for Reconstruction and Revitalization of Fukushima, Fukushima Prefecture may conduct Health Management Surveys (meaning surveys to estimate radiation exposure, conduct health checkups on thyroid cancer in children, and otherwise manage residents’ health care effectively; the same applies hereinafter), covering persons who had addresses in Fukushima as of March 11, 2011 and others equivalent thereto.” The document is available here.
9The 3.11 Fund for Children with Thyroid Cancer was established on September 8, 2016, with the purpose of supporting thyroid cancer patients and their families. Donations are accepted at the organization website. The first round of applications for the fund began on December 1, 2016. See more information here.
10Since this article was published, the number of thyroid cancer patients among those 18 years old and younger at the time of the accident has increased from 131 to 145. “18sai ika no kōjōsengan, kei 145nin ni Fukushima ken kensa” (The examinations show a rise of thyroid cancer patients among children to 145), December 27, 2016.
Please support our work.