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Worker Diagnosed with First Case of Cancer from Fukushima Disaster Cleanup

A worker in a protective suit at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last year.

A worker in a protective suit at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last year.

When Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactors went into meltdown following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, over 44,000 workers were dispatched to the site to decommission the plant before a large-scale disaster could spread. The work involved dangerous levels of nuclear radiation exposure, with millions of gallons of radioactive water needing to be stored on site.

Now the first case of cancer related to this job has been reported by a worker involved in that cleanup, according to Japan’s NHK.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced today that a recovery worker — who remains unnamed at this point — was just diagnosed with leukemia. After he filed his worker’s compensation claim, the ministry has officially confirmed that the worker’s illness is connected to radiation exposure from work at Fukushima.

Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese daily newspaper, states that the worker from Kitakyushu is now 41. He spend a good part of two years, from 2012 to 2013, working at the Fukushima plant near the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. In January 2014 he was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The word “acute” indicates “the disease’s rapid progression,” according to the Mayo Clinic. The worker left his job at Fukushima Daiichi and shortly thereafter developed leukemia, NHK reported.

“We are aware that a case of a cooperating company’s worker who worked at [Fukushima Daiichi] was recognized for worker’s compensation through reports,” Satoshi Togawa, a Tepco spokesman, said in a statement. “As applying for worker’s compensation is done by each employee or each employer, and recognizing this is handled by a labor standards supervision office, we are not in a position to make a comment. We offer our sincere sympathy for the cooperating company’s worker.”

Tepco’s Web site provides extensive discussion of its efforts to protect those recovery workers from radiation. The company makes a distinction between its own employees and contractor workers — who far outnumber the company’s workers at Fukushima. In August, for instance, more than 9,000 contractors were working on this site, but only 1,000 official company employees. Contractors were also exposed to more than double the average dose of radiation that employees received.

“Keeping firmly in mind that the safety of the workers and employees who are involved in the decommissioning operation is the highest priority,” the Web site 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.”

The Fukushima worker with cancer was reportedly exposed to doses of 16 mSv of radiation, according to Asahi Shimbun.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there. Last month, radiation associated with the Fukushima meltdowns was traced to thyroid cancer among children living in neighboring areas.

“This is more than expected and emerging faster than expected,” lead author Toshihide Tsuda told the Associated Press. “This is 20 times to 50 times what would be normally expected.”

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Emery Reddy