The road to Fukushima for Masaru Ikeda began to unfold the day after the March 2011 disasters, when images from the tsunami-devastated Tohoku coast flooded the TV and internet. Among them was footage of bodies being laid out in a makeshift morgue, the feet and legs sticking out from beneath mud-encrusted blankets clearly belonging to children.
“It was overwhelming and I couldn’t help wondering how I’d feel if it was my kids lying there,” says Masaru, 42, who, after 10 months of cancer treatment, was discharged from his hospital cleanroom, the cancer having been found to be one step short of incurable. “I knew I had to to do something to help.”
Shortly after, his boss at the construction company where he worked told him about a Fukushima contractor who was looking for labor to assist with the ongoing battle to bring the devastated nuclear facility under control. Even though he had never set foot in a nuclear power plant before, Ikeda’s 15 years of experience as a welder would be invaluable.
“He asked if any of us were prepared to go up there, but nobody wanted to take the risk,” he says, adding that he, too, had initially hesitated. “I talked with colleagues and they said, ‘The workers at “1F” are like kamikaze pilots.’ … I still wanted to go, not for the sake of the country, but for the people of Tohoku.”
In late 2013, Ikeda returned home for rest and recuperation following a dispute with a subcontracting firm that was refusing to honor the daily ¥6,000 hazard allowance promised to workers — considerably less than the ¥19,000 pledged by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) president Naomi Hirose a month earlier.
It was about this time that he started to feel unwell. He couldn’t shake off a dry cough and found himself tiring far more easily than usual. Twice he scraped the side of his car without even realizing it.
In early 2014 a local doctor diagnosed him with a cold, making the news of a far more life-threatening illness during a company-sanctioned periodic health check a week later all the harder to swallow.
Results from a subsequent spinal tap revealed that 80 percent of the white blood cells in his bone marrow were abnormal. The doctor told him if he had waited a couple more weeks, treatment would not have been an option.
Nevertheless, it was still touch and go, and fearing he might not have much longer to live, Ikeda ignored the doctor’s recommendation for immediate hospitalization, instead returning home to spend time with his children, who were then only 5, 7 and 9.
“It was only after I saw them through the glass of the cleanroom for the first time that I realized what a painful ordeal I had put them through,” says Ikeda. “I don’t regret going to Fukushima … but I do regret the distress I caused my family.”
For the time being, however, he felt fortunate and relieved. The health and labor ministry had recognized the illness as workplace-related, though it stopped short of stating it was directly tied to the 19.8 millisieverts of radioactivity he had been exposed to while working at nuclear plants.
Under health ministry guidelines, workers who are exposed to 5 mSv of radiation in a year can apply for compensation insurance payments. Ikeda did so successfully, meaning the government would help cover Ikeda’s medical costs and loss of income.
Shortly after, he was contacted by a friend still employed at the plant, who told him of a memo attached to a worker survey undertaken by plant operator Tepco.
“The memo told workers not to worry about the decision to recognize the connection between my leukemia and radiation — that it was bogus,” Ikeda recalls. “It was as though Tepco was trying to erase the recognition of my work-related illness, which by law was its responsibility.”
Until then Ikeda insists he had “no intention” of suing Tepco, but its attitude made him “feel sick to the bone.”
“I started to wonder what kind of people they are,” says Ikeda, who since his transfusions has suffered various ailments linked to the peripheral blood stem cell transplant he received for his acute myeloid leukemia (AML). “This is a company that for months denied the reactor meltdowns, and that caused the explosions by refusing to inject seawater (to cool the reactors) on the grounds it would render the reactors unusable. Then they turn a blind eye to a worker who helped clean up their mess. To them I was just another expendable laborer.”
Ikeda’s lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, concedes that it’s scientifically problematic to prove his client’s leukemia is tied to radiation, even though Ikeda’s illness has been officially declared as being linked to his work.
“More importantly, he has been exposed to a level of radiation clearly exceeding the standard set by the government, and incidences of leukemia (among the general public) are extremely low,” he says, referring to the leukemia incidence rate in Japan of 6.3 per 100,000 people, or 1.4 percent of 805,236 cancers diagnosed in 2010. “In this case, I think it has been proven that the probable cause (radiation) is clearly far beyond the 51 percent probability normally required in these kinds of civil cases.”
To assess Ikeda’s case, painstaking investigations into his medical and employment background were undertaken. Ikeda himself said he had often noticed what he believes were public security officials in black vehicles who he alleges would park near his home and tail him wherever he went, presumably checking on his lifestyle habits and the types of people with whom he kept company.
The outcome of the official investigation was that no other factors, such as viruses or other illnesses, could have caused his leukemia, according to Kaido.