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The hero who averted nuclear catastrophe via The Irish Times

The tsunami that hit Japan six years ago almost caused another Chernobyl in Fukushima. Journalist Rob Gilhooly was there and has written a book about the aftermath

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This culminated in the book Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe. Fukushima – March 2011, which was released by inknbeans Press last month, the sixth anniversary of the disasters.

The book is named after Masao Yoshida, the superintendent of the plant and one of the so-called “Fukushima 50” – the skeleton team of workers who stayed behind and braved multiple explosions and meltdowns in an attempt to bring the plant back under control.

Yoshida, who retired from the plant in late 2012 after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, has widely been afforded hero status for his leading role in averting a far more devastating catastrophe. Most famously, he defied official orders to stop using seawater to cool the melting reactors, one of many dilemmas he faced throughout the lengthy ordeal.

In addition to speaking with Yoshida, plant officials and workers for the book, many of them off the record or on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, I also interviewed Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister at the time, who some believe played an equally important hand when he put a stop to an alleged worker pullout from the plant as it spiralled out of control. Such a move, he believed, would trigger an even wider nuclear catastrophe that would require an evacuation zone stretching as far as Tokyo, impacting a total of 50 million people.

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Indeed, confusion reigns with regards to the impact of the accident on health. Some researchers, such as Geraldine Thomas, a cancer specialist at London University, insist that the radiation levels seen at Fukushima are too low to bring about the high numbers of thyroid and other cancers that were among the more prominent illnesses to come to light in the decades after Chernobyl.

Others, such as Hisako Sakiyama, a former senor researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences, disagree, saying sufficient data has been gathered to show even lower radiation doses can cause sufficient DNA damage to bring about cancer and other illnesses.

Away from the laboratory, however, about 200 thyroid cancer cases have already been detected among the Fukushima residents aged 18 and under at the time of the accident, though experts say that a stigma attached to radiation-induced cancer, which harks back to the A-bomb “hibakusha” survivors in Hiroshima and Nagashima, means the figure is almost certainly higher.

Other illnesses are also starting to come to light.

On February 2nd, a former plant worker took utility TEPCO to court after he was diagnosed with leukemia. His illness had already been recognised by Japan’s health and labour ministry as being work-related, though a TEPCO spokesman flatly denied the possibility of a connection between the cancer and radiation exposure at the plant.

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