According to lead researcher Shigemura, 29.5 percent of workers at the plant subsequently displayed symptoms of high post-traumatic stress responses (PTSR), including flashbacks and avoidance of reminders of the terrifying events they went through.
Around 1 in 5 Tepco workers at neighboring Fukushima No. 2 plant also showed similarly high levels of PSTR, even though there was no serious damage to the four reactors there.
Continued surveys of the workers by Shigemura, an associate professor at the National Defense Medical University’s Department of Psychiatry, and other experts say that while the overall influence of disaster-related experiences on PTSR of workers had decreased since 2011, it remains high.
This is consistent with previous findings following the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, he says. While scientists then had assumed that cancers and other malignant disorders would be the biggest health risk, mental health issues turned out to be far more prevalent, he says.
Indeed, studies have shown that mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and suicide ideation, were still high and remained the most prevalent problem for the Chernobyl cleanup workers even 20 years after the disaster, Shigemura says. “So I think we can say with some confidence that the Fukushima workers also carry a very high risk of developing long-term mental health issues.”
Furthermore, while PTSD is often thought of as the main persisting illness in such disasters, Shigemura says factors such as depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse are also likely to linger for some time.
“I felt bad for those people, like it was my fault,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything (to prevent the accident) and as a member of Tepco, I thought I was to blame.”
Such self-criticism and guilt have been major contributors to enduring mental illnesses among plant workers, according to Takeshi Tanigawa, a professor of public health at Jutendo University’s graduate school of medicine, who has also been involved in the mental health surveys of Fukushima plant workers.
Another factor was the continuing bashing at the hands of residents, Tanigawa says, adding that the tension reflected a tendency in Japan to associate people, both CEOs and their foot soldiers alike, with the company they work for, making them collectively the perpetrators of the accident in the public’s eyes.
“We found that those who have experienced such criticism and discrimination have a high degree of psychological distress or PTSR, more than two times higher than control subjects,” he says, adding that with 80 percent of workers being local hires, the bashing, sometimes at the hands of friends and relatives, was even more difficult to take.
Indeed, Takayama fell sick during the operations and while they left an indelible impression, the 48-hour encounter with the radiation-spewing plant was unlikely to leave any long-term mental scars, he says. “It was stressful, but there were others who were up there for much, much longer,” he says.
A former subcontractor employee, who was working at the Fukushima No. 1 plant at the time of the 2011 disasters, says he had not heard of any mental health issues among subcontractor workers. However, as they made up almost 90 percent of the total plant workforce, he couldn’t discount the possibility.
“One thing that was different for us was that we were never forced, or obliged, to return to the plant,” the worker says in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Like many others, I evacuated from the plant and never went back, but if I had, I suppose it’s perfectly possible I may have succumbed to mental illness.”
“Unlike the nuclear plant workers, these sailors had no protective clothing. In fact, some of them literally had no shirts on their backs because they had given all their clothing away to people they saved from the tsunami waves,” says Charles Bonner, a lawyer representing some 400 sailors who have filed a lawsuit against Tepco and U.S. nuclear reactor manufacturer General Electric. “And because they had given away all their bottled water to tsunami survivors, they were drinking desalinated water that had also been contaminated. I do not doubt the psychological impact of the disasters on the plant workers, but at least they had masks and other protective clothing, as required by law. The sailors, however, knew nothing of their exposure and were literally marinated in the radiation.”
Idogawa’s exposure levels were also in excess of acceptable levels by the time he quit Tepco in January 2012 to protest the utility’s poor treatment of workers — who were, in most cases, also victims — and the government’s announcement the previous month that the plant had been brought “under control,” which was completely at odds with what he saw.
Read more at Battling nuclear demons: Mental health issues haunt those who were the first line of defense after 3/11