Fukushima heroes on both sides of the Pacific still fighting effects of radiation, stress and guilt via South China Morning Post

By Rob Gilhooly

Christmas Day saw dozens of masked men descend on Futaba, in the northeast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. They moved deliberately along deserted streets, clearing triffid-like undergrowth and preparing to demolish derelict buildings. Their arrival marked the beginning of an estimated four-year government-led project to clean up Futaba, which has succumbed to nature since its residents deserted almost seven years ago.

Futaba is one of two towns (the other being neighbouring Okuma) on which sits the 350-hectare Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which experienced multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions in March 2011, contaminating huge swathes of land and forcing the evacuation of 160,000 residents – all the result of the magnitude-nine undersea Tohoku earthquake and the devastating mega-tsunami that hit on March 11, claiming up to 21,000 lives.

Despite 96 per cent of Futaba still being officially designated as uninhabitable due to high radiation levels, the government has set spring 2022 as the return date for its 6,000 or so residents. That the government has also built a 1,600-hectare facility to store up to 22 million cubic metres of nuclear waste in the town has led to doubts that many will return.

“I find it difficult to believe anyone would want to go back,” says Ryuta Idogawa, 33, a former employee at Fukushima Daiichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), and one of the so-called “Fukushima 50” – a hardcore of station workers who remained on-site after 750 others had been evacuated, battling to bring the melting reactors under control at great risk to their own safety.


On the other side of the world, members of a different and larger group of people than the Fukushima 50 are suffering health problems, ostensibly as a result of the disaster. For more than seven weeks following the catastrophe, the United States mounted a massive disaster relief mission, dubbed Operation Tomodachi (the Japanese word means “friend”). The initiative directly or indirectly involved 24,000 US service personnel, 189 aircraft and 24 naval ships, at a total cost US$90 million.


According to one report, 24 sailors, who were in their late teens or 20s at the time, are living with a variety of cancers. At least six have died since 2011, while others suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“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 at one of three law offices representing 402 sailors who have filed a US$5 billion lawsuit against Tepco and General Electric Co, a suit that has been given the go-ahead to be heard in a US federal court. (Fukushima Daiichi’s Reactor No. 1 – the plant’s oldest reactor – was built by American manufacturer General Electric Co.)

“And because they had given away all their bottled water to tsunami survivors, they were drinking desalinated water that also had been contaminated,” Bonner continues. “I do not doubt the psychological impact of the disasters on the plant workers, but at least they had masks and protective clothing, as required by law. The sailors, however, knew nothing of their exposure and were literally marinated in the radiation.”


Nathan Piekutowski was a marine aboard the USS Essex at the time of the relief mission. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia less than two years later. “The type of leukaemia I had usually is something you get later in life,” Piekutowski, now 26, said. “Early onset can be caused from being around certain types of chemicals.”

Another plaintiff, naval officer Angel Torres, one of 5,500 sailors and marines aboard nuclear-powered super-carrier USS Ronald Reagan, said he had suffered two hernias, loss of libido and PTSD since taking part in Operation Tomodachi. Torres had also exhibited symptoms of multiple sclerosis, though medical tests for that disease had come up negative.


Mental afflictions are not unusual among Fukushima plant workers, experts say. According to one study, all 1,500 Tepco workers surveyed had experienced a variety of stress-causing ailments relating to their direct experiences of the disasters, losses of loved ones or the backlash from a disgruntled public, in particular residents who were evacuated.

Around 30 per cent of workers at the plant subsequently displayed high post traumatic stress responses (PTSR), including flashbacks and avoidance of reminders of the terrifying events they experienced, according to lead researcher Jun Shigemura, an associate professor at Japan’s National Defense Medical University’s department of psychiatry.


Following the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, scientists assumed that cancers and other malignant disorders would be the biggest health risk, but long-term mental health issues turned out to be more prevalent, Shigemura says. “I think we can say with some confidence that the Fukushima workers, too, are at very high risk of developing long-term mental health issues,” he adds.


The pseudonym “Fukushima 50” was coined by the overseas – not the Japanese – media, and the workers were internationally admired for their bravery, discipline and sense of duty. There were, in fact, significantly more than 50, and CNN regularly called them “heroes”; Britain’s Guardian newspaper opined that the world “can only look on in admiration”.

In Hong Kong, a group of posters on the popular HKGolden online forum rewrote and dedicated Cantonese and Japanese lyrics for a Cantopop song to the workers, calling it Martyr of Fukushima – Tribute to the Fukushima 50.


Idogawa’s radiation exposure levels were in excess of acceptable levels by the time he quit Tepco in January 2012. His resignation was out of protest for the utility’s poor treatment of workers – who were mostly local hires and therefore victims, too – and the government’s announcement the previous month that the plant had been brought “under control”, which was at odds with what he saw.

Despite his disgruntlement, Idogawa is hopeful that his former employer will implement measures to monitor and treat mental health issues that he believes continue to persist among workers.

When asked to comment on post-accident care of its workers for this article, Tepco said it was unable to provide details due to privacy issues. It did, however, continue to hand out “health check” questionnaires to all personnel, the Tepco spokesperson said.

Shigemura, whose surveys and subsequent treatment of plant workers was brought to an abrupt halt by Tepco in 2015, believes continued “surveillance” of workers is imperative, not least because of the very real possibility of the “delayed onset” of mental illnesses, which have frequently occurred among “survivors” following other historical disasters and conflicts, including some Vietnam war veterans, who only developed such illnesses more than 20 years on, triggered, says Shigemura, by the start of the Gulf war.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, lawyer Bonner says that while his team represents more than 400 sailors, there were a further 69,600 American citizens – military and civilian – potentially affected by the radiation, and who have yet to join the class lawsuit.

He also expresses indignation at the Royal Society study and the viewpoint of cancer expert Thomas, insisting that the health of the young US service men and women aboard the ships was endangered and in many cases compromised by Operation Tomodachi. “[The sailors] were certified by the Navy as healthy and fit, so why are they getting cancer and other illnesses?” he asks. “That can only be because they were exposed to radiation. It can’t just be a coincidence.”

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