Fukushima Workers Battle Leukemia – and Bureaucracy via Unseen Japan

By Hiro Ugaya

Editor’s Note

The March 2011 tsunami, and the subsequent meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, has had a devastating impact on Japan. Eight years later, and most journalists – in Japan and abroad – have forgotten about the story. But for many, the struggle continues.

This is especially true of workers who helped assist in the cleanup effort at Fukushima. Some Fukushima workers have contracted severe diseases – including cancer and leukemia – since their work concluded. The government of Japan has even certified that some cases are a result of recovery work. But workers who are fighting for their lives also find themselves fighting the system. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), which led the recovery effort, refuses to admit any connection between the cleanup work and subsequent diseases in workers. And many insurance companies are pointing to the fine print in private insurance contracts stating they don’t cover accidents at nuclear facilities.

Unseen Japan has been pleased to partner with photojournalist Hiro Ugaya (烏賀陽弘道) to translate his interviews with evacuees and former evacuees, and to document the ongoing struggle of the victims of this tragedy.

We previously published Hiro’s interview with a mother in the city of Minamisoma. In this installment, we share the first part of Hiro’s interview with Mr. Ikeda (pseudonym), a Fukushima nuclear reactor cleanup volunteer who now finds himself fighting two uphill battles.

(Translation from an article originally published on Note.muTranslation by Jay, Editor/Publisher, Unseen Japan. All photos used with permission of Hiro Ugaya.)

I went to Fukuoka, which is quite far from Fukushima. That’s where the leukemia-stricken Ikeda Kazuya (age 44; pseudonym) has lived since participating in the Daichi Nuclear Reactor reconstruction efforts. I had visited Ikeda once in 2017 to hear his story. Among all my interviews here in the Fukushima Report, it’s the one that’s reverberated the loudest.

Mr. Ikeda volunteered to participate in the restoration work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. By trade, he’s an independent welder. In March 2011, when so many people died due to the tsunami, he looked at the report of the death of a small child and thought, “I need to do something useful for Tohoku” [Editor: the region of Japan hit by the tsunami]. He asked permission from his boss and threw himself into the reconstruction effort. The interior of the heavy machinery room of Reactor 4 butts up against the nuclear fuel rod pool.

But in 2013, Mr. Ikeda came down with leukemia.

Mr. Ikeda is one of the first cancer patients that the country recognizes as a work-related accident connected to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Two Fukushima workers contracted leukemia (bone marrow cancer), and one contracted thyroid cancer. The first case of leukemia was recognized in October 2015. The second was recognized in August 2016. The third person, who had thyroid cancer, was certified in December 2016.

As of May 2019, there are six patients in the country whose cases have been recognized as occupational accidents caused by work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. To tell the truth, I was quite surprised that the country recognized them as occupational accidents. Judging from the history of pollution diseases, such as Minamata disease and Itai-itai disease, I predicted the government would probably prevaricate and not admit a causal relationship. But the government admitted it readily (employing a lot of rhetoric, of course, such as “This is not an admission of a scientific, causal relationship”).

From a global and historical perspective, the admission is rare. In the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979) in the US, more than 2000 lawsuits have been filed, but no relationship between health damage and exposure has been admitted in even a single case. The state government naturally won’t admit it, and the courts don’t either.


While the case was recognized as a workplace injury, Mr. Ikeda filed a lawsuit against Tokyo Electric (TEPCO), which ran the restoration project. That’s because TEPCO doesn’t “recognize a causal relationship between Mr. Ikeda’s leukemia and exposure to radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.”

I’ve long found it mysterious that not a single TV station, weekly newspaper, web media or other news outlet has done an article on those like Mr. Ikeda who contracted deadly diseases from the nuclear reactor recovery work. Since the government’s announcement certifying them as workplace injuries, there’s been dead silence. Those affected can’t be heard in their own voices.


During that time, every time I met Mr. Ikeda and talked with him, I realized he was recovering little by little. Let’s talk about what’s happened since. It was April 2019 when I flew back to Kitakyushu again.

This time, Mr. Ikeda pointed out something important. People who work in nuclear facilities such as nuclear power plants are not covered by private insurance, even if they have an accident or get sick. It’s in the so-called “disclaimer.”

If if you can’t work and fall into hard times, unless the country certifies it as a workplace accident, there’s no path to salvation. For subcontractors who are not in-house employees, TEPCO and other electric power companies have denied any compensation or even causality.

People who engaged in the dangerous work of recovering the nuclear power plant post-meltdown have been left naked and defenseless. And few people notice it. Even insurance companies don’t care. I want to fix this abnormality.

Here’s what Mr. Ikeda told me.


Experts say that the incubation period of leukemia (time from exposure to onset) is two years. Mr. Ikeda’s case matches that. And the five-year survival rate for leukemia is around 30%. His doctor said, “If you’d waited two weeks, it’d have been too late.”

here are six people, including yourself, who have been certified as workplace accidents due to cancer or death from overwork in the recovery work of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident. Any contact from them?

No, none. I’ve caught sight of the wife of one of the Fukushima workers who died from overwork (karoshi) at rallies in Tokyo.

It seems that TEPCO employees and primary subcontractors who got sick will receive 30 million yen [around USD $274,000]. But in return, they can’t sue. That’s what my lawyer emphasized at trial. But that offer doesn’t extend to us (second-tier subcontractors).

The owner who hired me also had business owner insurance. Just in case we have an industrial accident. However, we found out later that it wasn’t valid in nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants. The insurance companies say it’s too dangerous a place to cover via employer insurance. And yet TEPCO denies responsibility for my leukemia.

That’s what you’re contesting in court.

That’s right. They’re denying everything. They say it was too low of a dose to bear any relationship. In the previous trial, TEPCO says I developed leukemia due to smoking, drinking, and a vegetable deficiency. That took me aback (laughs). They talk to us like we’re alcoholics.

When I petition to declare this an industrial accident, I was interviewed by the Labor Standards Control Board. I didn’t know quite what was happening, so when they asked me about my health, I was straight and said, “I drink two beers a day,” and “I smoke 20 cigarettes a day.” TEPCO must have requested disclosure of the Labor Board’s data.  Who knows where they got “vegetable deficiency” (laughs). They’re just making stuff up.


TEPCO won’t recognize the causal relationship between your leukemia and radiation exposure, correct?

If they did, it’ll become a serious obstacle to future nuclear power policy. I was the first person certified, and there’ve been a number since. So there has to be a causal relationship, right?

What total dose did you receive?

A total of 19.8 millisieverts. Others received more. TEPCO is terrible. It’d be better if they just copped to it.


Fukushima workers who entered the facility had no idea their employer’s primary insurance wouldn’t cover it.

Yep, yep…We ask who’s going to cover this, but TEPCO is the only company that makes people work in an environment not covered by insurance. People will think, “If TEPCO won’t guarantee it, why should I take the risk?”

That’s what I want to say, to communicate to the world. But no one will listen….If workers have the right to insurance, they know they can get compensation if something happens. I mean, that’s how the old coal miners thought. “I’ going into a dangerous place, but, well, at least I have insurance.”

Is work accident insurance insufficient?

It’s not a matter of it being insufficient. I want to see a proper system established for the people who come after me. Unskilled workers like me have these jobs like nuclear power plant cleanup shoved on them. If something happens, and you’re a TEPCO employee, you’re covered. The rest of us are kicked to the curb. It makes me sick. Many of us have no idea who’ll take care of things if something happens.

The company that hired me took out high premiums for us to have round the clock coverage. It covers us even when we’re in dorm rooms outside of works hours from aftershocks and tsunamis. However, they didn’t know the insurance wasn’t applicable inside of a nuclear facility. The CEO complained, and a rep came and apologized.

I heard that they changed that text from small print to large print after my case was certified.

So there are gaps in the current system?

That’s what I want people to know. I want the media and others to know. And I want people who enter a nuclear facility to work to know this as well. Private insurance won’t cover you if something happens. Do people think that’s right? If I don’t say something, others will end up like me.

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