Two men developed throat cancer after being employed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and one of them reportedly died from the illness—the first known cases of the condition linked to working at the site.
The unnamed men, one in his 60s and another in his 40s, had removed debris and measured radiation doses at the plant to rid the surrounding area of radioactivity in the aftermath of one of Japan’s worst nuclear disasters. In 2011, a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed more than 15,000 and displaced over 160,000, also caused nuclear meltdowns, leaving some parts of Fukushima prefecture uninhabitable.
Japanese news outlet NHK reported the employee in his 40s has died after developing cancer in 2019. He was a radiologist hired by a partner company of TEPCO, the company that owns the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The man in his 60s worked for TEPCO.
The Japanese ministry of health on Wednesday linked the men’s illness, pharyngeal cancer, to their time working at the Fukushima plant.
Former plant workers earlier filed damage suits, claiming to have developed cancer from working at nuclear plants. Cases of leukemia, thyroid and lung cancers have been reported. But proving the link in a court of law has been difficult.
In May, a Sapporo Court dismissed a 63-year-old man’s claim seeking the equivalent of nearly $600,000 in damages from TEPCO, the newspaper Japan Times reported. The court ruled out a causal relationship between his job and his illness, arguing that the latency period—the time from when cancer starts to when it was diagnosed—began before the employee started working at the plant.
To determine whether cancer was caused by work conditions, a team of doctors must review each case and note a number of criteria. In the past, a former nuclear plant chief died of esophageal cancer, but TEPCO said his case was not linked to his work at the Fukushima plant.
In the two recent cases, both men did not have underlying lifestyle risks, such as smoking or excessive drinking, that would have contributed to their illness. The period between the time of exposure and the onset of disease was also longer than five years. A shorter period would have given room to believe that the cancer started developing before their exposure.
Both men also had more than 100 millisieverts of radiation in their bodies, the level at which cancer is increasingly evident. Typically, an individual is exposed to about 2.4 millisieverts annually.
TEPCO was not immediately available for comment and has not released a statement regarding the confirmed cases.