By Mari Yamaguchi
It is the first group lawsuit filed by Fukushima residents over health problems allegedly linked to the disaster, their lawyers say.
One plaintiff, identified only as a woman in her 20s, testified from behind a screen that she had to give up plans to attend university because of repeated operations and treatments.
“Because of the treatments, I could not attend university, or continue my studies for my future job, or go to a concert. I had to give up everything,” she said. “I want to regain my healthy body, but that’s impossible no matter how hard I wish.”
She and the five other plaintiffs are seeking a total of 616 million yen ($4.9 million) in damages from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings for allegedly causing their cancers.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami destroyed the Fukushima plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactor cores to melt and release large amounts of radiation. Critics say the plant operator should have known that a large tsunami was possible at the site.
The plaintiffs, who were 6 to 16 years old at the time of the accident and lived in different parts of Fukushima, were diagnosed with thyroid cancer between 2012 and 2018, their lawyers said.
The plant operator told the court that they were not exposed to enough radiation to cause cancer, citing tests of 1,080 children from three cities around the plant that showed about 55% were not exposed and none received more than 50 millisieverts, the annual limit for nuclear workers.
An increase in thyroid cancer was found among children following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
The Fukushima prefectural government tested 380,000 residents aged 18 or younger at the time of the accident for thyroid cancer. About 300 were diagnosed with cancer or suspected cancer.
That occurrence rate, about 77 per 100,000, is significantly higher than the usual 1-2 per million and can only be linked to radiation from the accident, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
Prefectural officials and experts have said the high level of thyroid cancer found in Fukushima is due to an overdiagnosis, which might have led to unnecessary treatment.
Three other plaintiffs who attended the hearing were also behind a partition to protect their privacy because of criticism on social media accusing them of fabricating their illnesses and hurting the image of Fukushima, the lawyers said.
Ido said many people with health problems feel intimidated to speak out in Fukushima and that he hopes the lawsuit will prove a correlation between radiation and the plaintiffs’ cancers “so that we can have a society in which people can talk freely about their difficulties.”
The government was slow in responding to the crisis, and evacuations in many places were delayed due to a lack of disclosure of what was happening at the nuclear plant. Residents who fled in their cars clogged roads and were stranded for hours outside while radiation spread from the damaged reactors. Some residents headed to evacuation centers in the direction of the radiation flow.