ByJulian Ryall TOKYO
A court in Japan this week began hearings against the operator of a Fukushima power plant over cases of thyroid cancer in children allegedly linked to the 2011 nuclear disaster.
The people – all aged between 6 and 16 at the time – have been living with the effects of that day ever since.
Four had their thyroid removed entirely and will need to take hormone medication for the rest of their lives. The other two had portions of their thyroids removed. One of the plaintiffs said the cancer has spread to their lungs.
“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”, testified one woman who is now in her 20s. “I want to regain my healthy body, but that’s impossible no matter how hard I wish.”
Their stories are compelling, but the four women and two men are having to testify anonymously in the landmark case – in part because many people simply do not believe them.
A culture of discrimination and misunderstanding around cancer in Japan that dates back to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of 1945 has meant they have become the target of insidious online abuse.
Some have suggested they are exaggerating or making their illnesses up. Others have accused them of damaging the reputation of Fukushima, which has tried hard to rehabilitate its image since the disaster.
One message posted on the site of a local Fukushima website said the plaintiffs’ parents were to blame because they failed to evacuate the children immediately after the disaster.
Another message said the people “appear to be annoyed that they cannot live perfect lives”.
A third person said the case was being encouraged “by an anti-Japanese, leftist group”.
The plaintiffs involved hope that this case will finally put all that to bed.
Their lawyers will argue that screening of 380,000 local children since 2011 has identified around 300 cases of thyroid cancer. That incidence rate of 77 cases per 100,000 people is significantly higher than the typical one or two cases per million and can only be linked to radiation from the accident, they say. A similar pattern was seen among children following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
“The doctor told my father that the cancer was highly malignant and had spread widely. He said it appeared to be less than five years old,” one man told local media before the hearing.
TEPCO has always maintained that there is no link between the leak of radiation from the plant and the spike in cancer cases, adding that tests of 1,080 children from three cities around the plant showed no one received more than 50 millisieverts of radiation, the annual limit for nuclear workers.
Their lawyers are set to argue that the high rate of thyroid cancers in Fukushima is the result of overtesting.
The company’s attempts to discredit them has added fuel to widespread hostility towards the plaintiffs.
“The people of Hiroshima were shunned by the rest of Japan after the atomic bombing of the city in 1945 because they did not understand about radiation and they feared they could catch it as a disease,” Chisato Kitanaka, an associate professor of sociology at Hiroshima University told The Telegraph.
“We cannot say that people do not lack information on the Fukushima case, but these people are still being singled out. They attack because they prefer to believe TEPCO or because they support the government’s plan to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors.”
In a separate case, earlier this year Japan’s Supreme Court upheld an order for TEPCO to pay damages of 1.4 billion yen (£9.5 million) to about 3,700 people whose lives were devastated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in the first decision of its kind.