Last week the Fukushima prefectural government announced that seven more cases of thyroid cancer had been discovered among residents who had lived near the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant at the time of the multiple explosions and meltdowns there in March 2011.
The new cases were announced during a meeting of an expert panel, and brought the total of confirmed thyroid cases to 152, it was reported. However, the panel, which is headed by Hokuto Hoshi, vice-chair of Fukushima's medical association, believed it was "unlikely" that the new cases were connected to the radiation that spewed from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the air and sea for weeks and months after the disaster.
To quote one famous US baseball player, it was like déjà vu all over again, and it is worth revisiting the issue to understand why panelists and other scientists are unwilling to state categorically why cancers can or cannot be tied to radiation exposure.
According to some experts it is almost impossible to prove the medical relation between radiation exposure and cancers. Geraldine Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, says that proving a nuclear accident such as Fukushima will categorically not cause cancers or other illnesses “is incredibly difficult.” However, she adds that while it is easy to blame radiation exposure, it is almost impossible to prove there is a connection, either, as there are no biomarkers that can be used to distinguish between different aetiologies.
“There’s no way of distinguishing between the radiation from nuclear power plants and radiation in the background (i.e. naturally occurring in the environment),” says Thomas, who also runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, which analyzes samples of tissue from people exposed to radiation after Chernobyl in order to monitor the impact of iodine exposure in children. “Everyone hoped we would find … a (genetic) marker for radiation-induced cancer, but there isn’t one.”
Other experts, such as Hisako Kakiyama, a medical doctor who is also a former head researcher at Japan's national radiological research institute, disagrees, saying research has shown that even low levels of radiation have led directly to cancers such as thyroid cancer.
The debate over the impact of radiation on health is discussed at length in "Yoshida's Dilemma," as indeed is the issue of the credibility of Fukushima's surveys and studies examining the thyroid cancer issue.
In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, the Fukushima Prefectural government in cooperation with Fukushima Medical University (FMU) began monitoring the health of residents who were under 18 at the time of the incident at the plant. FMU has since been is overseeing thyroid-cancer all screening and surgeries. By April 2014, 380,000 children, including those who were in utero on 11 March 2011, had been tested in the prefectural government checks, of which around 75 were confirmed as having malignant nodules, while a similar number were suspected of having nodules, but malignancy had yet to be confirmed – high compared to other known international statistics.
However, the lead researcher at FMU at the time, Shunichi Yamashita, a former president of the Japan Thyroid Association, claimed (you guessed it) that it was highly unlikely that the cancers uncovered in Fukushima were connected to radiation.
Yet, shortly after, Yamashita, along with three other leading researchers, resigned from the study after it was revealed in a Mainichi Shimbun investigation that lengthy secret meetings had been instigated among researchers and prefectural officials to pre-determine a line of argument during official deliberation sessions that would emphasize the view of a non-causal relationship between cancer cases and the nuclear disaster.
Shortly after it came to light that the data required to confirm this assertion was not available and that one scientist, Hirosaki University’s Shinji Tokonami, who had tried to obtain independent verification of how much radiation residents had been exposed to in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, was prevented from completing his research by prefectural officials.
According to radiation expert Sakiyama, without such data it becomes impossible to say conclusively that any cancers discovered among residents was caused by radiation from the nuclear power plant.
Still more problems with the FMU study have since come to light. On March 31, 2017, Kakiyama who is also a representative of the 3.11 Fund for Children With Thyroid Cancer, announced that a 4-year-old child who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer after the Fukushima nuclear accident was missing from government checkup records. The toddler's case was omitted from data taken by FMU, which had treated the child. This seeming clerical error raised still more questions about the thoroughness and transparency of the thyroid screenings. Sakiyama stated that any missing case was "a problem" and brought about suspicions that there could be still more such cases missing from the data.
Katsutaka Idogawa, who was the mayor of Futaba, one of the two towns hosting the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, believes this was the outcome of a deliberate and carefully planned strategy by the government to prevent accurate information about radiation doses being disseminated.
The reason, he says, is clear: To ensure compensation claims are kept to an absolute minimum. “That was a deliberate policy by the government because if they had [provided accurate data] it would have caused a massive problem to the extent of national economic collapse. So right from the start, they made the radiation problem a non-problem."
With regard to the surveys of residents undertaken by the FMU, Imperial College's Thomas said such a practice of screening for thyroid or any other cancers is highly debatable. "Although it has the obvious advantage of finding cancers early, it also finds more of them when testing on such an unusually large scale using high-tech equipment to look for them," she said, adding that such an outcome is often referred to as the “screening effect”.
Many cancers found are too small to require the treatment they almost certainly will get, whether or not such treatment at that stage is actually necessary, she adds. “If you operate on these, there is always a danger, so there is a risk and a benefit of doing these kinds of survey.”
Yet, Idogawa is among those who are critical of the likes of Thomas who, he says, have a microscopic perspective when it comes to the health impacts of radiation exposure. Indeed, Idogawa believes there are almost certainly many many more cancer cases that have yet to come to light quite simply because of the stigma that is still associated with radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses. This was prevalent following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where hibakusha (literally "nuked person") would conceal their condition -- where possible -- for fear of being ostracised. That fear not only applied to them, but their children and other relatives. Even today, there are hibakusha and relatives of hibakusha who will not speak to journalists on the record -- if at all.
This has already been shown to be a problem in Fukushima. Children who were forced to relocate to other parts of the country have been subjected to bullying purely because they are from Fukushima. A couple I interviewed for Yoshida's Dilemma told of how on a 2012 coach trip to western Japan they had decided not to tell fellow travellers they were from Fukushima. When their identity was eventually betrayed, those same fellow travellers would not talk to them or sit near them.
Another unusual situation that did not make it into the book involved one young Fukushima man having his engagement nullified by his future parents-in-law purely because he was from Fukushima. The irony was -- so were his bride-to-be and her parents.
"My guess is there are dozens, maybe hundreds more Fukushima residents who have been diagnosed with cancer," says Idogawa. "But they won't risk coming forward for fear of similar treatment to themselves and their families."