The health effects of Fukushima

28 August 2012

The stresses of personal involvement in the evacuation, management and cleanup related to the Fukushima nuclear accident have emerged as the biggest factors in ill health for Japanese people.

The mental or physical burden of the forced move from their homes because of the Fukushima accident was the cause of 34 early deaths, said a report from Japan's Reconstruction Agency on 21 August. The figure compares to 1916 people from Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures that died during evacuation from areas hit only by the tsunami and the earthquake. The leading causes of the majority of those early deaths were disruption to the smooth operation of hospitals, the exacerbation of pre-existing health problems, and the general 'mental fatigue' from dramatic changes in life situation.

"If we took a 'do more good than harm' approach I suspect we would abandon forced evacuation altogether, especially where iodine tables are available."
Malcolm Grimston
Imperial College

A cross-section of all people that died during their evacuation showed that the vast majority were elderly: only 4% were below 60 years of age, while 67% were over 80. Some 18% of these fatalities came within one week of the natural disasters and nuclear accident; 48% within one month; and 78% within three months.

Regarding the health risks attributed to nuclear evacuation, the agency said that information was key. In a nuclear accident situation it is essential for authorities to understand and communicate the direction that contamination is travelling and where it may be deposited on land. Given this information, as well as 'basic knowledge' of the risks of radiation, residents would not 'feel anxiety unnecessarily'. Authorities and health facilities near to a nuclear plant should also train regularly for potential nuclear accident scenarios.

Japanese authorities were relatively effective in protecting the population during the Fukushima accident thanks to timely evacuation and distribution of potassium-iodide pills. Studies by the World Health Organisation and Tokyo University have confirmed this with results that showed the people near the damaged power plant recieved such low doses of radiation that no discernable health effect could be expected. However, there were serious multiple failures in official communication during the accident and this has resulted in widespread exaggerated fears of the risks posed by contamination.

Malcolm Grimston, an honorary senior research fellow at Imperial College said the Japanese experience was consistent with that from accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear power plants. Apart from Chernobyl's well-documented thyroid cancers and alleged early deaths among liquidators, which are harder to analyse, among the general population "radiological health damage is difficult to find... but psychological damage much worse."

"If we took a 'do more good than harm' approach I suspect we would abandon forced evacuation altogether, especially where iodine tables are available," Grimston told World Nuclear News.

On-site effects

While the Reconstruction Agency has quantified the effects of some stresses on the wider population from the nuclear accident, certain effects on nuclear power plant workers are becoming very clear. So far there have been five fatal heart attacks among the workers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  

The study also considered the effects of discrimination and slurs against the workers from the general population. At Fukushima Daiichi 14.0% said they had suffered this abuse, while the figure for Daiini was 11.0%. The scientists said they believed their study to be the first to examine this potential stressor, but noted it was not significant compared to others.

Plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said on 24 August a contractor had been discovered unconscious in a break room. Despite treatment by a plant doctor and transfer to hospital he was declared dead later that day. Tepco noted the worker had not been contaminated or exposed to an extraordinary amount of radiation during his involvement in installing storage tanks for contaminated water.

Cases like this have given anecdotal evidence of the strain of working at Fukushima Daiichi, but now the results of a scientific study have confirmed an elevated rate of psychological distress and posttraumatic stress response among plant workers.

During May and June 2011 some 1495 people from the combined workforce of Fukushima Daiichi and Daini took part in a voluntary questionnaire study led by Jun Shigemura from the National Defence Medical College. Their self-reporting on symptoms such as feeling nervous, hopeless, depressed, restless, or that everything was 'an effort' or 'worthess' enabled Shigemura's team to assess their general psychological wellbeing.

Some 46.6% of the 885 Daiichi workers taking part could be described as experiencing psychological distress. The figure was lower, at 37%, for Daini workers. Among the significant stressors for the workers at Daiichi were evacuating their own homes (69.7%), believing they had come close to death (53.1%), witnessing the hydrogen explosions (35.9%) and the loss of significant property in the tsunami (32.2%). Workers were also affected by the deaths of colleagues (19.5%) and of family members (6.0%).

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News