Six people have sued the operator of Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, claiming they developed thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure.
The plaintiffs — now aged between 17 and 27 — were living in the Fukushima region in 2011 when a huge earthquake triggered a tsunami that caused the nuclear facility to meltdown.
On Thursday, their lawyers filed the first-ever class-action lawsuit over health issues against the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
The six plaintiffs are seeking a total of 616 million yen (€4.8 million) in compensation.
Dozens of supporters gathered outside the Tokyo District Court on Thursday as the lawyers marched in to file the suit.
The key dispute in the case is any link between radiation exposure from the disaster and thyroid cancer. An expert panel — set up by the regional government — previously found that there was no causal relationship.
A UN report published last year also concluded that the Fukushima nuclear disaster had not directly harmed the health of residents a decade after the catastrophe.
A higher rate of thyroid cancer among children exposed to radiation was likely due to more stringent diagnoses, the report said.
But the plaintiffs’ lawyers say none of their clients’ cancers was hereditary and has argued that it is highly likely the disease was caused by exposure to radiation.
“When I was told I had cancer, I was told clearly there was no causal link. I remember how I felt at the time,” one female plaintiff in her 20s said at a press conference.
“Since I developed the disease, I have been forced to prioritize my health,” she said, adding that she had quit her job to focus on recovery.
The plaintiffs were aged between 6 and 16 years old at the time of the disaster. All were diagnosed with thyroid cancer between 2012 and 2018.
Two of them had one side of their thyroid removed, while the other four had their thyroid fully extracted and needed to take hormonal drugs for the rest of their lives.
“Some plaintiffs have had difficulties advancing to higher education and finding jobs, and have even given up on their dreams for their future,” said the group’s lead lawyer Kenichi Ido.
The worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl
The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on 11 March 2011 was the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Around 18,500 people died or remain missing in northeast Japan, many of them killed by the tsunami. Tens of thousands of residents around the Fukushima plant were ordered to evacuate their homes or chose to do so.
Several workers deployed to the plant contracted cancer after being exposed to radiation, and have received compensation from the government because the cases were recognized as occupational diseases.
After the Chernobyl disaster, a large number of thyroid cancers were also detected.
Fukushima prefecture has since been conducting screening tests on thyroid glands for roughly 380,000 people who were aged 18 or under at the time of the disaster.
As of June 2021, 266 cases or suspected cases of childhood thyroid cancer had been detected, a local official said.
Some scientists have warned that the risks of overdiagnosis through mass screening can outweigh potential benefits, and may in some cases lead to unnecessary treatment.
But the plaintiffs in Tokyo said their cancers had progressively worsened, “so they are not cases of excess diagnosis.”
TEPCO spokesman Takahiro Yamato said that the company will deal with the legal complaint “sincerely, after paying attention to the details of the demands and claims”.
“We express our heartfelt apologies again for causing trouble and concern to people in wider society, including residents of Fukushima prefecture, due to the accident.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism