Ex-nuclear worker suffering from leukemia files lawsuit for industrial accident compensation
In 2011, a 42-year-old welder from Fukuoka Prefecture nicknamed “Arakabu-san”1 went to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) with an ardent desire to help the people in the disaster-hit Tohoku and Fukushima region. His family strongly opposed his decision because they were worried about the exposure risk, but he refused to listen.
At the nuclear plant, he was engaged mainly in welding work. He participated in various kinds of operations during the period October 2011 to December 2013, including the construction work to strengthen water-tightness (anti-tsunami project) of the Fukushima Dai-ni Nuclear Power Station, a regular inspection at the Genkai nuclear complex in Saga Prefecture, and the nuclear-accident cleanup and decommissioning operations at FDNPS. His officially-recorded exposure dosage during the two-year period totaled at least 19.78 millisieverts (mSv), which is close to the official annual limit of 20mSv.
Around December 2013, he began to show flu-like symptoms, such as fever and coughing. In June 2014, he took the regular ionizing-radiation test and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The doctor told him that a few more weeks’ delay in discovering this illness could have resulted in his death. He received a bone marrow transplant and then anticancer drug treatment. Due to the side-effects of the anticancer drugs, he lost his hair and suffered intense nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and high fever. At one time, he fell into a critical condition caused by blood poisoning. For fear of dying soon and leaving behind his wife and three small children, he began suffering from insomnia combined with depression. Luckily, he recovered from this sickness after enduring the painful treatment, and was released from hospital in August 2014.
In October 2015, Arakabu-san became the first FDNPS worker engaged in the plant’s accident cleanup and decommissioning operations to receive the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) recognition of a causal relationship between his illnesses (leukemia and depression), and his exposure to radiation at his former workplaces. After examining his case very closely, the ministry’s panel of medical experts determined that his work at the nuclear plant had caused his illnesses.
In the anti-earthquake construction work at the Unit 4 building at Fukushima Dai-ni plant, the workers were not given active personal dosimeters (APD) that are mobile and equipped with an alarm. The field supervisor from the first-level subcontractor was the only one that carried an APD. The alarm on his device sounded frequently, but he just said, “It’s OK, it’s OK,” and returned the APD to the rental office after disarming its alarm system. The team then resumed the construction work without any APDs.
In the regular inspection of Unit 4 at the Genkai nuclear plant, the workers carried out pipe-cutting work among other types of demolition work. Workers were given only half-face masks or no masks at all in the hazardous environment where the air was filled with radioactive substances.
At FDNPS’s Unit 4 building, where Arakabu-san suffered the greatest exposure, he was engaged in work to create the covering for a crane that was hung from the ceiling to remove the nuclear fuel assemblies from the pool. His work was to weld a mount that would serve as the base for the crane on the side of the pool which was damaged when a hydrogen explosion blew the roof off the building in 2011. While doing this job, he wore two layers of Tyvek protective clothing and a full-face mask, with all small gaps between his face and the mask sealed with tape. He thus had difficulty breathing.
He also claimed that, during the summer time, his sweat accumulated in his long rubber boots reaching nearly halfway up the boots, and that many other workers collapsed with heat stroke.
Moreover, he and other workers occasionally did their work without wearing a lead jacket, weighing 15 kilograms, designed for blocking radiation. They were supposed to wear the jacket on top of the already tightly sealed protective gear, but the number of such jackets was insufficient. The supervisor forced them to sneak into the construction site without wearing the lead jacket. This jacket covered only the upper half of the workers’ bodies, their arms and the lower half of their bodies being left exposed to radiation. The lead jackets were used repeatedly and were not decontaminated each time they were used. Despite these facts, TEPCO alleged that its workers’ health management was conducted properly, and insisted that the situation mentioned above did not exist. This remark made Arakabu-san very angry.
Furthermore, Arakabu-san was engaged in the work to place a cover over the FDNPS Unit 3 building. He was involved in the demolition work, in which he cut off the arm of the 600-ton crane using gas. In each of these workplaces, he is believed to have been exposed to a greater amount of radiation than the officially recorded levels. That is, he was forced to work in environments where worker safety management was sloppy.
The second hearing of the trial was held on April 27. Two defendants, TEPCO and KEPCO, argued against the plaintiff’s claims. The written arguments they prepared for the trial denied the causal relationship between the plaintiff’s illness and his exposure at their nuclear plants.
TEPCO maintained that it has not been proven that exposure below 100mSv will damage human health. They also argued that other factors may raise the risk of cancer as well.
Furthermore, they insisted that the plaintiff’s external exposure dosage from his work at TEPCO’s nuclear plant totaled merely 15.68mSv, and that even if this figure is combined with the accumulated exposure dosage from his work at KEPCO’s plant, the total still remains within the legal exposure limit. They then concluded that the MHLW recognition of his leukemia as work-related illness does not mean that the causal relationship between his exposure and his sickness was proven. Thus, they demanded that the court dismiss the suit filed by the plaintiff.
KEPCO alleged that the workers in the managed areas are required to wear protective gear and that the supervisors are checking them. They also insisted that each worker’s external exposure dosage never surpassed the recorded level of 4.1mSv. They therefore concluded that the plaintiff’s claim was incorrect. As for the causal relationship between his leukemia and exposure at his workplaces, they denied such a connection, saying his accumulated exposure level was below the five-year limit of 100mSv which is provided for in the official regulations for preventing injury from ionizing radiation.
To date, MHLW has granted recognition of work-related injuries or illnesses to 19 nuclear plant workers3, including the three victims of the 1999 criticality accident at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO) plant at Tokai-mura, and two FDNPS workers4 who gained recognition after Arakabu-san. Some other workers have also had industrial accident compensation claims recognized by the government after filing suits with local courts, but thus far no workers have received compensation from the nuclear plant operators in their court battles.
In the current multi-layer subcontractor system at nuclear power plants, it is extremely difficult for workers to file complaints against plant operators because such legal actions could cause trouble for their co-workers or their employers. Of the retired workers who had been engaged in the nuclear-accident cleanup operation, the state provides the official health examination merely to the emergency operation workers with a total exposure dosage of 50mSv or higher. From now on, the workers engaged in various kinds of operations immediately after the nuclear accident may begin to complain about health effects. Even if they are able to gain MHLW recognition and receive industrial accident compensation, the amount may not be sufficient, being around 80% of the treatment costs or wages.
Amidst this difficult situation, Arakabu-san stood up and filed this lawsuit. He must win this case to restore his dignity, and also for the purpose of providing safety and compensation to 60,000 or more workers engaged in the cleanup and decommissioning operations at FDNPS, as well as many other exposed workers elsewhere.
1. In Kyushu, the marbled rockfish is dubbed “arakabu.” The reason why the plaintiff was given this nickname was because he likes fishing.
2. Written Statement by Hisako Sakiyama (June 1, 2016)
Suit filed against TEPCO and the state regarding the Fukushima nuclear plant accident being tried in the Tokyo District Court.
3. CNIC Almanac 2016-17. The number of workers’s compensation claims filed by nuclear power plant workers and cases approved by the government as of December 2016.
4. In one of the two cases, 1) compensation was paid in August 2016 to a worker with a total exposure dosage of 54.4mSv who was suffering from leukemia. In the other case, 2) in December 2016 money was paid to a worker suffering from thyroid cancer with a total exposure dosage of 149.6mSv.