Fukushima World Health Organization report greeted with broad skepticism

As the second anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster approaches, people in the area worst affected by the catastrophe have a slightly higher risk of developing certain kinds of cancers, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Many humanitarian groups working in the area have immediately said the WHO is being employed to assist in a whitewash of how dire the health difficulties facing Fukushima residents – as well as workers assisting in the cleanup – actually are, and have refuted the claims of the study, citing at least three thyroid cancer incidents related to the fallout from Fukushima.

A magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, killed nearly 19,000 people and devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which spewed radiation, forcing about 160,000 people to flee their homes – the majority of which have not been able to return.

It was the worst nuclear accident since a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986.

Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general manager and nuclear physicist emphasized that the WHO report was only the first in a series of studies that need to be conducted on citizens of Japan’s Fukushima prefecture who were directly impacted by the accident.

He also cited that some 21,000 cleanup workers for Tokyo Electric Power, or TEPCO, have yet to have their own radiation exposure figures submitted to Japanese regulatory officials. These figures are due this month, but TEPCO has blamed its failure to submit the documentation on its current inability to digitize the data.

“These workers have probably received much higher does of radiation that the public that was evacuated,” said Bøhmer. “So it is far too early to reach any conclusions about the actual radiation impacts on humans.”

Bøhmer’s comments point up just one of a number of snafus in the WHO report, which NGOs, aid organizations, other UN bodies, Japanese authorities and a member of the WHO have disputed.  

Summary of the WHO’s reporting

“A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts,” Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for public health and environment, said yesterday upon presenting the organizations report entitled, “Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.”

The United Nations agency said for the general population in Japan the predicted health risks of cancer were low. But it was not able to say how many people were exposed in the area where the highest amount of radioactive material was released.

A substantial amount of radiation was released into the environment and a 20-kilometer evacuation zone was set up.

The WHO report says that it has found no data on any cancers among the population in the area, but humanitarian organizations have offered contradictory evidence to those claims, saying at least three cases of thyroid cancer have been linked to the disaster.

Additionally, it was earlier reported that in 2011, Japan’s former Nuclear Safety Commission – which has been supplanted by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority ­– denied public access to the results of thyroid check-ups for more than 1,000 Fukushima children that were exposed to radiation.

“It seems to me that the WHO is being efficiently used recently to make everything look not so bad, just covering up,” said one humanitarian aid worker on the condition of anonymity.

Furthermore, at the February 26th international conference in Fukushima of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, Zhanat Carr of the WHO, who was present for the session, said it was typical for the WHO to present cautious estimates so as not to underestimate radiation doses, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.

The evidence from this hearing was not gathered in time to be presented in Thursday’s WHO report, the newspaper reported.

The WHO’s case

In the most contaminated area, the WHO estimated that there was a 70 percent higher risk of females exposed as infants developing thyroid cancer over their lifetime. The thyroid is the most exposed organ as radioactive iodine concentrates there and children are deemed especially vulnerable.

The primary concern,” said Dr. Neira, “is related to specific cancer risks linked to specific locations and demographic factors.”

Of note is the population of Namie, outside the evacuation zone to the northwest of the plant where radioactive materials were carried by the wind.

Those among the some 22,000 that remained at home for four months after the accident were considered as the most exposed group and WHO estimated certain marginal increases in cancer risk that could result.

The second most exposed group were those spending four months in Iitate, with risks to its population of about 7000 raised by about half the amount of Namie.

The biggest lifetime risks were seen in those exposed as infants, compared with children or adults.

For girls exposed to radiation from the accident as infants, the report found a 4 percent increase above the lifetime expected risk of solid tumours and a 6 percent increase above that expected for breast cancer.

Boys exposed as infants are expected to have a 7 percent increased risk of leukemia above that expected in the normal population.

The biggest risk was seen in thyroid cancer, which for infant girls could be up to 70 percent higher than expected over their lifetime, the WHO report said.

But the WHO was keen to stress that these risks were relative and remained small.

For example, the lifetime risk of developing thyroid cancer over a lifetime for women is 0.75 percent and the additional risk for those exposed as infants in the most affected area is 0.50 percent, the report said.

The report also found that a third of emergency workers working in the plant after the disaster are at an increased risk of cancer.

Radiation doses from the devastated nuclear power plant are not expected to cause an increase in the incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths or congenital disorders, said the report.

The WHO’s Neira stressed in a news conference in Geneva that, “The primary concern identified in this report is related to specific cancer risks linked to particular locations and demographic factors.”

She added that the report underlined the need for long-term health monitoring of those who were at high risk, along with medical follow-up and support.

“This will remain an important element in the public health response to the disaster for decades,” said Neira.

Evidence from on site differs

A report entitled “The Tenth Report of the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey,” which was released the week of February 18th, stated that more than forty percent of children in the Fukushima area have thyroid abnormalities, according to the RT.com news portal. 

The report, which included data up to January 21, 2013, revealed that 44.2 percent of 94,975 children sampled had thyroid ultrasound abnormalities. The number of abnormalities has also been increasing over time as well as the proportion of children with nodules equal to and larger than 5.1 millimeters and any size cysts have increased.

The damning report also revealed that 10 of 186 eligible children are suspected of having thyroid cancer as a result of the radiation exposure.

On February 13, the Fukushima Prefectural Government announced that two people who were teenagers at the time of the Fukushima meltdown have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, bringing the total number of cases officially confirmed by authorities to three. All have undergone surgery and are now recovering.

Around 360,000 youths at the time of the disaster have to be repeatedly checked to see if they have been affected by the radiation, RT.com reported.

Government-backed research cites ‘stress’ as illness causes

Meanwhile, a government-backed researcher claimed that no health effects have been detected in people living in the contaminated area because the radiation level is not high enough.

“Since the accident in Fukushima, no health effects from radiation have been observed, although we have heard reports some people fell ill due to stress from living as evacuees and due to worries and fears about radiation,” Kazuo Sakai of Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences told Japanese media.

He went on to assert, as quoted by RT.com, that people in the area had a radiation exposure of 20 millisieverts or less, while “we know from epidemiological surveys among atomic-bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that if exposure to radiation surpasses 100 millisieverts, the risk of cancer will gradually rise.”

Can WHO figures be trusted? 

The flurry of contradictory reports has cast doubt on the WHO findings. Indeed, initial estimates of cancers related to the Chernobyl explosion vastly underplayed what has bourn out in Ukraine and Belarus – which was hardest hit by the fallout.

Similar incidents of misplaced optimism can also be found in Russia’s Kyshtym disaster of 1957 when a waste tank at the Mayak Chemical Combine ­– the home of Russia’s first nuclear bomb and subsequently its lone reprocessing facility and primary spent nuclear fuel repository ­ – exploded, showering hundred and thousands of square kilometers of the southern Urals with radioactive fallout. The struggle continues today.  

The cleanup effort for the 1957 explosion, for which children and pregnant women were press-ganged equipped with mere rags, has resulted in countless birth defects and cancers in the area for which the Russian organization Planet of Hopes (in Russian) and its leader, Nadezhda Kutepova have for decades been seeking redress from the government.

Kutepova’s goal is to secure Russian government compensation for those affected by the disaster – whose true estimates are only now, 56 years later, coming into true light – but Kutepova is constantly at loggerheads with Russia officialdom about adjudicating these cases.

With Fukushima, Chernobyl and Kyshtym, the world can finally come to grips with an estimate on the true human cost of nuclear power.

In Bellona’s opinion, the WHO report released yesterday falls well short of the realities that are immediately evident from Fukushima’s sister disasters.