Fukushima: Is fear of radiation the real killer?

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Fukushima, Japan

media captionIn the "dead zone" around the Fukushima nuclear plant, time stands still

I went back to the little Japanese town of Namie this week. It lies just 5km (three miles) north of the sprawling complex that was once the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

You can see the tall white chimneys of the plant peaking over a low hill. I've been to Namie before. Each time I go back is like the first, so arresting is the scene that confronts you.

For three years, time here has stood still. An old wooden house brought down by the earthquake still lies in the middle of a road. Through the broken window of a noodle shop I can see used bowls and chopsticks still lying on tables.

I look through the windows of an old people's home. Beds lie unmade; laundry hangs from a drier. It's as if the residents have gone off for breakfast and at any moment they'll be shuffling back in.

But no one is coming back. When explosions hit the nuclear plant the pall of radiation was blown right across this town. And so Namie remains utterly deserted, its residents scattered far and wide.

In their exile they live in constant fear and anxiety. Fear of what the radiation may have done to their children and anxiety that they will never get their old lives back.

'Need to be sure'

At a private hospital 60km from the plant I meet Miyuki Arakawa and her two little boys, five-year-old Ryota and three-year-old Haruto. The boys are changing in to hospital pyjamas. They giggle with the nurses. They've done all this before; it's no longer frightening. But it is for their mother.

image captionMiyuki Arakawa wants her children to be tested regularly for thyroid cancer

In a narrow room Haruto climbs in to a large blue machine that looks a bit like a bath. The big blue bathtub is the world's first and only infant full-body radiation scanner. Inside Haruto begins to fidget as the data starts to show on a nearby computer screen.

"After the Chernobyl disaster children were diagnosed many years later," Miyuki said. "My boys may be fine now, but if there is any risk I need to find out as soon as possible."

Her anxiety level has been raised further by the latest government findings. Since 2011 Japan has surveyed 260,000 Fukushima children. So far 33 cases of thyroid cancer have been confirmed; another 42 are suspected.

media captionThe BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has visited some of the abandoned areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

"The government gives us very little information," she said. "I need to be completely sure my boys are fine. I want this hospital to follow up next year and the following year and the one after that."

'Not related'

Look up "Fukushima thyroid cancer" on the internet and you will find a legion of horror stories, predictions that thousands of Fukushima children will get cancer. It's little wonder parents like Miyuki are scared. But should they be?

image captionMany residents lost homes, livelihoods and family ties as they scattered amid the disaster

At Fukushima University Medical School Professor Shinichi Suzuki leads the team studying the children of Fukushima. A cheerful round-faced man with a grey moustache, Prof Suzuki is frustrated by the constant likening of Fukushima to Chernobyl.

"The first thing to understand is that the amount of radiation released from Fukushima was much lower than at Chernobyl," he said. "Second, the number of children in Fukushima who got a radiation dose above 50 millisieverts is very few, maybe as low as zero."

In other words the highest level of exposure children at Fukushima are thought to have received (50 millisieverts) is at the very lowest end of exposure for children in Chernobyl.

In that case how does Professor Suzuki explain the 33 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer his team have found?

"In Japan there has never been a survey on this scale done before," he said. "Once you start using very sensitive equipment to check for thyroid cancer in a very large group of children then you will inevitably find an increase in the number of cases. That is why we are seeing the increase now. These cases are not related to the nuclear disaster."

Prof Suzuki says his team will need to carry on their work for many more years to be sure that the children of Fukushima are in the clear. But he and other experts now say they think there will be very few, or even zero, extra childhood cancers because of Fukushima.

'Took everything'

That does not mean that the Fukushima disaster is not taking lives. According to the government's own figures, in the last three years more than 1,600 Fukushima evacuees have died from causes that are "related to the disaster"

On a freezing March morning I meet 56-year-old Hideko Takeda at a grave yard a few kilometres from the little town of Namie.

image captionHideko Takeda says her father never recovered from losing his home and his work

She has come to burn incense on her father's grave. The black marble is still shiny and new. She has a photograph of him with her. He was tall for a Japanese farmer and at 80 still robust. Each day he still milked the cows and tended his fields.

But then the disaster stuck and he was forced to flee, leaving his cows to starve to death in their shed. It broke him, Mrs Takeda says; his health collapsed, within two years he was dead.

"I blame the power company [Tepco] for his death," she said. "They took everything from him, his dreams, his hope. They took his land and scattered his family far from home. Nothing will ever bring those back."

There is also growing evidence of an increase in suicides among Fukushima evacuees. Mrs Takeda says she knows of several from the villages around her farm.

"One man I know went back to check his house," she said. "When he didn't return his family went to find him. His car was parked outside. He had hanged himself. I think he'd given up, he couldn't see any future."

So far no one has died from radiation in Fukushima. But unable to return to their homes, scattered in evacuations centres, perhaps lonely and depressed, a growing number of evacuees are dying from anxiety, from suicide or from simply losing the will to live.

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