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6 people to sue TEPCO over thyroid cancer after Fukushima nuclear disaster

Kenichi Ido, left, head of the legal team for a group of plaintiffs set to sue TEPCO over thyroid cancer, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on Jan. 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Toyama)

TOKYO -- A group of six young men and women is set to file a class action suit against Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) claiming that they developed thyroid cancer due to exposure to radiation emanating from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and demand the utility pay a total of 616 million yen (about $5.4 million) in compensation.

    It will be the first group lawsuit in Japan by those who were minors at the time of the 2011 nuclear disaster and have since been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

    The plaintiffs, now aged between 17 and 27, were living in Fukushima Prefecture when the nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011, and developed thyroid cancer after the disaster. They are filing the damages suit with the Tokyo District Court on Jan. 27, according to the legal counsel for the plaintiffs who revealed the plan at a press conference on Jan. 19.

    An expert investigation committee set up by the Fukushima Prefectural Government has not recognized the causal relationship between radiation exposure from the Fukushima disaster and thyroid cancer, and whether there is such a correlation could be the focal issue in the lawsuit.

    The six plaintiffs were aged between 6 and 16 at the time of the nuclear disaster. They 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 need to take hormonal drugs for the rest of their lives. One of the patients had cancer spread to their lungs. Some of them currently reside in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture.

    The Fukushima Prefectural Government has conducted a survey on thyroid glands covering some 380,000 people aged 18 or younger who were living in Fukushima Prefecture at the time of the nuclear catastrophe. As of June 2021, 266 people had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer or suspected thyroid cancer. According to the legal team for the plaintiffs, five of the six complainants had their cancer detected in the prefectural survey. The remaining plaintiff found out about their cancer through testing at a hospital they voluntarily underwent.

    According to the legal counsel, the cancer discovery rate in the Fukushima Prefecture survey stands several tens of times higher than usual. While the prefectural government points to the possibility of "overdiagnosis" through which many cancer cases requiring no treatment have been found, the plaintiffs' cancer has actually progressed, the legal team asserted. The lawyers argue that none of the six plaintiffs' cancer is hereditary, and that it is extremely highly likely that they developed their conditions due to the nuclear disaster.

    In past pollution lawsuits including those over Minamata disease, there is a court precedent in which the company responsible for the pollution was ruled liable for compensation unless it could prove there was no causal relationship between the contamination and the plaintiffs' diseases. The attorneys for the upcoming lawsuit claim that this decision could also be applied to nuclear plant accidents and that TEPCO should bear the burden of proving the absence of a causal link between radiation exposure and thyroid cancer.

    Kenichi Ido, head of the legal counsel, commented, "Some plaintiffs have had difficulties advancing to higher education and finding jobs, and even given up on their dreams for their future."

    TEPCO released a comment saying, "We will respond to the case sincerely after hearing the content of their claims and their arguments in detail."

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiro Toyama, Tokyo City News Department)

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