Three and a half years after a massive tsunami triggered the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, researchers are beginning to understand the far-reaching extent of the disaster. Increased rates of thyroid cancer in young people, risks of further contamination through clean-up procedures, genetic mutations in flora and fauna, and social issues in nearby cities plague the still-ravaged area.
Medical tests show 57 of the 300,000 children who lived near the plant at the time of the meltdown have thyroid cancer, a disease often caused by radiation exposure. Another 47 are suspected of having it, newspaper The Asahi Shimbun reported. Those statistics are frightening considering thyroid cancer usually affects 1.7 per 100,000 Japanese teens annually. Final figures may be much higher because thyroid cancer often develops slowly. After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, the number of young people diagnosed with thyroid cancer did not rise until four years later.
Experts disagree on whether the higher rates should be linked to the Fukushima disaster. Some believe the apparent rise in thyroid cancer incidence could be attributable to more widespread testing and use of more sophisticated testing procedures.
The Agriculture Ministry says removal of rubble from the plant last August might have contributed to further radioactive contamination. Radioactive substances were detected in rice paddies more than 12 miles from the plant, The Asahi Shimbun reported. Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company that ran the plant, halted the removal process when the contamination was discovered, but it intends to resume clearing highly contaminated debris from the No. 1 reactor building. The company agreed to spray more anti-scattering agents than usual during the clean-up, but admitted the procedure would release a large amount of radioactive substances, the spread of which cannot be predicted because it will depend on weather and wind direction.
Radiation exposure is affecting wildlife, as well. Macaque monkeys show blood abnormalities linked to radioactive contamination. Genetic mutations, physical abnormalities, and high mortality were observed in three generations of butterflies and in birds and cicadas. “A growing body of empirical results from studies of birds, monkeys, butterflies, and other insects suggests that some species have been significantly impacted by the radioactive releases related to the Fukushima disaster,” said Timothy Mousseau, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, on Phys.org.
The meltdown’s effects are not confined solely to contamination issues; social difficulties abound, too. The disaster forced 160,000 people from their homes. Half of them have not yet been able to return. Nearby towns prosper economically as evacuees and nuclear clean-up crews flood the area, packing hotels and restaurants and snatching up apartments. Land prices have jumped as much as 12 percent in the past year. Yet, long-time residents often resent the influx. Many are disgusted by the raucous behavior of the nuclear workers and are envious of the government compensation given to the evacuees. Evacuees live in rent-free, temporary homes provided by the government. Many received monetary compensation, sometimes very large sums.
“When they move in to an apartment, they don't talk to neighbors and hide,” Hideo Hasegawa, head of a non-profit group looking after evacuees, told Reuters. “You hear this hate talk everywhere you go: restaurants, shops, bars. It’s relentless.”