TEPCO ordered to pay compensation in landmark Fukushima suicide case

Story highlights

  • TEPCO ordered to pay out in suicide case linked to Fukushima
  • Woman set herself on fire four months after Fukushima disaster
  • Fukushima government releases data showing more cases of thyroid cancer

Four years after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, questions about the lingering physical and mental health toll of the disaster persist.

The Fukushima District Court ruled Tuesday in favor of a family who filed a landmark lawsuit blaming Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant operator of the crippled nuclear reactor, for the suicide of a woman in 2011.

Four months after three reactors melted down at the Fukushima plant following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Hamako Watanabe and her husband lost their home, their jobs and the prospect of restoring their lives.

She doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after slipping into depression. Her husband, Mikio Watanabe, found her charred body.

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"We lost everything," her widower told CNN in 2012. "We were forced to evacuate. We lost our jobs. I lost my wife in such a terrible way. I really lost everything."

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The Fukushima District Court ordered TEPCO to pay 49 million yen ($471,063 U.S.) to her family, in a ruling that found a link between the nuclear accident and Watanabe's death.

"It is well assumed that the stress caused by sudden loss of the base of her life against her will and unknown future in evacuation was unbearable for her," according to the court ruling.

    A spokeswoman of TEPCO Mayumi Yoshida said: "We express deep condolence for the loss for Mrs. Hamako Watanabe. We will examine the ruling closely and continue to deal with it sincerely."

    Fukushima residents cleared to return

    Thyroid cancer cases monitored

    In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, the local government began monitoring the health of residents who were under the age of 18 at the time of the March, 2011 incident.

    The Fukushima Prefectural Government found more cases of thyroid cancer, with 57 people confirmed cases and 46 others listed as possible cases, according to data released this week.

    The risk of thyroid cancer increases in people who've been exposed to high doses of radiation. Children are more sensitive to radiation and at risk for a longer period of time than adults, according to medical literature on thyroid cancer.

    The cancer rate -- 57 out of 296,026 -- is high compared to known international statistics, but it's difficult to link the nuclear accident to the rates of pediatric thyroid cancer, according to the Fukushima prefecture's health office.

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    The high rate may be attributed to the thorough method of testing for thyroid cancer, according to the office.

    Hisakatsu Kotani, from the Fukushima prefectural government's health research section, said there were no patterns detected between the cases of thyroid cancers and high radiation areas.

    "Experts have been saying this is not the time yet to see any health impact by the accident," he said.

    In the case of Chernobyl, thyroid cancer cases in children reached a peak about 10 years after exposure, according to a report analyzing radiation exposure and the risk of pediatric thyroid cancers.

    A scientific review published in 2011, found that pediatric thyroid cancers only account for 0.5 to 3% of all types of cancers. That review also found that girls have four times higher frequency for pediatric thyroid cancer than boys.

    Of the 104 people who were diagnosed with potentially cancerous tumors at Fukushima, 68 were females and 36 were males. More than half of them, 58, had surgery to remove the growth.

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