TOKYO • A former Fukushima nuclear plant worker has been diagnosed with radiation-linked cancer, Japanese officials said yesterday, and an expert warned that the first confirmed case since the 2011 disaster could be just the "tip of the iceberg".
A Health Ministry official said the unnamed man, who was in his thirties while working at the plant following the accident, has leukaemia. He is now 41, local media reported.
The news will likely inflame widespread public opposition to nuclear power, and could frustrate efforts to resettle evacuees in communities around the crippled Fukushima plant that have been deemed safe.
It also comes less than a week after the controversial restarting of a second reactor in Japan, following the shutdown of all the country's reactors in the wake of the crisis.
"This person went to see a doctor because he was not feeling well. That was when he was diagnosed with leukaemia," the ministry official told a press briefing on condition of anonymity.
The man, who was employed by a construction contractor, worked at a building that housed one of the Fukushima plant's crippled reactors and wore protective equipment. Of his total radiation exposure of 19.8 millisieverts (mSv), he received 15.7 mSv from October 2012 to December 2013 while at Fukushima, said the official.
Although the exposure amount was lower than the annual 50 mSv limit for nuclear industry workers, the government has decided it cannot be ruled out that the worker's leukaemia was a result of radiation, the official added.
The man will be awarded compensation to cover medical costs and lost income, the official said.
In three other similar cases of plant workers being diagnosed with cancer, confirmation of a link to the accident is still pending.
Public broadcaster NHK said about 45,000 people have worked at the Fukushima plant since the accident as part of a massive, multi- billion-dollar clean-up.
There has been much debate about whether the accident would lead to a rise in cancer cases among plant employees and those who lived near Fukushima.
"This is a landmark decision from the viewpoint of workers' rights, and it's probably just the tip of the iceberg," said Associate Professor Shinzo Kimura, a radiation specialist at Dokkyo Medical University.
He noted that the man was thought to have been exposed to a "relatively low" amount of radiation - less than what Tokyo has deemed a safe level for Fukushima- area residents to move back to their homes. "This is an alarm bell for that policy," Prof Kimura said.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) said it was not "in a position to comment" but expressed sympathy for the man and reiterated a pledge to cut workers' radiation exposure.
No deaths have been directly attributed to the radiation released in the 2011 nuclear plant disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, but it has displaced tens of thousands of people and left large areas uninhabitable, possibly for decades.
"This is a massive blow to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which stated in September this year that no discernible health effects are to be expected due to the exposure of radiation released by the accident," environmental group Greenpeace said.
Former Fukushima plant manager Masao Yoshida died two years after the disaster, aged 58, but Tepco disputed whether his oesophageal cancer was linked to radiation.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS