Fukushima Workers Hospitalized: Remembering Chernobyl's Liquidators

How will Fukushima workers fare? Hard to tell, based on past examples

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Two workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power station have been hospitalized as radiation-contaminated water seeped into their boots while laying power cables. They join 15 who've already been noted by NPR to have been injured by explosions and 17 who suffered "deposition of radioactive material" to their faces. Currently, 300 Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) employees are trying to contain the radiation leakage, fully restore power at the plant and cool the overheated reactors.

But as the heroic sacrifices are being made, the fate of radiation-exposed workers obviously remains uncertain. The obvious (and, perhaps, only) comparisons to the precarious work conditions at Fukushima  are the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) crises. And each tell divergent accounts of radiation exposure death tolls in the short and long term.

At Chernobyl, nearly 700,000 workers cleared a 30km area around the radiation-seeping plant in order to entomb it, according to an account in The Australian. Those workers were exposed to high levels of radiation, but death toll statistics are wildly conflicting. Vladimir Gudkov, a physicist quoted by NPR who was in Leningrad during Chernobyl, says that if the Fukushima "levels are similar" to those in Chernobyl, "most of the Fukushima workers may be ok," pointing out that his friends who helped clean up the Chernobyl leak "like most of the other people who went in after the explosion and fire ... have not developed health problems from the radiation." He said most of those who died, died from the explosion.

Yet German media outlet Der Spiegel reported in 2006 a divergence of statistics on the subject:

The IAEA's nuclear experts say that Chernobyl has claimed 56 lives to date--47 workers at the disaster site and nine children who have since died of thyroid cancer. In contrast, the Ukrainian National Council on Radiation Protection claims to have documented 34,499 deaths among rescue workers. The United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the number of Chernobyl workers who died from radiation exposure or committed suicide at 50,000--six years ago.

56 deaths compared with 50,000 (some estimates have put the number much higher) are spectacularly divergent numbers.

In contrast, while the residents nearby the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant still stand on alert three decades later, the workers weren't exposed to much radiation at the time of the crisis, according to nuclear experts cited by NPR.

Not a single worker died of radiation exposure at Three Mile Island, concluded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a University of Pittsburgh follow-up study of local resident radiation exposure found in 2002 that there wasn't a significant increase in cancer deaths in the 20 years since the crisis. "The researchers did note that overall deaths among the residents near the plant were higher than would have been expected, but most of the increase was the result of heart disease, not cancer," CBS reported at the time.

Obviously, Fukushima is niether Three Mile Island nor Chernobyl. Japan's Nuclear Safety Agency previously put it at a 5 on a 7 point scale, equal to the seriousness of the Three Mile Island crisis but below the 7 that Chernobyl received.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.