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Doctors: Japan nuclear plant workers face stigma

Sunday - 8/5/2012, 4:16am  ET

By MALCOLM FOSTER
Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) - A growing number of Japanese workers who are risking their health to shut down the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant are suffering from depression, anxiety about the future and a loss of motivation, say two doctors who visit them regularly.

But their psychological problems are driven less by fears about developing cancer from radiation exposure and more by something immediate and personal: Discrimination from the very community they tried to protect, says Jun Shigemura, who heads a volunteer team of about ten psychiatrists and psychologists from the National Defense Medical College who meet with Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear plant employees.

They tell therapists they have been harangued by residents displaced in Japan's nuclear disaster and threatened with signs on their doors telling them to leave. Some of their children have been taunted at school, and prospective landlords have turned them away.

"They have become targets of people's anger," Shigemura told The Associated Press.

TEPCO workers _ in their readily identifiable blue uniforms _ were once considered to be among the elite in this rural area 230 kilometers (140 kilometers) north of Tokyo. But after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami set off meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, residents came to view them as "perpetrators," Shigemura said.

Many TEPCO families in the area now hide their link to the company for fear of criticism, local doctors and psychiatrists say.

Shigemura likens the workers' experience to that of U.S. Vietnam veterans returning home to hostility in the 1960s and early `70s.

"They both worked for (the good of) their countries, but they got a backlash," he said.

About a dozen nuclear workers approached by the AP declined to be interviewed for this report. Except in rare cases, TEPCO has repeatedly declined requests to interview workers, and the workers themselves have shunned virtually all media attention, so these doctors' accounts provide an unusual glimpse into their lives.

One former TEPCO employee who lived in the town of Tomioka, inside the 20-kilometer (15-mile) exclusion zone around the plant, told journalists during a rare visit to the Fukushima plant in February that she was frequently harassed by evacuees among the 100,000 displaced by the disaster.

"Many people who want to go home are getting frustrated and they often yell at me, `How are you going to make it up to us?'" said Saori Kanesaki, a former visitor guide at the Fukushima plant.

More than a half-century ago, many Japanese survivors of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were stigmatized due to fears about their exposure to radiation. But the Fukushima disaster has thrown up a completely new kind of discrimination because of the workers' links to TEPCO, a company widely despised throughout Japan for its mishandling of the disaster.

Some 3,000 TEPCO employees and other contractors continue to labor daily at the plant in one of the world's riskiest jobs _ keeping three melted-down reactor cores as well as spent fuel pools cool through a makeshift system of water pipes.

They face a long haul: Removing the fuel and completely shutting down the plant could take 40 years.

Worries about radiation exposure aren't overwhelmingly prevalent among the TEPCO workers, both doctors say, although some workers are concerned, especially those with higher exposure counts. During the crisis, authorities raised the maximum radiation exposure limit to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts. Six TEPCO workers surpassed that level, and were removed from work at the plant. That exposure level was lowered again in December to 50 millisieverts, with an exception allowing up to 100 millisieverts in emergencies.

In addition to the discrimination, the TEPCO nuclear workers, who are specially trained, are anxious that they will be transferred to a completely different kind of job, such as clerical work, if they should surpass the exposure limit, the doctors say.

"More than health risk, they are worried about social risk and employment risk," said Takeshi Tanigawa, an epidemiologist with Ehime University's medical school who visited the plant after the disaster and was the one of the first to report its harsh working conditions, which have since improved. He has been back 15 times since, and Shigemura later volunteered to join him.

The two doctors report that they are not aware of any case of radiation sickness or radiation burns among the workers, who undergo regular checks for radiation levels in their bodies.

A brief report on their experience visiting the Fukushima plant soon after the disaster that highlights the discrimination workers faced was published in Wednesday's issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry.

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