Fukushima by ssoosay via Flickr Creative Commons

“They say we can return to our homes in 30 or 40 years, but how will we live until then?”

Tens of thousands of Japanese had to leave their homes following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan at 14h46 local time one year ago. The resulting tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster destroyed many coastal cities in the northeastern part of the country. Those displaced from the region now live in uncertainty about the future.

In the wake of the disaster hundreds of nuclear workers had been deployed to try and remove the radioactive water from the nuclear compound and to restart the plant’s cooling systems. The restricted zone extends for tens of kilometres around the Fukushima power plant with hot-spots of radiation still untouched.

One year on from the disaster the long road ahead is still only beginning. With a clean-up operation that is bound to take years, attention has turned to the safety of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The main concern is the cases of accidental high radiation exposure. A case of history repeating itself as the firefighters that first responded in 1986 to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant event also suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome.

A group of Japanese researchers, writing in the Lancet, have proposed prophylactic autologous peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) banking for the workers involved in the clean-up.

The idea is to stave-off the effects of an entire body dose of penetrating radiation. Such a dose has its effects on the blood, lymph tissues, bone marrow, and can result in a deficiency of white blood cells. Such a disruption of bone marrow function (hematopoietic syndrome) varies in severity depending on the amount and duration of radiation exposure. The bone marrow cells can recover from slight damage if the patient is given growth factors, but in the case of large doses of exposure stem cell rescue is essential. This is usually done using a donors that require tissue type matching.

The autologous system proposed uses the worker’s own stem cells that have previously been collected. Overcoming any difficulties in host-donor rejections, and side-stepping the use of immunosuppresants. More importantly, collecting and storing the stem cells might come in useful in the long-term, as worker’s face the possibility of other cancers in the future as a result of radiation exposure.

There is a willingness among the scientific and medical community to do all that is necessary for those cleaning up Fukushima. The researchers claim there is a political unwillingness. Those in charge “fear a bad reputation from the public. They cannot recommend prophylactic autologous PBSC banking as long as they insist the operation is not so dangerous.” The Japanese Government has declared that prophylactic autologous PBSC banking is unnecessary, and the Tokyo Electronic Power Company (TEPCO) agrees. Health and safety is placed behind corporate worries about the snowballing costs of decommissioning the reactors.

On March 15 of last year, the Japanese government announced an increase in the allowed cumulative radiation exposure for nuclear workers. Going up from 100 mSv to 250 mSv per year. The purpose of this increase, the researchers claim, seems merely to extend the time nuclear workers could legally spend in a radioactive area.

The process to completely shut down the reactors in Fukushima is expected to take years, increasing the risk involved in exposure to radiation. Concern for the Fukushima nuclear workers is not something anyone thinks about, certainly a public that has it’s own problems to deal with in the wake of the disaster.


Tanimoto, T., Yuji, K., Kodama, Y., Matsumura, T., Yamamoto, H., Mori, J., Hosoda, M., Uchida, N., Kami, M., & Taniguchi, S. (2012). The long and winding road for the Fukushima nuclear workers The Lancet, 379 (9819) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60394-8

Tanimoto, T., Uchida, N., Kodama, Y., Teshima, T., & Taniguchi, S. (2011). Safety of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant The Lancet, 377 (9776), 1489-1490 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60519-9


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