The March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused extensive human suffering—evacuations, emotional trauma and premature deaths, disrupted jobs and schooling. What they have not caused, so far, is radiation-related illness among the general public, and few specialists expect dramatic increases in cancers or other ailments. The reactors spewed just a tenth of the radiation emitted by the Chernobyl disaster, winds blew much of that out to sea, and evacuations were swift. Yet one wave of illness has been linked to the disaster—the ironic result of a well-intentioned screening program.
Months after the disaster, Fukushima Prefecture set about examining the thyroids of hundreds of thousands of children and teens for signs of radiation-related cancers. The screening effort was unprecedented, and no one knew what to expect. So when the first round of exams started turning up thyroid abnormalities in nearly half of the kids, of whom more than 100 were later diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a firestorm erupted.