Mental Heath Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster

Helen Gambrah
March 23, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Diagram of the four reactors destroyed at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Over the four days of March 11th to the 15th in 2011, four nuclear energy reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan internally exploded, triggered by a tsunami that followed the severe Tohoku earthquake, see Fig. 1. The Fukushima incident was the largest since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and was given a Level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale. [1] The explosions led to extensive damage in most of northern Japan as well as leakage of radioactive materials. Many concerns regarding health consequences from the incident mainly centered on increased susceptibility to cancer and other physiological threats. However, attention should also be directed to the mental health implications following the nuclear disaster. This report focuses on three aspects of mental health affected by the incident: depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and post-incident mental health resources.

Depressive Disorders

Depressive disorders refer to the disorders that are characterized by presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual's capacity to function. [2] The destruction and uncertainty of the earthquake and the subsequent nuclear incident caused a lot of stress and anxiety for the survivors. Many residents had to evacuate their homes to avoid the rising radiation levels. A 2014 study by Kukihara and colleagues examined resilience and the mental health of survivors. They found that 66.8% of the 241 participants reported symptoms of depression. [3] The majority, 33.2%, showed mildly depressive symptoms, while 19.1% and 14.5% demonstrated moderate and severe depressive symptoms, respectively. [3] Another 2015 study additionally investigated depressive symptoms among mothers with infants during the Fukushima disaster. Among the 8,196 women, 2,262 (28%) screened positive for depressive symptoms. [4] In all, the Fukushima power plant disaster had a severe impact on mood regulation and daily functioning for many of the individuals involved.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorders

The central feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events. [2] Given the severity and the lasting consequences of the explosion, nearby residents were also at risk for PTSD. Kukihara and his colleagues also studied participants for symptoms of PTSD and found that 33.2% of the participants exhibited clinical PTSD symptoms. [3] Furthermore, nuclear plant workers were at risk for developing serious mental health issues as well. Many felt responsible for incident, and 85% of 1760 eligible participants reported higher rates of overall psychological distress and symptoms of PTSD. [5]

Next Steps

The Tohoku earthquake was the one of the biggest earthquakes that Japan had experienced in the last 1000 years. Given its magnitude, it was difficult for a speedy recovery in response to the extreme natural disaster. Cleanup and rehabilitation efforts have been delayed considering the danger and environmental threat of the radiation levels. [6] Therefore, mental health services and resources have been equally delayed. It is critical that depressive disorders and PTSD be closely monitored in order to better inform the psychiatric field about the impact environmental disaster can have on individuals' mental health.

© Helen Gambrah. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Smythe, "An Objective Nuclear Accident Magnitude Scale for Quantification of Severe and Catastrophic Events," Physics Today, 12 Dec 11.

[2] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013).

[3] H. Kukihara et al. "Trauma, Depression, and Resilience of Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster Survivors of Hirono, Fukushima, Japan," Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 68, 524 (2014).

[4] A. Goto, E. J. Bromet, and K. Fujimori, "Immediate Effects of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster on Depressive Symptoms Among Mothers with Infants: A Prefectural-wide Cross-sectional Study from the Fukushima Health Management Survey," BMC Psychiatry 15, 1 (2015).

[5] J. Shigemura et al. "Psychological Distress In Workers at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants," J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 308, 667 (2012).

[6] J. Yamashita and J. Shigemura, "The Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident: A Triple Disaster Affecting the Mental Health of the Country," Psychiatr. Clin. N. Am. 36, 351 (2013).