A group of Sailors and former Sailors who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during the US relief efforts following the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami have been periodically making the news for their belief that their ailments are caused by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima reactor accidents.
In late 2012, fifty-one former crewmembers filed a multi-million dollar class action suit against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the Fukushima reactors. The Sailors are claiming the utility did not sufficiently warn the crew of the risk of participating in the rescue mission.
A year later, in December 2013, a judge ruled in favor of TEPCO’s motion to dismiss the case. It wasn’t entirely bad news for the Sailors since their lawsuit was dismissed not for lack of substance, but rather because the judge ruled that her court had no jurisdictional authority over an international case.
As a former Sailor who was in “the plume” of radiation in the aftermath of the nuclear reactor meltdown and as a nuclear advisor who was directly employed in the US response and radiological assessment, I am watching this story unfold with a great degree of skepticism. It is unlikely any US service member, on the ground or flying missions, received any meaningful exposure. It is even more unlikely any Sailor at sea—particularly aboard Reagan—received any meaningful exposure.
From the onset, US military commanders were adamant in making efforts to understand the potential harm to our forces, their families, and US government civilians as we responded to the disaster. Radiological data collection and protective measures were continually assessed and updated as an integral piece to the ongoing relief mission. The Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and other US agencies sent teams of experts with the sole mission to make radiological measurements and risk assessments.
Not only was the risk management forward-looking, but when new data rolled in, there was also a fairly substantive ongoing rear-view, reassessment of what had taken place. Nearly all, if not all, US service members underwent “internal monitoring” to ensure radionuclides had not been inhaled or ingested and retained in the body. Moreover, in the two years following the accident, the DoD compiled an extensive amount of data and using models and analysis provided each person who served with the DoD with a conservative estimate of the potential dose they could have received.
The registry, data, and means and methods for the model are posted publicly on the website Operation Tomodachi Registry. For those aboard Reagan, the exposure was comparable to the background radiation of any large city in the world. It is also unlikely that any particular Sailor aboard Reagan would have experienced a vastly different exposure than his or her 5,000 shipmates who were in the same plume, drank the same water, and ate the same food. Thus, it would be a great surprise to me if there were anyone aboard Reagan whose exposure could have been significant enough to merit any additional consideration.
After reading through the official complaint filed in the lawsuit, and looking through the related news articles over the past two years, I was unsurprised to find that the lawsuit is based primarily upon uninformed opinions and rumors and is lacking in substance and facts. Statements made by the lawyers and a couple of the more outspoken plaintiffs are simply assertions that their health issues are related to radiation exposure and that the Navy was misled by a series of lies by TEPCO.
Although some of their health issues sound quite serious, there is no indication any competent medical authority has diagnosed their illnesses as radiation-related. Furthermore, a few of the more outspoken plaintiffs are no longer serving in the military and it is unclear in their statements if they have actually been receiving medical care. Although each person’s case is specific, radiation sickness tends to strike in the time frame of hours and days, and cancer tends to take years to manifest. If I were to speculate, stress caused by fear of radiation may be the proximate cause to many of their ills. I’d be (as I’m sure the world would be), very interested and surprised if some causality to actual radiation exposure could be demonstrated.
What’s also problematic are the number of outright inaccuracies presented in the lawsuit’s written complaint and the video interviews of a few of the plaintiffs posted on the web. As I learned from my time in the Navy, rumors – ‘scuttlebutt’ in Navy lingo – aboard ship can spread and take on a life of their own. The inaccuracies in the plaintiffs’ statements sound more like rumors since they contrast so much with facts, and it’s apparent the lawyers have not done any fact-checking to support their claims.
- The Sailors’ complaint claims that TEPCO withheld information from the US Navy regarding the reactor accident, and that it was several weeks before the Sailors on USS Ronald Reagan were aware of the radioactive plume. Because Reagan is a nuclear-powered ship with sensitive, continuous radiation monitoring devices aboard, ironically it was Reagan which first alerted the US Navy to the problem at Fukushima.
- Key to Reagan Sailors’ claim is the contention that they were only a few miles – one stated “a mile or two,” another stated “5 to 10 miles” – from the nuclear power plant at Fukushima when the reactor accident plumes erupted. One highly circulated piece of misinformation was the air tasted like aluminum foil. The ship was actually quite far from Japan on March 11, but started toward Japan at high speed in response. The ship’s minimum distance to the Fukushima nuclear power plant was closer to 100 miles. Once radiation was detected (at very low levels), the ship’s Captain altered course to increase the standoff distance from the Fukushima site. Although the large standoff distance actually made humanitarian efforts somewhat more difficult, it was considered a prudent action in view of potential contamination to the ship and crew exposure.
- The credibility of the plaintiff’s lawyers would be stronger if they had referenced experts in the field of radiation health to support their claims. Rather, they have chosen to quote self-proclaimed antinuclear activists and bloggers who pejoratively insist any amount of radiation is dangerous and that exposure at even low levels can cause unimaginable harm. The official complaint asserts that “TEPCO, was aware that exposure to even a low dose of radiation creates a danger to one’s health.” As the nuclear operator, TEPCO knows that low doses of radiation are safe, and that there are extremely conservative limits practiced in the industry to adhere to exposure limits. In this case, it’s the lawyers who have crafted the element of “danger.”
- Though stories of US sailors jumping into contaminated seawater in order to save Japanese lives makes a great story, the reality is that the US Navy was acting in support of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces, whose ships were much closer the vicinity of the Fukushima coastline than US ships. If any US Sailor did go into the ocean (which I don’t believe happened), they would have been much further away than the Japanese ships and were quite distant from the ocean plumes.
- During the humanitarian mission, there was a case of a false positive sample for water contamination aboard Reagan. A positive sample caused quite a stir in headquarters since it was completely unexpected based on the known environmental conditions. In the meantime, immediate actions were taken, including isolation of the tanks and termination of water-making machines and warning the crew to cease water usage. Backup samples confirmed there was no contamination in the water system. However, based on the uncertainty of a potential widening ocean radiographic plume from Fukushima, additional (overly conservative) precautions were then implemented regarding where water-making activities could take place (all quite far from Fukushima).
While I have no reason to doubt the claim that some of the former Sailors are suffering from debilitating health issues, I seriously doubt they are linked to the quite low levels of radiation exposure they received. Their lawsuit is devoid of substance and I fear they are being misled into blaming a radiation boogey monster. Rather than finding the actual cause and treatment for their maladies, their energy and resources are being drawn into a legal battle that may only result in giving false hope for finding an all-encompassing answer to their health woes.
Reid Tanaka has more than 25 years of experience with nuclear issues in the US Navy. He served as a nuclear advisor to the US military commander in Japan during the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Photo Credit: Seaman Joshua Cassatt