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Several hundred US sailors from the USS Ronald Reagan are suing Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), and US reactor builder General Electric, for $1 billion in damages. The case was brought in Federal Court in California’s Southern District.
The sailors charge that Tepco failed to disclose that the $4.3 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was being heavily contaminated with radiation from the three melt-downs and four explosions at the Fukushima-Daiichi complex in March 2011. They also accuse Tepco of lying to the public and the Japanese government -- in particular then Prime Minister Naoto Kan -- about the disaster’s radioactive fallout.
The sailors allege that many of the illnesses the sailors are suffering were caused by exposure to the radiation that blew out to sea from Fukushima’s triple meltdowns and contaminated the USS Ronald Reagan. The carrier had been rushed to within one mile of the devastated reactor complex to help with earthquake and tsunami emergency relief efforts which were dubbed Operation Tomadachi, or “Friendship.”
The class-action demands compensation to “pay all costs and expenses for each of the plaintiffs for medical examination, medical monitoring and treatment by physicians,” and other general damages.
In a report to Congress last summer, the Pentagon confirmed that, “the Ronald Reagan encountered the radioactive plume from Fukushima ... on March 13” . However, the military added, “We believe it is implausible that these low-level doses are the cause of the health effects reported by the ... sailors.”
Attorney Charles Bonner, who represents more than 200 of the sailors, says the Navy’s assessment of low-dose radiation risk is dead wrong. “The fallacy of that [assertion of “implausibility”] is that low levels of radiation are just as dangerous as high levels.... And even at 100 nautical miles, they [the sailors] were taking on 30 times more radiation than is normal,” Bonner said. The summer 2014 Pentagon report admitted the Navy is still finding and removing radiation from the USS Reagan -- three years after the ship was doused.
KOMO news in Seattle reported that one of the plaintiffs is former sailor Thomas McCants who now has chronic myeloid leukemia. McCants says the doctor’s first question was if he’d ever been exposed to massive amounts of radiation. “The only time that I have ever had a chance of being exposed to radiation in my entire life is from Japan,” he told KOMO. “The interesting fact about my story is I got to the ship after [Operation] Tomodachi and I still got sick with a cancer that’s only caused by radiation.”
According to Becca Mitchell and Les Smith reporting for WTKR, North Carolina TV, other USS Reagan sailors have reported thyroid and hormone disorders, leukemia and other cancers, along with bleeding, headaches, hair loss and even blindness.
Another plaintiff is “Baby A. G.” who was born with multiple birth abnormalities to a Reagan crew member Oct. 15, 2011, seven months after the mother’s radiation exposure.
Kelli Serio was onboard the Reagan and has joined the suit. He wrote last July that his “commanding officer warned us that our water and ventilation systems had been contaminated, posing a critical health risk to all of us onboard. We were advised to refrain from showering or drinking water until it was declared safe.”
Serio says, “most of us onboard the ship were tested for radiation exposure and many came back positive, resulting in full-body scrub-downs conducted by Navy hospital corpsmen.” Unfortunately, the Navy has discontinued a program that might have tracked the sailors’ health in the wake of their service-related contamination.
Navy photos at the time show our sailors scrubbing the Regan’s flight deck with soapy brushes, with only gloves and booties for protection. Harvey Wasserman reported last month that, USS Reagan “Crew members drank and bathed in desalinated sea water that was heavily irradiated from Fukushima’s fallout.”
The sailors also “reported that a cloud of warm air enveloped them with a ‘metallic taste,’” Wasserman wrote, noting that identical reports of metallic taste were made by the airmen who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and flew through the mushroom cloud, and by Pennsylvanians downwind from the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
On Feb. 12, General Electric asked US District Judge Janis L. Sammartino to dismiss the suit, arguing that the sailors were asking for “something extraordinary and unprecedented” -- i.e. compensation under domestic law for exposure to radiation emitted by a foreign nuclear power. Lawyers for the sailors lashed out at GE’s motion March 3, saying the GE reactors’ “design defects contributed to the meltdowns and, by extension, to plaintiffs’ harms.”
Judge Sammartino’s decision is pending.
- John LaForge works for Nukewatch a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin.