The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of some U.S. Navy sailors who claim they were poisoned by radiation during humanitarian relief efforts following the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan in 2011. The dismissal was not on the claims being made in the suit but on grounds of procedure and jurisdiction. The plaintiffs were using the U.S. court to sue General Electric (GE) and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The dismissal found that California law could be applied to GE as the maker of the reactor but not against TEPCO under an exemption known as comity whereby U.S. law has limits in a foreign jurisdiction, in this case, residents of California suing under state law for events that occurred in Japan.

A Humanitarian Relief Effort

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and 15 other Navy ships were diverted on a mission of humanitarian disaster relief to Japan after a devastating earthquake, followed by a tsunami, hit the island nation in March of 2011 and resulted in the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s core reactors. No sailors were directly tasked with relief at the site of the nuclear powerplant itself where three of the reactor cores had melted down.

Within a year, hundreds of sailors were reporting severe health issues like myeloid leukemia and other cancers. Several have already died very premature deaths. There is some evidence that the Reagan steamed through a visible radioactive gray mist on approach and again later on its departure from the area. At the time, the U.S. Navy stated that no significant amount of radiation was detectable. It should be remembered that the USS Ronald Reagan is a nuclear-powered vessel that has advanced radiation detection equipment, protective gear, and a radiation safety culture among the crew.

The U.S. Department of Energy also conducted aerial and ground surveys of the area to measure airborne contamination and shared that data with the Navy and the Japanese government. That data did not find dangerous levels of radiation. Yet, it did find in the 25-mile radius of the reactor a level of exposure of 0.3 rem per hour. That is significant but it’s not fatal by any means. The annual dose considered safe for people in occupations that involve exposure to radiation is five Rem per year.