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.

Aviation Electronics Technician Airman Ryan Cordova scrubs the flight deck after a countermeasure washdown aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Sailors scrubbed the external surfaces on the flight deck and island superstructure to remove potential radiation contamination, March 23, 2011. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray/U.S. Navy)

Reasonable Precautions Against Radiation Exposure…

According to those on the carrier itself, the ship took reasonable precautions against radiation exposure of the crew while engaged in its relief efforts. Crews wore gas masks to avoid breathing in radioactive contamination in the air and were issued iodine pills.  Helicopters that were part of the relief effort were tested for radiation and washed down while crews were directed to discard the clothing they wore, be washed down themselves, and tested for radiation exposure. We don’t believe these things were done because the crew was being lied to about the radiation risk, but out of an abundance of caution. Additionally, the Navy trains crews on exposure to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Thus, in a situation where a low level of radiation might actually exist, it’s a good opportunity to drill on these procedures.

According to the World Health Organization, the main radionuclides that the population near the reactor was exposed to were iodine-131 and caesium-137. Radioactive iodine has a half-life of eight days. It concentrates in the thyroid gland and is detectable for some time. Caesium-137 is much more persistent and has a half-life of 30 years. Therefore, it would be detectable for much longer in the human body.

So far, Japan has not reported that any deaths in their population were the result of radiation poisoning. Nevertheless, it has set up a fund of over $75 billion to pay out benefits to those affected by the disaster.

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The U.S. Navy submitted a report to Congress in 2014 which discounted the notion that radiation exposure was enough to cause health problems among the crew of the Ronald Reagan:

“We are confident the radiation exposures to the sailors serving aboard the RONALD REAGAN were very low — whole-body doses of eight millirem or less, and thyroid doses of 110 millirem or less — for the entire 60-day surveillance period,” the Navy’s report stated.

The water washdown system in action aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean off Japan in 2011. (Photo by Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Is our Government Doing Enough Here?

The types of cancer these sailors developed have not been determined to be from detected radiation within their bodies as far as we can tell. Nevertheless, their occurrence is still troubling given the young age of the affected sailors and the sheer number of cases being reported.

The DoD did establish an Operation Tomodachi Registry in 2011 for some 75,000 DoD personnel who were involved in the 80-day relief effort. This registry was extensive in its scope and detail but the DoD ceased updating in 2014. While many of the personnel involved in the relief effort were exposed to very low levels of radiation, others were exposed to much more as the radiation levels were not uniform during the disaster. If anything, the registry might have dropped those exposed to extremely low doses while maintaining records of those exposed to greater amounts.

What we find most concerning is that the people affected by these illnesses are compelled to seek remedy in the civilian court system. It really shouldn’t be them against the government of Japan all by themselves. We think the U.S. government should be doing more to sort all this out. We want to restate certain facts here:

Firstly, the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan was not being sent in harm’s way to try and control the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.  It was sent to provide, food, water, blankets, and other supplies to civilians evacuated from the reactors’ vicinity.

Secondly, the presumption was that the ship’s crew were in an area within the safe limits of radiation exposure.

Thirdly, the crew was operating under the orders of the U.S. government assisting Japan as an ally.

Since these sailors were sent into this humanitarian relief effort by our government, it ought to be our government monitoring their health, accurately assessing their radiation exposure risk, and ensuring they are compensated if their cancers can be reliably and reasonably linked to participating in the relief effort.