By Kathleen Gilberd
Three years ago, a massive earthquake led to a triple melt-down and explosions at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the wake of the disaster, the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was sent to Honshu Island, where the reactor is located, to render aid as part of Operation Tomadachi (Friendship). With the ship as close as a mile off shore, sailors worked 18-hour days to rescue civilians in the radiation area.
Now sailors from the Ronald Reagan have filed a one billion dollar class action suit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), owner of the nuclear plant, alleging that they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, far in excess of what TEPCO told the Navy to expect. There are over 100 plaintiffs in the class action, which was filed in San Diego on February 6, and attorneys handling the case say that more individuals are coming forward on a daily basis. (First filed in December of 2012, the suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds at the end of 2013. A January, 2014, deadline for refilling was extended as new sailors continued to join the suit.)
The suit holds that TEPCO lied to the Navy about the level of radiation and danger. Plaintiffs in the suit now suffer a wide range of health problems which they contend resulted from the radiation exposure, including leukemia, brain cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid illnesses, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, gall bladder removals, infertility, birth defects, vision problems and other conditions uncommon in a young population. Both TEPCO and the Navy claim that exposure levels were not high enough to cause these conditions.(The Navy, which originally monitored sailors’ health problems after the operation, has since ceased that program.)
TEPCO now admits that it under-estimated the radiation level by a factor of five, but denies responsibility for the sailors’ problems. The lawsuit alleges that TEPCO was aware of the danger and lied to the Navy about what its sailors would be facing. But was the Navy an innocent player in this? A recent report, “Mobilizing Nuclear Bias: The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis and the Politics of Uncertainty,” by Temple University Professor Kyle Cleveland, suggests that the Department of Defense and other US agencies involved in the response to the meltdown were suspicious of TEPCO’s initial reports of radiation levels, but that the US government did not press the point in order to maintain a “delicate diplomatic balance.” (Stars and Stripes, March 14, 2014)
While the Navy may be culpable, sailors are prevented from suing the military for money damages under a Supreme Court policy called the Feres doctrine. Feres has prevented servicemembers from suing for personal injuries, racial discrimination and even rape. (In one of the original Feres cases, a vet was denied the right to sue where, undergoing abdominal surgery, his doctors found a towel stamped “US Army” which had been left in his abdomen during prior surgery while in the Army.)
As for the Ronald Reagan itself, the ship was so radioactive after the rescue operation that it was refused port entry in Japan, South Korea and Guam. Ironically, it is now docked in San Diego, and rumors say that it may make another trip to Japan.
Petitions supporting the sailors can be found on NukeFree.org, Avaaz, RootsAction, moveon.org and elsewhere.