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US sailors sue Japanese utility over radiation exposure

Sailors aboard USS Ronald Reagan, floating off the coast of Japan, load humanitarian relief supplies March 22, 2011, into a U.S. Navy Seahawk belonging to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 14, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Ben Van Buskirk and Lt. Victoria Throckmorton. The pilots made several trips into tsunami-damaged towns along the coast to deliver the supplies.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Eight sailors from the USS Ronald Reagan are suing Japan’s nationalized Tokyo Electric Power Co., claiming it lied about dangers from a radiation leak when they helped out after last year’s nuclear plant disaster and that they will almost certainly die prematurely as a result.

Their complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, seeks a jury trial and damages of $40 million each for being “rendered infirm” and their bodies being “poisoned” by radiation. It was filed on behalf of Lindsay Cooper, James Sutton, Kim Gieseking, Charles Yarris, Robert Miller, Christopher Bittner, Eric Membrila and Judy Goodwin.

Within days of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and subsequent radiation leak from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the USS Ronald Reagan was aiding in the search for survivors and bodies from just off Japan’s devastated east coast.

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Six of the eight sailors worked on the flight deck during the operation and two worked in the air contamination department. Gieseking is also suing on behalf of her daughter, Autumn, who was born shortly after the deployment.

The sailors allege a host of medical conditions, from headaches and difficulty concentrating to rectal bleeding and thyroid problems, as a result of the exposure and say they will have to undergo more medical tests and expensive treatments in the future, their lawyer Paul Garner said Thursday. The sailors also want TEPCO, which has an office in Washington, D.C., to establish a $100 million fund to pay for any of their future medical expenses.

While the utility has settled with the families of Japanese citizens who died during evacuations from the affected region, and the Japanese government has guaranteed payments, this appears to be the first lawsuit involving American servicemembers, Garner said. The suit’s allegations include negligence and being a public nuisance.

“TEPCO and the government of Japan conspired and acted in concert, among other things, to create an illusory impression that the extent of the radiation that had leaked from the site of the FNPP was at levels that would not pose a threat to the plaintiffs, in order to promote its interests and those of the government of Japan, knowing that the information it disseminated was defective, incomplete and untrue, while omitting to disclose the extraordinary risks posed to the plaintiffs who were carrying out their assigned duties aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan,” according to the complaint.

It said data available to TEPCO indicated that radiation levels already had surpassed what “those living the same distance from Chernobyl experienced who subsequently developed cancer.”

Garner said internal TEPCO memos, experts, news articles and other documents substantiate their case that the utility lied, covered up the scope of the problem and distributed skewed data.

There were about 70,000 U.S. servicemembers, family members and civilians on or near the mainland during the 60 days following the disaster. The Defense Department has acknowledged that some servicemembers experienced elevated levels of radiation but says they weren’t high enough to make people sick.

Garner said he was originally approached by Cooper, who was reluctant to follow through with a suit. He then talked to others from the Reagan and found many suffered problems, including one sailor who already has cancer. Garner has linked up with an environmental toxicologist for a study to see how widespread the issues are.

“We just want the facts,” Garner said. “Their approach since the beginning has been to deny ... the truth will come out.”

Spokespersons for U.S. Forces Japan, Commander Naval Forces Japan, and TEPCO had not heard about the lawsuit, filed on Dec. 21, when contacted Thursday. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.

About half of the sailors involved in the suit are active duty, while the others have separated, Garner said. He said they are not just looking for money.

“No amount of money would compensate me if I’m 23 years old and I’m bleeding from my [behind] or have thyroid problems,” he said. He added it was about getting justice for people who rushed to aid Japan in its time of need.

The USS Ronald Reagan, which is home-ported in San Diego, the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and destroyer USS Preble began supporting search-and-rescue efforts along the destroyed coastline on March 13. The Reagan’s approximate 5,500 sailors remained in the area until the beginning of April.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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