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Report: USS Reagan exposed to radiation levels exceeding what Japanese government said

Sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan scrubbed the external surfaces of the flight deck and island superstructure to remove potential radiation contamination on March 23, 2011, while at sea off the coast of Japan, where the aircraft carrier was providing humanitarian assistance as directed in support of Operation Tomodachi.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — When the USS Ronald Reagan arrived off the coast of Japan’s main Honshu Island on March 13, 2011, it was greeted by radiation levels that far exceeded what Navy leadership had been told to expect by the Japanese government, according to a new report in the Asia-Pacific Journal.

The report, “Mobilizing Nuclear Bias: The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis and the Politics of Uncertainty,” says that the carrier was exposed to levels of radiation that were 30 times greater than normal as the carrier steamed for the coast to aid victims of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Navy leadership has said that sailors were not exposed to harmful levels, even though those aboard were told to scrub the ship and equipment in protective suits. But the damage to the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima plant was far worse than initially feared.

The report, released Feb. 17, and documents obtained by its author Kyle Cleveland, an associate sociology professor at Temple University Japan, fuel questions that remain more than three years later over what the Japanese government and TEPCO knew and what they told the U.S. as the nuclear disaster was escalating. Debate also continues over the level at which exposure to radiation becomes a health risk.

The report comes on the heels of a January directive from Congress, instructing the Defense Department to look at the potential health impact on the Navy first responders in Japan. In 2012, sailors and Marines filed a lawsuit alleging that TEPCO’s misinformation coaxed U.S. forces closer to the affected areas and made them sick. An amended suit was filed last month.

Unexpected readings

Cleveland began to study the crisis so that he could accurately advise his Study Abroad students on safety in the aftermath of the disaster, he told Stars and Stripes. Through his research and document requests, he examined the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown, the unconfirmed information released by the Japanese and the Navy response in the first month afterward.

Cleveland reported that the U.S. government tried to maintain a delicate diplomatic balance, leading a rescue effort and advising their Japanese allies while not fully trusting Japan’s assessment of the danger. At the same time, the Navy was identifying the potential scope of the problem while taking steps to ensure the safety of its servicemembers.

“As the crisis unfolded and efforts to bring the reactors under control were initially proving ineffective, concerns increased that radiation dispersion was unmitigated, and with radiation monitoring by the U.S. military indicating levels significantly beyond TEPCO’s conservative assessments, the United States broke with Japan, recommending an 80km exclusionary zone, and initiating military assisted departures for embassy staff and Department of Defense dependents from Japan,” Cleveland wrote. “These actions deviated significantly from Japan’s assessments (which had established a 30km evacuation zone), creating a dynamic where the U.S. ... attempted to impose a qualitatively different crisis management response.”

Cleveland’s report included transcribed telephone conversations between U.S. based federal government officials, nuclear authorities, U.S. embassy officials in Tokyo and military staff in the Pacific Command. In one such conversation, Adm. Kirkland Donald, then director of naval reactors; Michael Weber from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Donald’s patrol director Troy Mueller; and Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman discussed issues on the ground.

Poneman asked Donald about the difference between radiation levels they were finding and what they were being told by the Japanese. Mueller told Poneman that levels detected 100 nautical miles away were about 30 times those in a normal air sample out at sea. “We thought based on what we had heard on the reactors that we wouldn’t detect that level even at 25 miles,” he said. “So it’s much greater than what we had thought. We didn’t think we would detect anything at 100 miles.”

Mueller said that it would take a person 10 hours to reach a threshold where exposure at that level would become a thyroid dose issue.

Donald and Mueller also described airborne particulate levels being detected at 2 1/2 times above normal using on-board sensors. Air crews traveling to a Japanese vessel 50 miles off shore from the plant had five times the minimum detectable levels on their shoes when no radiation was expected at that distance, they said.

Weber said that the readings were greater than what was expected but were still fairly insignificant.

A final Defense Department report regarding radiation doses during Operation Tomodachi, including for those aboard the Reagan, agreed that the levels were too low to see any adverse health effects.

“The reported radiation doses to fleet-based individuals were at least one order of magnitude less than any dose associated with adverse health effects,” according to the report, which was released on the Operation Tomodachi Registry in September.

Lawsuit expanding

An amended lawsuit against TEPCO was filed last month, after a San Diego judge took issue with aspects of the original suit. The 50 servicemembers and their children in the suit claim to suffer from exposure-related ailments such as unexplained cancer, excessive bleeding and thyroid issues; lawyers say more than 100 more have asked to join the suit. The majority of the plaintiffs are from the Reagan, which can accommodate 6,275 sailors.

Many of the issues regarding the Reagan’s Tomodachi mission, including its proximity to the plant and whether sailors on board were given iodine tablets, have been challenged by servicemembers in the suit.

The Japanese utility has until March 31 to respond, according to Paul Garner, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Congress has given Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson until April 15 to submit a report regarding the Reagan and adverse health impacts.

burke.matt@stripes.com
 

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