Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan scrub the external surfaces on the flight deck to remove potential radiation contamination dudring Operation Tomodachi in 2011. Eight sailors who served on the carrier are suing a Tokyo company for allegedly providing false information about radiation levels. (SN Nicholas A. Groesh / Navy)
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The order from the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan's commanding officer: Don't drink the water.
That stopped Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Lindsay Cooper in her tracks.
As the carrier plied the waters off Japan, Capt. Thom Burke announced on the 1MC that the ship's potable water could not be consumed, temporarily, because it was contaminated with radiation, Cooper recalled.
The sailor had just refilled her CamelBak and was preparing to return to the Reagan's flight deck, where aircrews and handlers were busy supporting disaster relief. Days earlier, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake had struck northeast Japan, flooding coastal areas and severely damaging the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Three reactors overheated, and explosions over several days released radioactive particles into the air and ocean.
Some of Reagan's sailors now allege Japanese officials misled service members as to the extent of radiation exposure they were facing. Eight sailors, including Cooper, say they suffered "radiation poisoning" and are suing the Tokyo Electric Power Co. They claim they are suffering health problems due to exposure and want millions of dollars.
The lawsuit also names the infant daughter of a female boatswain's mate — a sailor who was pregnant while the carrier was off Japan.
Their lawyer said he also is talking with at least one Marine who could join the suit, and concerns have been raised among other U.S. troops who were based in Japan or located offshore at the time.
The active and former sailors, in a 36-page complaint filed Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court in San Diego, say TEPCO was negligent and company officials "lulled" the Navy into "a false sense of security."
"They lied to everybody, so they lied to the Navy, too," said Paul C. Garner, a trial attorney of 40 years.
TEPCO did not respond to requests for comment. A TEPCO spokesman, Yusuke Kunikage, told Bloomberg News on Dec. 27 that company officials had not received the complaint but said "we will consider a response after examining the claim."
"The U.S. Navy took proactive measures throughout and following the disaster relief efforts to control, reduce and mitigate the levels of Fukushima-related contamination on U.S. ships and Navy aircraft," Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Brenda Malone said in a statement. The Navy could not provide too many specific details, citing "the ongoing litigation."
But the Reagan sailors aren't suing the service because the Feres Doctrine bars injury lawsuits against the military. Instead, they are suing the Japanese company that owns Fukushima.
Garner said his clients so far suffer from assorted health issues, including bladder problems normally not seen in younger people. The sailors seek a jury trial and damages, including $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff, and the establishment by TEPCO of a $100 million fund to cover any medical and treatment costs.
Despite the suit's allegations, other experts say the radioactive fallout seems to have been minimal.
In March 2012, the Defense Department set up the Operation Tomodachi Registry to share information collected from reports of radiation dose exposures. In October, DoD released the first of six reports on affected U.S. personnel in Japan. That report found exposures at 13 shore locations from March 12 to May 11, 2011, but described them as "low" and not requiring "any intervention."
Additional reports, which include radiation doses to fleet and air personnel and the unborn, will be published by April, according to the Pentagon.
"The radiation doses for the nearly 70,000 Operation Tomodachi Registry individuals are low, and have not been associated with adverse health effects," Pentagon officials said in a statement.
When the aircraft carrier George Washington, in a Yokosuka shipyard, detected radiation on March 15, the Navy rushed workers aboard and got the carrier underway.
U.S. Pacific Command distributed potassium iodide pills, which block the absorption of radiation in the thyroid, as a precaution to military personnel and families ashore in Japan.
The San Diego-based Reagan, the cruiser Chancellorsville, the destroyer Preble and Carrier Air Wing 14 were a week into their scheduled deployment when the Navy ordered the strike group to help a devastated Japan. Cooper and her fellow 5,500 sailors and Marines had heard news reports about the nuclear meltdown.
The command tried to allay concerns, telling sailors any radiation exposure was "like a chest X-ray," Cooper said.
Hours later, asleep in her rack, Cooper was told to get to the hangar deck with her gas mask. The air department was distributing filter canisters for the masks, which sailors were told to keep at their sides.
Reagan had "passed through" a radioactive plume 100 miles northeast of Fukushima at the time, which forced it to reposition farther away, 7th Fleet announced March 13, 2011. The Navy detected "low levels" of radioactivity on 17 helicopter aircrew members and decontaminated them with soap and water; officials said no other contamination was found.
Burke, that day, wrote in a posting on the carrier's official Facebook page: "I have not seen any levels of radiation or contamination that would cause me to have any significant concerns at all."
‘People were getting sick'
Cooper, a single mom, left the Navy later that summer. She said her health took a dive — she put on weight and found little energy to work — and she has struggled with sleep, headaches and digestive problems.
"I've never felt like this before. It's constant," said Cooper, who is attending college and plans to become a federal corrections officer.
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 3rd Class Kim Gieseking, 23, one of the sailors in the lawsuit, said she suspects the crew was exposed to radiation that could harm their health.
"They told us we might have to take iodine pills," she said. But the crew didn't get the anti-radiation pills because "they said we weren't in danger.
"A lot of us knew people were getting sick. ... Some were starting to get bad headaches, some threw up a bit."
That May, Gieseking, who is married, learned that she was 18 weeks pregnant with her second child, conceived before she left San Diego. She was flown off the ship and returned home in May 2011.
Autumn, born on Oct. 15, 2011, "is healthy," she said. But the mother is afraid any radiation she was exposed to may endanger Autumn's health.
While Gieseking and Cooper agreed to share their experiences, Garner said not all the sailors wished to speak publicly.
Gieseking said the lawsuit isn't about greed or money, but about getting care for those affected.
"I just want them to know what they did was wrong," she said.
Was there really a risk?
The biggest danger to human health from the Fukushima meltdown is from the fallout of iodine-131 and cesium-137, according to experts. I-131 can settle in the thyroid and cause cancer. Linking exposure to medical problems, however, is not always easy.
"The risk [in Japan] has been quite small, depending on where you were," said Mahadevappa Mahesh, associate professor of radiology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the chief physicist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Workers at the Fukushima plant likely suffered the worst exposures, but reports so far reveal no deaths, Mahesh said. Radiation effects, including those spread by plumes, can lessen by distance as they are dissipated by winds, such as those that blew through Japan in a storm days later, and in the seas, he said, although many detectors "can pick up even the smallest amount of radioactivity."
Mahesh, who has studied the Fukushima incident, said he had not seen any reports or data of radiation exposures involving U.S. military personnel. But he said the danger that radiation posed to sailors at sea, based on the general consensus, "is quite small."
That has done little to alleviate Gieseking's fears. She said she's also battled exhaustion and poor health since returning to San Diego, where she was reassigned to Naval Medical Center San Diego. At one point, she lost clumps of hair. Last June, severe back pain revealed a bulge in her spine.
"I was a healthy, healthy person," Gieseking said. "I'm not the same person I used to be."