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More sailors join radiation exposure lawsuit

Mar. 22, 2013 - 10:11AM   |  
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan conduct a countermeasure wash down on the flight deck March 23, 2011. Sailors scrubbed the external surfaces on the flight deck and island superstructure to remove potential radiation contamination.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan conduct a countermeasure wash down on the flight deck March 23, 2011. Sailors scrubbed the external surfaces on the flight deck and island superstructure to remove potential radiation contamination. (Seaman Nicholas A. Groesch / Navy)
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It’s been two years since the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan steamed off the coast of northeastern Japan as the Fukushima nuclear power plant — crippled by a massive earthquake and tsunami — leaked radiation.

Now, health problems and fears are mounting for more former crew members who have joined a lawsuit alleging negligence by Tokyo Electric Co., the plant operator, according to an attorney representing the sailors.

Sixteen current and former sailors, a former Marine diagnosed with leukemia and a child of one of the sailors have joined in the original lawsuit, which now seeks damages of as much as $40 million for each plaintiff, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego. It also demands the establishment of a fund of at least $1 billion to cover future medical expenses for injuries and illnesses linked to radiation exposure that followed the March 11, 2011, meltdown.

Paul C. Garner, a Palm Springs, Calif.-based environmental attorney, filed an amended complaint March 12 that brings the total number of plaintiffs to 27, including two children. Their ailments range from mysterious lumps, fatigue and debilitating headaches to bleeding, back pain and gynecological problems, Garner said, and many worry about future cancers and long-term disabilities.

In 2012, the Defense Department set up the Operation Tomodachi Registry to share information collected from radiation exposure reports. Initial findings from data collected at 13 locations ashore found low exposures at some. “There is no indication that anyone experienced radiation exposure at levels associated with the occurrence of long-term health effects,” officials wrote on the registry website. Data on radiation exposures measured on ships and aircraft are due for release this year but had not been published as of March 15.

Garner also listed as plaintiffs as many as 70,000 “John & Jane Does” who represent additional potential victims among the U.S. military personnel, including sailors with other 7th Fleet ships along with their families living in Japan possibly exposed to radiation from the Fukushima plant.

The original complaint, filed Dec. 21, claims that Tokyo Electric Co. officials knew radiation released from the crippled plant “posed significant threats” to public health but they “lulled” the Navy into “a false sense of security.”

TEPCO, as the company is known, has yet to file a response to the original complaint. The company did not respond to a request for comment as of press time. TEPCO already is facing a slew of lawsuits in Japan over radiation exposure, including a class-action suit for residents who lived near the plant.

The San Diego-based Ronald Reagan was on the first leg of a scheduled deployment with its strike group when the earthquake struck off the coast of Fukushima prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. The carrier was ordered to assist, and its flight deck provided a landing zone for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.

Reagan sailed through a radiation plume March 13, 2011, and 17 Navy aircrew members were decontaminated with soap and water after they were found to have “low” levels of radiation, according to 7th Fleet officials. DoD officials have insisted service members had nothing to worry about from any radiation exposure from Fukushima.

Garner disputes the Pentagon’s assessments and assertions by Navy and U.S. military commanders that any radiation exposure was minor. He said the Navy wasn’t prepared or equipped to react to the nuclear disaster.

Garner also questioned preventative measures, precautions and decontamination practices taken aboard Reagan.

Two former Reagan sailors who signed on the lawsuit recounted their health troubles at a March 11 symposium in New York.

“We never knew anything about a nuclear power plant,” said former Quartermaster 2nd Class (SW/AW) Jaime Plym, 28, during The Helen Caldicott Foundation’s Fukushima Symposium.

Plym, who left the Navy after five years, said she has suffered from bronchitis and asthma, and her menstrual cycles became irregular for nearly a year.

Her fiance, Maurice Enis, 25, spent time outside the ship raising and lowering signal flags.

Two months later, he said, he noticed “a lump” on his jaw, and other lumps appeared above his eye and on his thigh. He’s since left the Navy, but the former quartermaster seaman said he suffers from breathing problems and stomach ulcers, and is losing his hair.

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