Fukushima Fallout: USS Ronald Reagan Sailors’ Case
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Fukushima Fallout: USS Ronald Reagan Sailors’ Case

By Dr. Zoomie

Whatever happened to the sailors on the USS Ronald Regan?

Hey Doc Zooms – I was reading some of your recent pieces and it got me to thinking about that lawsuit some sailors filed after Fukushima, saying they were exposed to radiation from Fukushima that made them sick. Can’t remember how that all turned out – can you give us an update?

Wow – thanks for asking! I was following this case for a while when it was first filed, but lost track over the years. So thanks for giving me a reason to catch up! But first, let me start with a quick recap.

What happened

Pretty much anyone with a TV, radio, or internet connection probably knows that three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor station melted down in March 2011. An earthquake triggered a tsunami – the earthquakes caused the reactors to scram (shut down) and knocked the local electrical grid offline; the emergency diesel generators kicked on as they were designed to do, but they were drowned by the tsunami. Bereft of electrical power, the reactor coolant pumps stopped, letting the fuel heat up until it melted. As a result, radioactivity escaped into the environment, some forming a radioactive plume that headed inland, contaminating areas near the reactor site…but most of the radioactivity drifted out to sea.

After the earthquake and tsunami, the US sent aid to Japan and a number of ships, including the USS Ronald Reagan – one of our nuclear-powered supercarriers. As the Reagan steamed towards Japan it occasionally passed through the contamination plume that drifted out to sea. Some of the sailors onboard began feeling ill afterwards; some time later they decided that they were ailing from radiation sickness and filed a lawsuit for hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. They lost their case due to fact that nobody received enough radiation exposure to cause health effects; they appealed and lost their appeal in 2020 on largely administrative and technical grounds. This was almost certainly the correct decision – let me explain why, looking at the exposure the sailors likely received, radiological control practices in the nuclear navy, and radiation biology.

Likely radiation exposure

Let me start with first-hand experience. I was in Japan about a month after the accident, including three days in the areas hit by the tsunami and that had received deposition of contamination from the accident. We were able to get as close as 20 km (12 miles) from the reactor site. The highest radiation dose rate I measured was about 0.5 mrem/hr – clearly higher than normal background radiation levels in this part of the world. Having said that, there are a number of places on Earth with natural radiation levels that are considerably higher than this – the “hottest” place I’ve visited myself was Ramsar Iran, where I measured radiation levels five times as high as what I measured in Japan (https://www.ntanet.net/the-naturally-occurring-high-radiation-levels-of-ramsar-iran/). The question is what this dose rate means.

If you know a radiation dose rate then you can calculate the dose it will produce for any amount of time of exposure, which can also be corrected for radioactive decay if that exposure takes place over extended periods of time. I calculated that a person who was born, lived, and died in the area with the highest level I measured would have received about 80 rem over an 80-year lifetime. This is not a low dose – but it’s less than the amount of exposure a radiation worker would be allowed to receive over a career and it gives the recipient about a 4% risk of developing a fatal cancer. That’s not a trivial risk – but that assumes a person spent every hour of every day of their life at that one location. The actual dose is likely much lower – how much lower depends on the number of years a person actually lived in this location and the amount of time they actually spend at home. But the bottom line is that, even with the highest estimate, there’s a very low probability of a person developing cancer from this level of radiation exposure.

The Reagan came closer than 12 miles, but it did not spend 100% of the time it was in the area steaming or anchored within the radioactive plume. We know this for certain because there was radioactivity deposited inland, where the Reagan could not have been. On top of that, the Reagan was not in the area for 80 years – it was there for only a matter of weeks, reducing the sailors’ exposure tremendously. But the most important factor limiting radiation exposure to the crew is the Navy’s radiation safety practices – the Navy has been operating nuclear reactors on ships and submarines for nearly 70 years and in that time they’ve developed the world’s best radiation safety program (I base this on my personal experience in the nuclear Navy (https://www.ntanet.net/back-in-the-day-radiation-safety-on-the-submarine/). Let’s talk about that next.

Naval radiological controls practices

The Nimitz is a nuclear-powered warship with dozens of sailors specializing in radiological controls and hundreds with nuclear power training. On top of that, the Reagan had dozens of radiation detectors, dosimeters, air samplers, and analytical gear. The Navy – and Naval Reactors – sets strict limits on how much radiation exposure a person can receive, and those limits are far lower for those who are not in the nuclear power program. Not only that, but even the Nukes tend to receive lower doses than do civilians in similar positions. The bottom line is that the Reagan’s Engineering Laboratory Technicians (ELTs) were monitoring radiation levels, radiation exposures to the crew, contamination levels, airborne radioactivity concentrations, and radioactivity in the ship’s drinking water the entire time the ship was in the vicinity of the Fukushima reactor site.

In fact, I went through something similar during my time in the Navy – after the Chernobyl accident the submarine I was on, and all other submarines in the vicinity of the Soviet Union, were instructed to take air samples every time we put up the snorkel mast and pulled in air from the outside, counting them for airborne contamination. And, along with that, all of the other surveys, measurements, and analyses we performed on a regular basis…and I know that the ELTs on the Reagan were doing the same because Naval Reactors is consistent across the fleet and across the years. Unless lives were at risk, the ship would have been required to make sure that none of their “nukes” exceeded a dose of 5 rem and none of the non-nukes would have got a dose higher than 0.1 rem. Not only did they have the mandate to limit exposures to these levels, but they had the equipment, training, and knowledge to do so as well.

Radiation biology

So this gets us to radiation biology – what’s the effected health effect of exposure to 0.1 or 5 rem?

Well, the short-term risks are…nothing. The lowest dose that has been shown to have any short-term clinical effects is 25 rem – five times higher than any of the Reagan’s nukes might have received and 250 times as much as their non-nukes. And the lowest dose that can cause radiation sickness is about 100 rem. So nobody on the Reagan would have received nearly enough dose to cause any short-term health effects, which are all that could have appeared by the time they filed their lawsuit.

As far as long-term risks (cancer) are concerned, a dose of 5 ren is four times safer than the risk from driving – it gives a person a ¼% chance of developing a fatal cancer over the next 50 years. Which means that the claims of radiation sickness and other health effects are likely without a basis in science – the doses are simply far too low. This was much of the basis for the original rejection of the sailors’ case.

So what happened?

Here’s the thing – the Reagan’s sailors likely suffered from some medical problems  (https://www.classaction.org/news/navy-sailors-file-revised-class-action-against-tokyo-electric-power-co-general-electric-over-fukushima-radiation-exposure) – the question is whether or not they were due to radiation exposure. According to the lawsuit:  

These harms include, but are not limited to, the following: illnesses such as Leukemia, ulcers, gall bladder removals, brain cancer, brain tumors, testicular cancer, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, thyroid illnesses, stomach ailments, birth defects, death, and a host of other complaints unusual in such young adults and victims. The injured servicemen and women will require treatment for their deteriorating health, medical monitoring, payment of their medical bills, appropriate health monitoring for their children, and monitoring for possible radiation-induced genetic mutations. Some of the radioactive particles inside these service personnel have long half-lives, from 6 to 50 to 100 years.”

The problem is that none of these could be due to the radiation exposure these sailors would have received. Consider:

  • It takes cancer at least 5 years to appear after radiation exposure, and that’s for the most radiation-sensitive tissues that received a high dose of radiation; for other cancers the latency period is a decade or more. The original complaint was filed in 2014 and the appeal was filed in 2018, too short a period of time for a radiogenic cancer to appear.
  • There is no link between radiation exposure and ulcers, gall bladder function, uterine bleeding, or stomach ailments.
  • Birth defects require a minimum dose of 5 rem to the fetus, and fetal dose is lower than dose to the mother due to the shielding effect of the tissues overlying the uterus.
  • Death due to radiation exposure either occurs within a few months (following doses of several hundred rem) or after a few to several decades (following doses of tens of rem or higher).
  • And the half-lives of the radioactivity ingested or inhaled is immaterial – the only thing that matters is the radiation dose received, regardless of the half-life of the nuclides causing this exposure.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that the specific complaints voiced by the plaintiffs cannot be caused by short-term radiation exposure in the time span between the accident and when the lawsuits were filed.

Having said all of this, I feel for the sailors on the Reagan – it’s awful to be sick and to not know why, and it’s easy to blame a frightening, high-profile accident for what ails you. But had the Reagan’s sailors won their case they would have been compensated for something that was almost certainly not caused by radiation.