In March 2011 one of the largest recorded earthquakes hit Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) continues to struggle to contain radiation released by the damage, while Governor Yuhei Sato of Fukushima Prefecture asked only last week that the central government reconsider its decontamination waste storage plan.
The vessel is said to be too dangerous to use due to radioactive contamination.
The Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown is only the second disaster in history to be classified as Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale - the other being Chernobyl. While the long-term effects on nearby residents’ health is unclear, 79 U.S. veterans have now filed a class action lawsuit seeking compensation for a range of ailments they say are linked to the Fukushima radiation.
The sailors, who served on the USS Ronald Regan as part of the Operation Tomodachi relief effort, claim that illnesses including leukemia, blindness and birth defects were all caused by their exposure to radiation while in Japan. The suit includes an infant baby born with a genetic condition, whose parents served aboard the USS Reagan, as well as a teenager who lived near the plant. The class membership is open to an estimated 70,000 U.S. citizens “potentially affected by the radiation.”
The suit is calling for the ship, currently docked in San Diego, to be sunk, rather than scrapped – just like the ships used for atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific. The vessel is said to be too dangerous to use due to radioactive contamination.
The amended action was filed on February 6 in San Diego and accuses Tepco of failing to disclose that the USS Reagan was being dosed with radiation following three meltdowns and four explosions at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant on March 11 and 12, 2011. According to the suit, the ship was at times only a mile offshore from the stricken plant, and sailed through nuclear plumes for several hours, while being exposed to radiation clouds leaking from the plant.
One of the affected sailors reported: “Upon my return from Operation Tomodachi, I began losing my eyesight. I lost all vision in my left eye and most vision in my right eye. I am unable to read street signs and am no longer able to drive. Prior to Operation Tomodachi, I had 20/20 eyesight, wore no glasses and had no corrective surgery."
The infant plaintiff, “Baby A.G.” was born to a USS Reagan crew member only seven months after the crew was allegedly exposed to radiation, and has multiple birth defects.
While the suit was first filed in December 2012, and was thrown out at the end of 2013, a deadline for re-filling with additional plaintiffs was extended after the number of plaintiffs coming forward continued to rise. The suit is now seeking $1 billion for costs and expenses related to plaintiffs’ medical care and future treatment. In a press release issued by NukeFree.org, attorneys representing the case assert that Tepco:
“[K]nowingly and negligently caused, permitted and represented false and misleading information concerning the true condition of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant to be disseminated to the public, including the U.S. Military, and that TEPCO knew that the Plaintiffs were going to be exposed to unsafe levels of radiation because TEPCO was aware the nuclear power plant was experience 3 reactors melting down.”
Calls for the USS Reagan to be sunk are, understandably, controversial. The $4.5 billion supercarrier is a critical part of the U.S. Pacific navy presence and both Tepco and the navy argue that radiation levels were not high enough to harm sailors serving aboard the vessel. Following Operation Tomodachi, South Korea and Guam both refused port entry to the ship citing fears over radiation levels. While the case’s previous dismissal by a federal judge was based on the belief that it was beyond her authority to rule on whether the Japanese government committed fraud by not disclosing radiation levels, plaintiffs are now hoping to call Tepco to account. The company recently admitted it underestimated radiation levels at the time of the meltdowns.
Losing a vessel as important as the USS Reagan would be a blow to the U.S. navy – but if the ship remains a danger to the sailors themselves, something clearly has to be done. For those already suffering the effects of alleged radiation exposure, the time to worry about that has passed, and plaintiffs in the case are now looking for the medical treatment and financial support they may need for many years to come.