US Navy sailors seek £600m damages from owners of Fukushima nuclear power plant
Nearly three years after the Fukushima disaster, more than 70 US Navy sailors who participated in rescue operations claim that radiation exposure has left them sickened for life
Lt Steven Simmons, a 36-year-old administration officer, told The Telegraph that he had fallen ill within months of returning to the US in September 2011
By Danielle Demetriou in Tokyo and Peter Foster in Washington
5:28PM GMT 07 Feb 2014
Dozens of American sailors who assisted Japan during the 2011 nuclear disaster are suing the operators of Fukushima power plant for more than £612 million (US$1bn) in damages, claiming that they have become sick from radiation exposure.
The sailors were on board the USS Ronald Reagan super-carrier when it was diverted to northeast Japan following the devastation of the March 11, 2011 earthquake which triggered a tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster.
As they helped rescue victims and evacuate disaster zones, the claimants allege that they drank, bathed and waded through water contaminated with radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant and were reportedly exposed to radioactive plumes.
A total of 79 named claimants – including sailors, support personnel and dependents – allege that over the past three years, they have suffered from serious health issues as a result of radiation exposure from the plant, ranging from an array of cancers such as leukemia to eye diseases and fertility problems.
The claimants include the two-year-old daughter of US sailor Kim Gieseking, 25, who was pregnant at the time of the Fukushima disaster and served as a boatswain’s mate on the flight deck.
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The sailors, whose claim was submitted to San Diego District Court in California, are suing Tokyo Electric Power Plant (Tepco), operators of Fukushima nuclear power plant for negligence.
“These sailors were in radioactive plumes for more than five hours,” said Paul C Garner, a lawyer representing the sailors, who claims to have been contacted by more than 250 US navy personnel in relation to the case.
“They are suing Tepco for negligence in permitting escape of radiation from Fukushima nuclear power plant, strict liability, fraudulent concealment of true facts and a $1 billion medical fund plus compensation.”
Legal documents outlining their claims and submitted to the court stated: “Tepco was fully aware that the American responders would be exposed to hazardous levels of radiation, yet did not communicate this to the ships and to other responders.
“Tepco had a duty to inform any and all persons who were, or would soon be in the vicinity of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, of the radiological hazards created by the meltdowns which had occurred and were in progress.
Tepco breached this duty, negligently causing injuries, damages and harm to plaintiffs.”
The submitted claim is an amendment of an earlier legal action by a smaller group of US navy sailors involved in the Fukushima clean-up which was dismissed by a judge in San Diego in November last year on the grounds that court did not have jurisdiction.
The US government has vehemently denied that the sailors were exposed to levels of radiation that would negatively impact health during the Fukushima mission, and has published a full list of exposure details for each vessel involved.
“There is no indication that any U.S. Personnel supporting Operation Tomodachi experienced radiation exposure at levels associated with the occurrence of long-term health effects,” a US Navy spokesman told The Telegraph.
“All personnel were monitored, with very sensitive instruments. The worst case radiation exposure was less than 25 per cent of the annual radiation exposure that a member of the public gets from the sun, rocks or soil.”
However the affected sailors refuse to accept the Pentagon’s assurances and remain convinced that radiation exposure is to blame for a range of maladies, from cancers to over-active thyroid glands and prolonged menstrual bleeding.
Lt Steven Simmons, a 36-year-old administration officer, told The Telegraph that he had fallen ill within months of returning to the US in September 2011 from his deployment on the USS Reagan.
“I was perfectly healthy before that deployment. I was used to doing the P90-X extreme work out, I claimed the ’Stairway to Heaven’ in Hawaii but when I came back from the deployment my health started to decline.
“The Navy says they monitored everybody, but didn’t do internal or external monitoring of everyone, particularly not people below the flight deck,” he claimed, adding that at one point a message on the ship’s intercom said that ’contaminants’ had been sucked into the water system.
“There was an all-hands call on the intercom, but I was already up and had had breakfast and had drunk several glasses of water. I remember joking about it at the time. I never thought then I would get ill, even though some of my sailors were very worried and went to get checked out.”
Lt Simmons, who has three children, is now wheelchair bound despite doctors being unable to diagnose his condition despite carrying out a battery of tests for diseases including muscular dystrophy, Lou Gehrig’s disease and the tick-borne Lyme disease.
He is currently being treated and assessed by Navy doctors at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Maryland to decide whether to medically discharge him, although he admits that none have found any evidence of radiation-related illness.
“I’ve seen multiple doctors but they say that if it was radiation poisoning I would have been affected earlier; but you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to know that radiation affects everyone in different ways.
“I don’t blame the Department of Defence or the Navy for what happened, but I believe that mistakes were made,” said the father of three.
“They [the Pentagon] have been sticking to this story for three years now, but we spent five hours sitting in a radioactive plume that came from the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. How can they really expect there was no harm to human life?” Japan’s embattled Tepco, which is currently facing a string of legal actions from Fukushima residents in relation to the alleged impact of the disaster on their homes and livelihoods, declined to comment on the details of the case.
However, the company said in a statement: “We are thankful to the United States for coming to the aid of the people of Japan, and appreciate the service of all the men and women of the United States military who provided our people with humanitarian and disaster relief in Operation Tomodachi.
“We withhold any comments on this lawsuit, and we will take appropriate measures in accordance with the judicial procedures in the United States.”
The case comes at a time of fevered speculation in North America in relation to the potential impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, despite repeated reassurances from governments and officials that there are no safety concerns.
There has been a flurry of media reports describing continued concerns in the region, such as Canadians stockpiling iodine tablets, local city governments passing resolutions for more testing of coastal seafood and a new study into the potential contamination of Californian kelp.
Scientists recently stated that seaborne radiation from the wrecked Fukushima power plant will wash up on the West Coast of the US at some point this year.
However, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that any radioactivity in the ocean will have either decayed or been diluted to such a low concentration that it will pose no health concern.