Sailors scrub the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during countermeasures to remove contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011. A radioactive plume from the Fukushima plant passed over the ship and officers who claim to have fallen sick as a result are suing plant operator TEPCO. (Photo by Nicholas A. Grouch)
Over 300 members of the US Navy who claim to have been exposed to debilitating levels of radiation while providing relief ops in the northeastern region of Japan in 2011 have been given the green light to pursue a compensation lawsuit in the US against Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant operator TEPCO.
A 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals court in San Francisco ruled in favour of the 318 sailors who have filed the class action suit and were aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as well as other Navy vessels including the Essex, Washington, Prebble and Germantown as first responders in the "Operation Tomodachi" (friend) relief team when a plume of highly radioactive materials from the Fukushima plant blew over the vessels in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.
A three-judge appellate panel unanimously rejected an attempt by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) to secure the dismissal of the class-action lawsuit.
The ruling clears the way for the sailors to pursue their suit, which alleges that TEPCO provided misleading information about the extent of the radiation leak. It also means they will not have to file their case in Japan.
This incident involving the US sailors is discussed in some depth in my book, “Yoshida’s Dilemma.” One of the sailors on board USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered super carrier, was Lindsay Cooper, whose duties involved transferring food to helicopters and other aircraft. She was on the deck at the time the plume passed over and remembers at one point having a slightly metallic taste in her mouth, which was completely uncovered. Other claimants have said they experienced a similar sensation.
Two days later she was told that the flight deck area where she had been was highly contaminated. Personnel immediately set about decontaminating the ship. “It kinda freaked me out because … all the bottled water we had on board was given away to the Japanese for relief,” Cooper said. “We had no choice but to take showers in and drink contaminated water.”
Once back on land in Japan, where she lived, Cooper started to feel sick, soon developing digestive issues as well. Then, out of the blue, she began to feel something strange happening in her thyroid.
The Navy was quick to distance itself from the issue, saying in a letter that most of the radioactivity did not deposit on the ship as it sailed through the plume. “The very low levels of residual radioactivity that did deposit … were mitigated and controlled,” the letter read.
Japan’s military, meanwhile, were well aware of the potential danger, and when tests confirmed that its 17-strong team of naval helicopter crewmen had been exposed to almost a month’s worth of nuclear radiation in one hour, it burned the crew’s infected uniforms and instructed each member to scrub themselves with soap and water to wash away the toxic materials in the plume.
Yet for Cooper, the issue was far more than a scrub-behind-the ears matter: she had ingested some of the plume. In 2012, the American national took action against TEPCO for its “improper response” to the accident by allegedly mishandling the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi and lying to the US military about the extent of the dangers its troops faced. She was joined by almost 400 other personnel preparing litigation, some of whom have displayed similar symptoms. Some have reportedly since died due to their radiation-related illnesses.
The sailors filed their lawsuit in the federal court in San Diego in 2012, though delays have since ensued due to the question of where exactly the case should be heard. One of the lawyers for the defence accused TEPCO of “downplaying” the accident and claimed compensatory damages of $40 million per plaintiff in compensatory and punitive damages “to punish the defendant and to deter similar acts in the future.”
At least half of the crew who have been struck down with radiation-related illnesses are suffering from cancer, according to the lawyer. Among them were those with leukemia, testicular cancer, thyroid cancer and “unremitting gynecological bleeding requiring transfusions and other intervention.” According to the lawyers representing the sailors many were also suffering from rectal bleeeding, brain tumors, migraine headaches and "many other life-altering conditions."
In October 2014 a California federal judge preserved the $1 billion class action against TEPCO by the plaintiffs, saying that the utility’s negligence had been shown to be the cause of the Navy personnel’s injuries.
In April 2016, meanwhile, Law360 reported that the Ninth Circuit appeals court had “granted a group of U.S. sailors’ request that it expedite a $1 billion lawsuit alleging Tokyo Electric Power Co. is responsible for radiation injuries the sailors say they suffered during their response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. … While TEPCO did not take a position on the motion to expedite, it did take the opportunity to counter some of the plaintiffs’ allegations, particularly that it caused them any injury.”
The question of where the case would be tried remained, though the most recent ruling now clears the way for that to take place in the US.