Sailors wash down the deck of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan during Operation Tomodachi relief efforts off the coast of Japan in 2011. (MC3 Alexander Tidd/Navy)
A group of sailors who were aboard the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan as it rendered aid in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan nearly three years ago are taking another shot at a lawsuit over the health problems they say they’ve suffered since their radiation exposure.
Their attorney, California environmental law expert Paul C. Garner, has until Jan. 6 to amend their complaint against the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and resubmit it for a judge’s ruling.
“What we say is this: The TEPCO people knew what was happening there,” Garner told Navy Times. “They certainly knew the severity of what was happening, because now you have radiological releases into the environment ... and the tsunami just washed it all in, and washed it all out, and the Reagan was in the backwash.”
Garner originally submitted the case a year ago. A federal judge in Southern California granted the company’s Nov. 26 motion to dismiss the case, but Garner and the sailors will have another chance, he told Navy Times.
Garner agreed to drop some of the allegations in the lawsuit, including a conspiracy charge, and said the judge would reconsider the case in the new year.
The case began with former Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Lindsay Cooper, 24, who was aboard the Reagan in March 2011, bringing humanitarian aid to Japan as part of Operation Tomodachi, following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
When she got back, Garner said, she suffered drastic weight losses and gains over short periods of time, gynecological issues and a noticeable loss of energy. Her family got her in contact with the attorney, who now has 71 plaintiffs listed, with myriad health issues.
“Leukemias, bleeding, thyroid problems, polyps, testicle removal, optic nerve removal,” Garner said. “And the list goes on and on, unfortunately.”
Garner estimated about one-third of the plaintiffs remain on active duty, adding that one is still assigned to the Reagan. He did not have a full breakdown of their duty statuses.
The lawsuit alleges that TEPCO officials knew how serious the radiation leak was and knew that American troops were heading to Japan to offer relief, but did nothing to warn them of what they were sailing into.
A spokesman for the Navy, which is not a defendant in the case, said Reagan crew members weren’t exposed to enough radiation to cause long-term health effects.
“For perspective, the worst-case radiation exposure for a crew member on USS Ronald Reagan is less than 25 percent of the annual radiation exposure to a member of the U.S. public from natural sources of background radiation, such as the sun, rocks and soil,” spokesman Lt. Greg Raelson said.
Raelson added that aircrews delivering supplies to Fukushima were given medication to stave off thyroid gland exposure to radiation, and the ships were monitored for levels of radioactivity and equipment was washed down to remove radioactive materials.
Garner maintains the connection between the mission these sailors participated in and their current illnesses can’t be denied.
“It’s hard to imagine that all of these people are suffering now when they were all basically in their early 20s, in good health, and looking forward to life,” he said.
Though he might not be able to prove that it’s all due to Fukushima, Garner said he thinks the burden should be on the other side.
“It just seems to me that based upon Chernobyl and everything that occurred there ... that it should really be a situation where the naysayers have to demonstrate that it did no harm to these people,” he said.
If the case is decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, Garner said, he plans to set up a fund for the victims to pay for their ongoing medical care.