Is America Abandoning Its Bravest Heroes Yet Again?

When Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant released radioactive plumes to the air, US sailors were there to help. Now, who is helping them?
Is America Abandoning Its Bravest Heroes Yet Again?

by Karen Charman

“You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all”

If there’s any truth to that pop standard’s message, then America must surely love its heroes. Because, much as we lionize those who stare death in the face so that the rest of us may live peacefully, once the spotlight shifts away from the heroes of each war or disaster, as often as not our government officials callously toss those heroes aside.

The list is long and dates from the Bonus Army of jobless World War I veterans attacked in 1932 by the Washington, DC, police for demanding compensation for wartime service, to the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffered neglect and shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as recently as 2007. There are plenty of stops in between: The Vietnam vets never properly compensated for exposure to Agent Orange; Gulf War veterans who waited 17 years for Congress to acknowledge the reality of Gulf War Syndrome; and the 9/11 responders who waited eight years for whatever the budget cutters in Washington were willing, in their generosity, to dispense.

This sorry list is about to grow with the addition of scores of U.S. sailors who went on an idealistic mission three years ago to help the Japanese cope with the destruction from the strongest earthquake in the country’s history—the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent 50-foot tsunami on March 11, 2011 that turned much of the northeastern coast of Japan into rubble and swamped the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The combined events knocked out all electricity to the plant, and within five hours, the first of three reactors that ultimately did so began melting down. The sailors had no idea of the danger from Fukushima when they went in and only thought they were responding to the earthquake and tsunami, so it’s important not to suggest otherwise.

At least 79 of those sailors now suffer serious health effects consistent with radiation exposure. Some of the sailors have filed a class action lawsuit against the Japanese power company, accusing it of hiding what it knew about the escaping radiation and seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as $1 billion for a fund to cover their medical monitoring and treatment. Some of them also blame the U.S. Navy, which denies that its sailors were exposed to harmful levels of radiation.


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They Came Out Cooked

Paul Garner, the lead attorney on the case, told WhoWhatWhy that a much larger group of military personnel were exposed to radiation, and he expects the number signing on to the lawsuit to rise as more people develop symptoms. He reeled off a long list of alarming health complaints among the nearly 100 former Operation Tomodachi participants he’s interviewed. So far, about half have developed cancer—of the brain, eye, testes, thyroid, or blood (leukemia). “These kids were first responders,” Garner says. “They went in happily doing a humanitarian mission, and they came out cooked.”

Radiation Déjà vu

The situation these sailors find themselves in is all too familiar in the annals of the nuclear age. Over the past 75 years, claims of harm by many people exposed to radiation through no fault of their own have been officially downplayed or denied. For example: Victims of fallout from atom bomb testing, workers routinely exposed at a nuclear weapons facility, people living near one, and those caught downwind of reactor meltdowns at nuclear power plants, as in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion.

The U.S. Department of Defense claims to have calculated “whole-body and thyroid radiation doses” for nearly 75,000 DOD-affiliated individuals who were on or near the mainland of Japan during the period from March 12, 2011 to May 11, 2011. Its determination: “Your whole-body and thyroid radiation dose estimates are well below levels associated with adverse medical conditions.”

Official Estimates Don’t Compute

A DOD report lays out how the Navy reached its conclusions about the doses that 17,000-plus sailors received. But according to nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, a former industry vice president who blew the whistle for radiation safety violations at his former employer, Nuclear Energy Services, as with the previous accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nobody knows how much radiation has been released from Fukushima—because most of the radiation monitors did not survive the accidents. That means assumptions rather than real data were used to calculate the total amount of radiation released—resulting in estimates that Gundersen believes are much too low.

Another outside expert charges the Navy’s reconstructed doses are meaningless. Continue reading this story at WhoWhatWhy.

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