CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Sixteen U.S. ships that participated in relief efforts after Japan’s nuclear disaster five years ago remain contaminated with low levels of radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, top Navy officials told Stars and Stripes.
“The low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures,” the Navy said in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Work in these areas occurs mainly during major maintenance availabilities and requires workers to follow strict safety procedures.”
The Navy has acknowledged that the Reagan passed through a plume of radiation. Navy images showed sailors with their faces covered, scrubbing the deck of the Reagan with soap and water as a precautionary measure afterward. The Reagan and sailors stayed off the coast of Japan for several weeks to aid their Japanese allies.
The multibillion-dollar ship, projected to last at least 50 years after its launch in 2001, then was taken offline for more than a year for “deep maintenance and modernization” at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash., according to Navy officials.
“Procedures were in place to survey, control and remove any low-level residual contamination,” the Navy said. “Personnel working on potentially contaminated systems were monitored with sensitive dosimeters, and no abnormal radiation exposures were identified.”
Upgrades and cleaning also took place at the ship’s next stop in San Diego.
Sailors who performed the work said it entailed entering spaces deep within the ship, testing for high levels of radiation, and if it was found, sanding, priming and painting the areas. They say there were given little to no protective gear, a claim that the Navy denies.
The illnesses listed in the lawsuit include genetic immune system diseases, headaches, difficulty concentrating, thyroid problems, bloody noses, rectal and gynecological bleeding, weakness in sides of the body accompanied by the shrinking of muscle mass, memory loss, leukemia, testicular cancer, problems with vision, high-pitch ringing in the ears and anxiety.
The list of sailors who have joined the lawsuit, which is making its way through the courts, has grown to 370.
Furthermore, Woodson said, more sailors would have been sick if the levels were high enough to cause the illnesses cited. There were upward of 5,000 sailors aboard the Reagan at the time of the operation. He also said symptoms developed too early to be associated with the operation.
But Shinzo Kimura — a professor at Dokkyo Medical University in Japan who has studied radiation exposure from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl and, now, Fukushima — said it wasn’t too early for sailors to show symptoms of exposure-related conditions. Doctors have seen conditions in children living near the plant that surfaced earlier than would normally be expected.
Kimura, hired by the Nihonmatsu city government for his expertise in the field, was the first scientist on the ground taking readings in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. He said each person and the way their body is affected by radiation is different.
While unable to definitively say if the sailors were sickened by the radiation, Kimura reasoned that the levels aboard the Reagan were high enough to cause illnesses. Otherwise, he said, why go through the bother of repeated cleanings to lower radiation levels?
“It is impossible to speculate or calculate how much the doses were before the two decontamination works,” he said. “The U.S. military is very good at risk-management. Considering that, it is assumed that decontaminations were conducted twice because the levels were not favorable.”