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Injustice at sea via Beyond Nuclear International

By Linda Pentz Gunter

American sailors on the USS Ronald Reagan were exposed to radiation from Fukushima. Many are sick. Some have died. Why can’t they get justice?

“Coverage of the USS Ronald Reagan has been astoundingly limited,” wrote Der Spiegel in a February 2015 story. Since then, nothing much has changed.

The German magazine was referring to the saga of the American Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier whose crew pitched in to help victims of the March 11, 2011 Tsunami and earthquake in Japan, then found themselves under the radioactive plume from the stricken coastal nuclear reactors at Fukushima. Since then, crew members in eye-popping numbershave come down with unexplained illnesses — more than 70 and still counting. Some have died. And many are suing.

The USS Reagan was part of Operation Tomodachi, a U.S. armed forces mission involving 24,000 U.S. service members, and numerous ships and aircraft bringing aid to the victims of the tsunami and earthquake.

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The original class action lawsuit — Cooper et al v. Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc., was filed in San Diego, the home port of the USS Reagan, on December 21, 2012. A second class action suit — Bartel et al v. Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. et al — was subsequently filed on August  18, 2017 and was the case dismissed in January.

The plaintiffs are represented by California attorneys Charles Bonner and Paul Garner, and by Edwards Kirby, the North Carolina firm led by former U.S. Senator, John Edwards.

Cooper now has 236 named plaintiffs and Bartel 157. But, wrote attorney Cate Edwards of Edwards Kirby and daughter of John Edwards, in an email,

“We have about 34 additional plaintiffs who have contacted us since the filing of the Bartel complaint, and that number continues to grow on a weekly basis.” As a class action the suit also “encompasses additional, unnamed class members— up to 70,000 American servicemen and women who served in Operation Tomodachi and may have been exposed to the radiation from Fukushima,” Edwards wrote.

Sadly those numbers sometimes also decline. Nine of the plaintiffs have already died. It is unknown how many others who took part in Operation Tomodachi, but did not join the suit, may also have died.

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A floating pariah 

Whether or not U.S. military commanders knew of the radiation risks once the readings were in, is moot legally. The plaintiffs are barred from suing the U.S. Navy because of the Feres Doctrine, dating from the 1950s, and which prohibits any member of the military from recovering damages from the government for injuries sustained during active military service.

The USS Ronald Reagan arrived off the Japan coast before dawn on March 12, 2011 with a crew of 4,500. It had been on its way to South Korea but returned to join Operation Tomodachi.

But what actually happened to the Reagan after that is still clouded in confusion, or possibly cover-up. After it got doused in the radioactive plume, then drew in radioactively contaminated water through its desalination system — which the crew used for drinking, cooking and bathing — it turned into a pariah ship, just two and a half months into its aid mission.

Floating at sea, the USS Reagan was turned away by Japan, South Korea and Guam. For two and a half months it was the radioactive MS St. Louis, not welcome in any port until Thailand finally took the ship into harbor.

There is no disagreement that the radioactive plume from Fukushima — which largely blew out to sea rather onto land — passed over the Reagan. Radiation meters on board confirmed this. But the levels of exposure are disputed, as is how close the ship came to shore and the melting Fukushima reactors and how often it strayed into — or stayed within — the plume.

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