The USS Ronald Reagan maneuvered in the blue off the tense Korean Peninsula, preparing for long-planned military exercises. A nuclear-powered “supercarrier” – one of the newest and most technically sophisticated in the fleet – she required a crew of 5,500 to sustain her. The Navy boasted that she was “the most effective and versatile fighting vessel in the world.”
At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 quake hammered the earth’s crust northeast of Tokyo, unleashing walls of water 30 feet high. They smashed into the coast of Japan, devouring buildings, severing escape routes and sweeping thousands away to their deaths.
The tsunami also flooded the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, cutting off electrical power and disabling backup generators.
The Reagan’s mission swiftly changed. She bolted for Japan as part of Operation Tomodachi – “friends” in Japanese – to provide emergency aid to the stricken population. She was stationed off Sendai and used as, among other things, a floating refueling station for Japanese helicopters flying relief missions.
“(B)efore the USS Ronald Reagan and Carrier Strike Group 7 arrived 2 miles off the coast, Fukushima Unit 1 blew up,” says a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the sailors. “Then Unit 3 exploded, releasing plumes of hydrogen gases migrating through a shared vent, which destroyed the containment building at Unit 4, exposing the spent fuel pool to the air. Unit 2 followed suit.”
Sailors on the flight deck said they felt a warm gust of air, followed by a sudden snow storm: radioactive steam. Freezing in the cold Pacific air. Blanketing their ship.
And there they remained for two days, until “precautionary measurements of three helicopter aircrews returning to USS Ronald Reagan after conducting disaster relief missions near Sendai identified (measurable) levels of radioactivity on 17 air crew members,” and the Navy ordered the carrier to reposition much farther away from the Fukushima fallout.
By then, the lawsuit contends, the crew had already suffered massive doses of radiation.
Photos taken by Navy personnel aboard the ship show the crew decontaminating the flight deck with brooms and foamy cleanser – clad in fatigues, hoodies and ski caps, many with their faces exposed.
In the three years since, dozens have developed cancers, at least one has borne a child with birth defects, and all “must now endure a lifetime of radiation poisoning and suffering which could have and should have been avoided,” the lawsuit says.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which ran Fukushima, lied through its teeth, knowing all along the plant was in full-scale meltdown, the suit contends.
“(TEPCO) announced that most of the fuel in Units 1, 2, and 3 were intact. They were not intact,” the suit says. “The true facts were that the fuels in Units 1, 2, and 3 had fused into a molten mass and were oozing through the bottom of their destroyed reactors. TEPCO likewise hid, covered up, and negligently concealed these facts and falsely represented the true facts to the U.S. Navy. Plaintiffs suffered harms, damage, and suffered, and continue to suffer, life-threatening injuries as a result of TEPCO’s negligence.”
The class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego on behalf of 79 crew members and their loved ones, seeks $1 billion from TEPCO, as well as damages and attorneys’ fees.
“Honesty and fair-dealing is a basic and most precious resource, as well as a fundamental commodity of incalculable value. The plaintiffs and the U.S. Navy had the right to know the actual conditions they would confront during ‘Operation Tomodachi.’ … TEPCO rendered the plaintiffs infirm and poisoned their bodies.”
This is the second time that the Reagan sailors have tried to file this suit. It’s a highly problematic legal maneuver, asking the U.S. federal court to poke its nose into the decision-making of the U.S. military, and raising very strange and disturbing questions:
Could the Reagan – one of the most advanced nuclear aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet – really not know that it was being showered with massive doses of radiation?
“It is wholly implausible – absent some additional facts that the (complaint) does not (and cannot) allege – to posit that military commanders in charge of thousands of personnel and armed with some of the world’s most sophisticated equipment, relied instead only on the press releases and public statements of a foreign electric utility company,” said TEPCO in its response last week.