A Disturbing Story on Fukushima — Can You Help Confirm It?

[Note Added: I have been unable to confirm the story described below from any source other than the original one -- the lawyer who stands to benefit from it.  At this point, based on remarks by my readers, I'm inclined to think the story is implausible.]

 

It’s been a little quiet on the blog, because I’ve been working very hard, with a dozen colleagues, to finish a monster project that will appear later today on the public physics archive (arXiv) for professional theoretical physicists to present their work to the their colleagues.  More on that tomorrow.

But in the meantime, I have come across a very disturbing update to a story regarding the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster— nothing to do with what is going on there now, but something that happened immediately after the accidents following the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.  The latest update, though widely reported around the internet, is currently attributed only to a lawyer for plaintiffs… hardly a reliable source of information.  Nevertheless, the story might be true, and I’m looking for corroboration, if one of you has come across any.

The story is that dozens of sailors from the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (ironies, anyone), who I believe were right off the coast of Japan following the quake to help out with disaster relief, were exposed to radioactive sea water.  Some were diving into the sea to help rescue people, and many were bathing in and even drinking desalinated sea water — and taking the salt out of seawater does not remove radioactive atoms of iodine, caesium, etc.   Apparently it was a short but significant time before somebody realized the water was not safe.  And now dozens of sailors — more than 1% of the total number on board (last year it was eight, and this summer the lawsuit apparently grew to more than 50) are suing TEPCO (the Japanese electric company) after suffering a variety of diseases, including various cancers, eye and thyroid problems, etc.  So says their lawyer, anyway.

Does anyone reading this know anything else about this story?  In particular, does anyone know someone who was on the ship?

A certain number of people get sick every year, just by chance; assuming the story is true, is this particular cluster of illnesses a chance event, or a real effect of radiation exposure? This is one of those situations where you could do a real scientific test, if the Navy would let someone do it.  You could compare disease rates on the Ronald Reagan to disease rates for sailors who served on the same types of ships operating in other parts of the world, and see if they are significantly larger.  The populations are plenty big enough for such a study… But will anyone be able to find out the truth when the truth becomes a football in a lawsuit?

35 responses to “A Disturbing Story on Fukushima — Can You Help Confirm It?

  1. The existing lawsuit you described has been dismissed on jurisdictional grounds:

    http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/dec/17/reagan-radiation-lawsuit-dismissed-tomodachi/

    I would bet that rescue missions in nuclear plants in trouble can never be safe. It’s sad if someone failed to realize that.

    • Do you mean “near”? I don’t think they were in the plant, were they?

      In any case, thanks for the update. There have been recent unconfirmed stories running around the net suggesting a new attempt to reinstate the case, but they all come from one source, and as far as I can tell they are false.

      • Dear Matt, apologies for the suggestion that they were “near” the plant. It was pretty far. But some limited exposure could have occurred even at some distance or while dealing with contaminated objects or even people. I don’t know – the timing of the claimed diseases doesn’t look “natural”.

        In the article above, you should notice the discussion that actually involves two (or more?) people claiming to have served on USS Reagan and they seem to disagree with the plaintiffs, claiming that the situation looked safe to them.

        The new lawsuit is announced (in the article) to be filed when there are 20 more crew members to join. It may never happen. If dozens of people have cancer within 2.5 years (and this very claim could be untrue or at least misleading), I surely find it like a suspicious excess. If it is true at all. But even if the excess is due to the extra exposure, it’s likely that most of the people won’t join their fate. The USS Reagan has something like 450 crew members at any given moment so adding 20 sick ones may be a very difficult or unlikely thing. If they’re getting the disease at a constant rate, one will have to wait for another year, for example.

        • actually it’s not 450 on a ship of that size, it’s more like 5000.

          Other than that I mostly agree that this doesn’t seem very plausible, and nothing that anyone has added today has increased its plausibility for me. Presumably the inability to confirm it is why the most recent stories have not appeared in the mainstream press, but only in websites that collect information without vetting it.

          But it does show just how the secretiveness of organizations like the Navy and like TEPCO, neither of which has an unblemished record in either nuclear activity or in openness about their mistakes, all combined with the tendency of our society to sue at the drop of a hat, make it so incredibly difficult to establish trust and determine truth anywhere. How can you ask people to trust the Navy when they say exposure was too low to be a problem? The U.S. Armed Forces established a nuclear trust gap a long time ago, and the price of that gap is high.

          • Dear Matt, you must be right, my source saying “465 crew members”

            http://www.chacha.com/question/how-many-crew-total-are-with-the-uss-ronald-reagan

            must be unreliable. I see better sources with 5,000, too. In that case, the declared cancer rate isn’t really exceptional – I think it’s within the null hypothesis of no effect. Someone just had an idea to collectively blame the natural occurrence of similar diseases on the employer.

          • Christopher M. Williams

            Firstly there is NOTHING natural about anyone getting radiation poisoning; Secondly the United States NAVY has a known history of covering up nuclear related incidents, they have had numerous issues in the past. Sometimes the oldest reports are the only ones that contain the truth because it’s a little harder to cover those pages up if they didn’t think to search them in the first place. I dare someone to look into the NAVY as the source of these injuries, with enough public support they will have no choice but to release the information. 2014 is going to be a very interesting year for all to witness, Mark my words ;o)

            Warm Regards,

            Christopher

        • >The USS Reagan has something like 450 crew members

          Your confusing the USS Reagan with the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) which has about 450 crew members.

    • Plus the defendants were crew responsible for decontamination. I suspect crew of a ship that is nuclear powered, carries nuclear weapons, is designed to operate with nuclear weapons going off around it, operating near the site of a nuclear meltdown are keenly aware of the risks of radioactivity. Surely they were monitoring the situation and prepared to deal with it.

  2. Typically, thyroid cancer takes at least 2 decades to develop after radiation exposure.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1356259/ “Latency Period of Thyroid Neoplasia After Radiation Exposure”
    Some sailors were exposed to low levels of radiation in seawater. However, the radiation was not concentrated in the tissue of fish — this is the real danger. My guess is that the lawsuit is wholly without merit.

    • There’s a powerful anti-placebo effect; when people *think* they’ve been exposed to something dangerous, there is a strong tendency to assume that unrelated illnesses were due to that exposure. And you have to cancel that off.

      I agree this story does not sound plausible. But I’m trying to figure out if the whole thing is being run by the lawyer(s) or by the plaintiffs. On the one hand we have plenty of irresponsible lawyers out to make a buck. On the other hand we have seen cases where a group of people claimed illnesses for a long time before finally they were taken seriously. So right now it’s very hard to know the truth. Certainly I hope it’s false, because if it were true, a lot of people would be unnecessarily ill.

  3. Noticed in the comments of that utsandiego link,
    https://www.facebook.com/david.mcfarland.3133 David McFarland is a reactor operator on the USS George Washington that was also involved in helping.

    He at least is not particularly impressed by these reports. Other members from the ships also commented, you could probably get more details by asking them directly through the comments.

  4. Prof, do you that Project X, proposed for Fermilab, could sometime helps find a way to reduce (and even eliminate) nuclear waste? Is understanding the transformation of neutrinos (changing flavours) is the key to unravelling the fundamental mechanism?

    We always seem to be preoccupies with the politics of energy generation and governments are not willing to make the proper investments in solving the energy problem once and for all. Project X is important and should be fully funded, like they are funding National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Livermore.

    Until we find a solution to eliminate nuclear waste, a moratorium on any new nuclear plants should go back in place in the US like they have done in Germany.

    As a side note, Prof, I sincerely apologies for my off topic questions but I cannot keep up with you, :-), and attention of readers is out of sync, you plow the field faster than we can grow our crops and you destroy our crop before we can harvest, :-), sorry.

  5. I served 6 years as an officer onboard ships, and one of my duties was to oversee the rescue swimmer program.I don’t have firsthand knowledge, but I can safely say that sailors were not “diving” into the water as described.
    Our procedures for rescues at sea involve a rescue swimmer proceeding to the rescuee on a helicopter or small boat, each manned with a team trained for such operations. A ship that size might carry a half dozen rescue swimmers. No others would have been allowed in the water.
    Carriers are manned with people extremely knowledgeable about the dangers and risks of radiation exposure (they do have reactors, of course), so I can’t imagine they would have proceeded to that area without those dangers having been discussed.

    • My speculation is that this might be more of a “lawsuit of opportunity” by some of the sailors on board.
      Another note – it’s standard procedure not to run the desalination units with 3 miles of shore. If they were operated inside of this, it would have been highly unusual and they would have discussed the risks of doing so (including possible contamination) in advance.

  6. This report most likely bogus. . For the three units that were operating, these shut down (scrammed) as part of the design safety response following a severe earthquake. Emergency diesel generators functioned as designed, operating right up to the arrival of the tsunami until flooded-out some minutes following inundation of their low-lying compartments (in a building separate from the reactor building housing the reactor containment structures), but then further backup cooling systems (= banks of batteries) continued powering safety cooling systems for approx. one day until they ran out of power. Only then could core fuel elements and/or spent fuel pools begin heating-up….which then followed a train of events subsequently resulting in radiological releases. It seems implausible that any radiologically-contaminated seawater could have been present anywhere offshore of the Fukushima plant, at the purported time, even if Navy personnel were involved in direct immediate-post-tsunami rescue operations .

  7. Christopher M. Williams

    Matt, take a look at this and see if it’s worth forwarding to the attorney of these defendants.

    ” it is an open secret that the navy does in fact maintain records of what appear to be nuclear accidents, at least as you and I would use the word “accident”. These events, however, are not called “accidents” by the navy. They are “incidents” and “discrepancies”. And they are, in the words of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, “born classified”. While accident reports are frequently released by the nuclear navy’s civilian counterpart, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the navy routinely denies public access to similar reports because “there has never been an accident.” The nuclear navy’s principal oversight committee in Congress – the House Committee on Armed Services – has shown little inclination to question the navy’s claims to such a perfect record”.

    http://oc.itgo.com/kitsap/nuclear/clymer.htm

    A gift from GOD, not me. Sick the dogs on them ;o)

  8. Christopher M. Williams

    Or plaintiffs, oops…lol

  9. What volume of water could a radiation source of that size tritiate? I’m picturing areas and volumes and having a hard time imagining how the water could be anything other than diluted beyond danger by the time the radius away from the source ends up being any more than tens of meters. But you’re the physicist, not me, so I’ll defer.

    • Oh, I skimmed that too quickly. You were takling about atoms of cesium and such. But actually I still don’t think I necessarily see how the math would work out.

      • Christopher M. Williams

        See my post containing the link about how the navy covers up their own nuclear accidents in confidential reports never distributed to the public to maintain their “Perfect” track record. I highly doubt the sailors were radiated more by Fukushima than the exposure received aboard their own vessel. I may be wrong, but what if? Only a demand to review classified records owned by the public and hidden by the government will tell. It seems odd to me, Just saying!

        But in case nobody wants to scroll up:

        http://oc.itgo.com/kitsap/nuclear/clymer.htm

        :o)

  10. It’s hard to see a plausible narrative here. Firstly the area around Fukushima never reached the levels that were directly dangerous to humans, at least on average, bio accumulation is always possible although it usually takes significantly longer. Inside the plant those types of doses were conceivable, but not outside. Almost any rescue operation would have also had Geiger counters all over the place taking active readings. It’s possible that there was gross negligence on board the ship and they drank sizeable quantities of contaminated water, and ingested various compounds that then stuck for a few weeks and slowly poisoned them but then it’s hard to see how it would escape the measurements or failed to have been recorded. It’s also highly unlikely that cancer would develop so soon.

    If this turns out to be true and not some reverse placebo or opportunism, I would actually suspect foul play…

  11. I WOULD BET , the LAST thing a Nuc ship would want on it would be any contamination settling on it; and would have not made any fresh water either.I can’t think of any other ships in {the} area with more detection equipment and protocols .
    Thanks for the great articles DR Mat!

    • To that point, one of the claims in the lawsuit is that the Sailors were exposed to contaminated seawater while doing Countermeasure Washdowns (CMWD) on the flight deck. CMWDs are only done in threat environments where there is a potential threat of CBR (chemical/biological/radiological) contamination. That fact, by itself, shows that the leadership onboard were taking measures to minimize any potential exposure. These would have been conducted several miles from shore. In fact, any operation by a carrier would be several miles from shore.

      • Casey,

        I’m wondering if something more simple is going on. IF this large number of crew are sick and IF they are all part of the CMWD crew then maybe they are suffering from exposure to some chemical used as part of the washdown procedure? Maybe the crew was just lax when it came to proper procedure?

  12. Actually, this Nimitz Class carrier has a complement of 5,500 crew.
    I’ve been bombarded by troll swarms since blogging about it yesterday: they all use the same syntax to dismiss the incidence of cancers and internal bleeding.
    I’m not a conspiracy theorist but a serious Brit online journalist. The bromides these trolls quote are complete bullsh*t. In my view, this is a portent of worse to come….but make your own minds up from my blogpost:

    http://hat4uk.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/fukushima-breaking-75-us-navy-sailors-have-cancer-after-brief-visit-to-leakage-site/

  13. Two words: Castle Bravo

  14. George S. Williams

    I don’t usually read the New York Post, but followed a link to this article: Navy sailors have radiation sickness after Japan rescue

    The lead subject, a female sailor, claims to lose 60 – 70 pounds one month only to gain it back the next.

    I would have chosen a more believable set of symptoms.

  15. I am an Air Force veteran and served between the years 1974-1985 and the mortality rate in my unit is very high. My best died with ALS and I have similar symptoms beginning recently and so the DOD not be forthcoming is not such a stretch. As a Meteorologist, I am always skeptical of most statements but would actually want to know more about this as well. It seems largely implausible, then my friend’s death and my other friend having four heart attacks. I am curious, as you might understand.

  16. Recent news about Fukushima:
    “Fukushima water decontamination suspended indefinitely.
    Treatment of radioactive water at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant might be indefinitely suspended after malfunctions crippled the water purification process and recontaminated thousands of tons of partially purified water, Japanese media report.
    The failure in the system, known as the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), is the latest setback in Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s (TEPCO) uphill battle to stockpile radioactive water, which is ballooning at a rate of 400 tons per day.
    TEPCO said up to 900 tons of water, which had not been sufficiently cleaned in the ALPS equipment, flowed into a network of 21 tanks that were holding 15,000 tons of treated water. Not only have the 21 tanks been rendered unusable, but all 15,000 tons of previously cleaned water will now have to be retreated. ”
    Reference: Russia Today, March 20, 2014

    http://rt.com/news/fukushima-water-decontamination-suspended-089/

    The situation at the Fukushima plants is still out of control and will continue indefinitely as such. Handling of the accident is a continuous ad-hoc treatment of the disaster addressing the most urgent dangers, creating more dangers as side effects that are hoped to be (or to appear as) less harmful, at least for the moment.

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