U.S. Navy sailors and Marines dispatched to provide aid to Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 are now suffering a variety of rare and undiagnosed health problems, including many involving horrifying and visible changes to their bodies.
After the tsunami, the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, led by the USS Ronald Reagan, was diverted to the coast of Japan to provide relief work. The soldiers were not told that the disaster had triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, or that a radioactive plume was spreading across the Pacific Ocean.
Aviation Bosun's Mate Dagan Honda and Aviation Structural Mechanic Ron Wright say they spent all day nearly every day of the mission on the deck of the Reagan, loading supplies. For roughly the first week of the mission, the sailors were given no radiation protection.
"So these sailors literally were marinating in radioactive particles," said Attorney Charles Bonner, who is representing more than 200 sailors and Marines in a class action lawsuit against Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and several other defendants.
A litany of health problems
According to Bonner, the plaintiffs have suffered a litany of health problems including cancer, tumors, brain defects, birth defects, early death and a wide variety of undiagnosed conditions. These are "very serious illnesses for a very large population of very young people," he said.
Honda is one of the plaintiffs. Shortly after the mission, he began to suffer from unexplained fatigue and regular migraines, and a doctor told him his discs were rapidly degenerating.
Within a month of the mission's end, Wright began to experience a painful swelling in his groin. His testicles swelled to the size of tennis balls while he was still on the ship.
"When I asked if it might have something to do with the radiation from Fukushima, a doctor told me pretty gruffly no," Wright said.
According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2011, endocrine damage is a well established side effect from the Fukushima disaster: "All the endocrine glands are susceptible to damage by radiation exposure; however, pituitary, thyroid and gonads are most likely to be affected."
Other health complaints from plaintiffs include arms that swelled up like baseball mitts, cardiac arrhythmia, hair falling out in clumps, muscle wasting, whole body spasms, and feet that turned dark red and lost the ability to walk.
Seeking justice in court
According to Bonnor, TEPCO should be liable for the sailors' injuries because the company deliberately downplayed the risks from the Fukushima meltdown, trying to make it out as less than the nuclear emergency it was.
"They lied to the world and told the world that there was no meltdown, that everything was under control," Bonner said.
As defendants, the lawsuit names TEPCO and other companies that had a hand in building or operating the Fukushima plant, including Toshiba, Hitachi, Ebasco and General Electric. It does not name the Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense. According to a 1950's U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres Doctrine, it is not legal for soldiers to sue the government for any injury arising from their military service.
Even though it cannot be legally liable, the Defense Department seems to have been actively obstructing the sailors' quest for justice. A 2014 Defense Department report to Congress concluded that radiation doses experienced by the USS Ronald Reagan soldiers were "well below Federal regulatory limits," and that it is "implausible that these low-level doses are the cause of the health effects" since observed.
Defense Department doctors have also been notoriously unwilling to give diagnoses to the suffering sailors, perhaps for fear of what a diagnosis of radiation poisoning might mean.