Fukushima fallout: What's next for sailors who were exposed?

Hundreds of sailors and Marines, some from right here in the Northwest, are in the fight of their lives, battling a baffling mix of diseases they say came from radiation exposure. And it all started with a mission of mercy in 2011; bringing life-saving supplies to survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Some sailors insist the contamination lasted long after Operation Tomodachi ended.

March 2011, it was easy to see the physical devastation of the massive earthquake and tsunami that reached heights of 128 feet in some areas. Impossible to spot but just as frightening, were clouds of radiation from meltdowns and explosions at the crippled Fukushima Nuclear plant. Japan's Science Ministry detected radiation 25 miles inland from the plant at 400 times normal levels. But prevailing winds carried most of the radiation out to sea where the US Navy's 7th fleet, led by the USS Ronald Reagan, was stationed on a humanitarian mission to help the Japanese people.

"The Reagan initially docked within about two miles of shore," said attorney Charles Bonner, who represents more than 200 sailors and Marines. He's suing plant owner and operator TEPCO for debilitating illnesses they say came from exposure to Fukushima's radiation. "And even at 100 nautical miles they were taking on 30 times more radiation than is normal," he said.

Even sailors who joined the 7th Fleet immediately after Operation Tomodachi say they were affected. "I was on board the USS Germantown," said former sailor Thomas McCants, who joined the 7th Fleet as a gunner's mate right after the Japanese mission of mercy.

Like his identical twin, McCants says he'd always been the picture of health; an athletic teenager who competed in varsity sports and loved the Navy. "I wanted nothing more than to travel the world and get to see it for myself and serve my country." But McCants says after just a few months aboard the Germantown he grew sicker and sicker. He says he had no appetite and battled constant fatigue. He went to his superior, "and I broke down into tears and I said, 'Senior Chief, I'm sick. I need help. Something's wrong.' "

But McCants says rather than sending him to a doctor or doing any medical tests, the Navy sent him to a psychologist and then offered an honorable discharge, which he took. "I felt like a total failure," McCants said.

But McCants' symptoms continued to worsen, and after a civilian doctor took blood tests, he had a diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia or CML. McCants says the doctor's first question was if he'd ever been exposed to massive amounts of radiation. His answer? "The only time that I have ever had a chance of being exposed to radiation in my entire life is from Japan."

The American Cancer Society says exposure to high dose radiation, such as in a nuclear reactor accident, is the only known environmental risk factor for CML. McCants points to his identical twin, who is still healthy and who is now three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. "The interesting fact about my story is I got to the ship after Tomodachi and I still got sick with a cancer that's only caused by radiation."

The Department of Defense is not a party to the lawsuit. But in a report to Congress last summer it confirmed that, "the Ronald Reagan encountered the radioactive plume from Fukushima...on March 13." It also put together radiation dose estimates for every ship in the 7th Fleet and adds, "we believe it is implausible that these low-level doses are the cause of the health effects reported by the ....sailors."

Attorney Bonner says the Navy is just wrong. "The fallacy of that is that low levels of radiation are just as dangerous as high levels."

Navy photos at the time show radiation crews decontaminating filters and scanning personnel. They also show sailors decontaminating the flight deck with wash downs, though the only protective gear seen is gloves and booties. But the DOD report also admits it is still finding and removing radiation. And Bonner says that is how sailors like McCants got sick even after Operation Tomadachi. "They literally were marinating in a toxic stew inside of these closed compartments."

McCants faces a lifetime of chemotherapy or the risk of a bone marrow transplant in hopes of a cure. He's speaking out now to support other sailors who he says may be even sicker and in hopes of forcing TEPCO to take responsibility. "We all became wounded warriors without even knowing it and it was strictly because they told us it was safe and it wasn't."

In an email response to our request for information TEPCO said it is thankful to the United States for coming to Japan's aid; but regarding any sailors' illnesses the company referred us to the conclusions in the DOD report.

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