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Fukushima and the Health Effects of Low Dose Radiation

March 11 and 12, the Helen Caldicott Foundation is convening a symposium at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City, “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.”

Media attention may be brought to the gathering because of two US Navy navigators who will speak about their radioactive contamination while aboard the air craft carrier USS Reagan. They weren’t exposed by working around the carriers’ two Westinghouse propulsion reactors.

Navigators Maruice Enis, from Rochester, Minnesota, and Jamie Plym, from St. Agustine, Florida, were contaminated when Tokyo Electric Power Company reactors released unprecedented amounts of radiation to the air and the sea following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami beginning March 11, 2011. Four of Tepco’s six Fukushima-Daiichi reactors were wrecked.

This week marks the second anniversary of the triple meltdown and radiation disaster, and its radiation effects are being scrutinized in Japan and around the world.

Because of the catastrophe, which initially killed 20,000 people, the carrier Reagan was sent to Fukushima on an aid and rescue mission. As reported by Roger Witherspoon on his web log Energy Matters, the Reagan and its entourage were two miles off shore March 12 when Reactor 1 was destroyed by an explosion, on March 14 when Reactor 3 exploded and waste fuel in the pool of Reactor 4 caught fire, and on March 15, when Reactor 2 blew apart. Tepco told the world then that most of the reactors’ uranium fuel was intact, when in fact it had melted into a smoldering, radiating mass and was seeping through the cracked cores of the destroyed reactors.

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The Reagan’s carrier group, which included four destroyers, a cruiser and several support ships, was doused with large amounts of iodine-131, cesium-137 and other dangerous isotopes whenever offshore winds blew toward it. In addition, according to Witherspoon. the carrier passed repeatedly through large areas of highly contaminated seawater which had to be repeatedly flushed out of the Reagan’s cooling, desalination and ballast systems. All these operations exposed the Reagan’s crew of 5,500 to varying doses of radiation.

Enis and Plym are among a group of sailors (and the infant child of one of them) suffering illnesses they say were caused by Tepco’s radiation. They have joined a growing number of plaintiffs that have sued Tepco for “knowingly and negligently causing false and misleading information” about the condition of its reactors and the extent of radiation spreading from them to be “disseminated to the public and the US Navy.” In particular, the sailors accuse Tepco of creating an “illusory impression” that the radiation that had leaked or was dumped into the Sea of Japan was at levels that would “not pose a threat” to the sailors, “while omitting to disclose the extraordinary risks posed.”

Tepco has been especially bold and daring in its legal maneuvering, at one point arguing in court that radiation blown outside its site boundary was no longer its responsibility but belonged to the contaminated landowners.

Radiation Risk Denied by Both Japan and US Navy

The US sailors’ lawsuit rightly alleges that “The defendant, Tepco, was aware that exposure to even a low dose of radiation creates a danger to one’s health.” But ironically, the sailors’ own government has decided that low doses can’t be the cause of their headaches, nausea, tumors, tremors, internal bleeding, joint pain and hair loss.

After a two-year effort at developing a Medical Registry for the 70,000 US military personnel in Japan (Marines, Army, Air Force, Corps of Engineers and Navy, with families, at 63 installations in Japan), the Pentagon decided in January to cancel the program. Developed at the urging of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, the registry was crucial in establishing a medical baseline from which to determine if radiation had caused disease and debilitation, especially because some cancers have a long latency period before they appear.

As Witherspoon reports, “The decision to cease updating the registry means there will be no way to determine if patterns of health problems emerge among the [service] members.” Having done a surprisingly good job at setting a base line, the Pentagon simply halted the work, declaring that its dose estimates “were not severe enough,” so “there are no health surveillance measures required.”

If navigators Enis and Plym don’t win compensation from Tokyo Electric, participants at the New York symposium will have to redouble their efforts to refute the “illusory impression” that low doses of radiation don’t pose threats to health.

John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nonprofit nuclear watchdog group, and edits its quarterly newsletter.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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