In that relatively dead news time between Christmas and New Years the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that 8 sailors from the USS Ronald Reagan were suing the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) on the grounds that TEPCO had covered up the severity of the Fukushima accident and that, as a result, the sailors had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The sailors are suing for $40 million each (and for a baby born to one of the sailors after the exposure) plus another $100 million for anticipated future medical bills.
The Reagan spent time off the coast of Japan providing humanitarian assistance after the earthquake and tsunami. It is likely that the ship was exposed to contaminated air and less likely that it was exposed to contaminated seawater – the article also mentions that decontamination activities took place onboard and it includes a nice photo of sailors decontaminating the flight deck.
The sailors are claiming that they suffered from physical pain, mental anguish, migraine headaches, weight loss, ulcers, rectal bleeding, and lapses of concentration and their lawyer claims that they’ll need to have bone marrow transplants and chelation therapy (chelation agents help to scavenge metal ions from the body) and they feel that their lives will be shortened. And apparently ready to testify on the sailors’ behalf, is a toxicologist quoted as being ready to stake his reputation on all of this.
Personally, I feel a little badly for the toxicologist whose reputation is at stake, if he’s ever named in public. Here’s why.
First, let’s talk about the symptoms. Radiation sickness can cause blood problems – in fact, the blood-forming organs are among the most sensitive in the body to radiation – but the radiation dose at which the very first blood problems occurs is about 25 rem or so. Bleeding can happen as well, but that takes considerably more radiation exposure – about 700 rem and higher. Bone marrow transplants have been given to radiation accident victims, but not until they have several hundred rem worth of exposure. By the time a person is developing neurological symptoms they have typically received a fatal dose of radiation (in excess of 800 rem) and they don’t have long to live. I’ve not heard of radiation being responsible for ulcers, but I do know that the epithelial cells that line our digestive tracts are sensitive to radiation – gastro-intestinal syndrome starts to kick in at doses of about 1000 rem. And – key to all of this –these happen after acute exposure, in which the exposure takes place in minutes to hours; not over a period of days or weeks. The fact that these sailors are still alive nearly two years after their exposure strongly suggests that their symptoms are not due to radiation exposure.
By now it should be obvious that the key factor in a radiation injury case is the amount of dose to which a person was exposed, and the article cited earlier doesn’t give any indication of the dose to which the sailors were exposed. I can make an educated guess (and I will), explaining my reasoning, but it would be really nice to have a dosimeter reading to hang my hat on. But let’s take a crack at it…and remember that we’re not trying to figure out if the sailors were exposed to, say, 0.1 rem versus 0.2 rem but, rather, whether or not they were exposed to the hundreds of rem that would be needed to cause the symptoms cited.
The Navy claims that the sailors were exposed to “less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.” This comes out to about 30 mrem, or about 3% of a rem. For a number of reasons this number seems reasonable to me – here’s why.
First of all, let’s think about how much radioactivity there will be 100 miles out to sea. A lot of radioactivity entered the ocean, and it’s quite possible that some of this made it to a distance of 100 miles during the time the Reagan was on station. But – without wanting to sound trite – it’s a BIG ocean and the radioactivity dilutes quickly. In fact, seawater samples taken only a handful of miles offshore came up with barely detectable levels of radioactivity – it seems unlikely that the ocean the Reagan was sailing through would be so heavily contaminated that it could cause injury to the sailors in question.
Of course, a lot of activity was released into the atmosphere and a lot of this blew out to sea. But there’s a lot of atmosphere out there as well, and the Reagan is a pretty tiny speck in it. With shifting winds the plume is unlikely to have blown directly over the Reagan for extensive periods of time, not to mention the dispersion of the plume as it traveled out to sea. I was less than 20 miles from the reactors for three days, smack in the middle of the area that was most contaminated, and I was in Tokyo (about 150 miles away) for a week. I picked up more radiation on the plane flight to Japan than I picked up during my time in Tokyo, Fukushima, Soma, Iidate, Sendai, and Minimasoma. And by my calculations, people living in these areas wouldn’t receive enough dose to ever develop radiation sickness. So it doesn’t surprise me that contamination might be measurable on the Reagan, but only because we have the ability to detect vanishingly low levels of radioactivity – just because we can detect it doesn’t make it harmful.
On top of this, I’d also like to talk about Naval nuclear power – a program in which I spent 8 years of my life. I don’t think that many in civilian nuclear power would argue that the Navy’s program is the best in the world. And I know that it took me several years to de-program after leaving the Navy – to realize that the tight standards we had on-board were a bit excessive in a non-military setting. Many of our standards for radiation exposure, allowable contamination levels, radioactive materials security, and so forth were far more stringent than what is required by law in the US. Every Naval nuclear vessel is packed with radiation instruments – Geiger counters, air samplers, smear wipes (to look for removable contamination), and more; as well as automatic air samplers that alarm when airborne radioactivity levels rise too high. Not only that, but Naval crews are well-versed in contamination control, decontamination, using their instruments, and much more. On my submarine we practiced weekly for radiological emergencies and we used our instruments daily.
This is just a long way of pointing out that the Navy radiation safety technicians are very good at their jobs, even when there’s nothing going wrong. And when they know they’re being exposed to contamination they step up their game. My submarine was at sea (in proximity to the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast) in 1986 when Chernobyl blew – we received a radio message instructing us to take air samples every time we ventilated with outside air to look for excessive airborne radioactivity. We found elevated levels, by the way, but not nearly enough to be a concern.
So for all of these reasons – the huge amounts of dilution into the air and water, the relatively low radiation dose rates I (and many of my colleagues) measured on the ground (and in the air) in Japan, and the overall high quality of the Navy’s radiation safety program – I find the Navy’s assertion that the sailors in question were not exposed to even 1 rem of radiation to be very reasonable. In fact, any other answer would surprise me immensely.
So what’s happening with the sailors if radiation’s not the question? Well, I’m not a doctor and I can’t give a medical opinion on this – especially when I’ve not met any of the people and when all I have to go by is a short newspaper article. I have no doubt that they are suffering, just as I have virtually no doubt that they are not suffering from radiation exposure. And the fact that the radiation exposure needed to cause the majority of their symptoms is almost invariably fatal (and the fact that they’re all still alive to bring their lawsuit) strongly supports this assertion. I feel badly for these sailors – but I sincerely hope that their lawsuit fails. Being worried and anxious and playing on the fears and ignorance of the public and the legal system is not a reason to strike it rich, and TEPCO (regardless of their mistakes) should not have to pay for damage that they did not cause.