12 Mars 2018
An article published by the Nation
March 9, 2018
7 Years on, Sailors Exposed to Fukushima Radiation Seek Their Day in Court
Special investigation: US military personnel are sick and dying and want the nuclear plant’s designers and owners to take responsibility.
At over 1,000 feet in length and weighing roughly 100,000 tons, the USS Ronald Reagan, a supercarrier in the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet, is not typically thought of as a speedboat. But on a March day in 2011, the Nimitz-class ship was “hauling ass,” according to Petty Officer Third Class Lindsay Cooper.
Yet, when the Reagan got closer to its destination, just off the Sendai coast in northeastern Japan, it slowed considerably.
“You could hardly see the water,” Cooper told me. “All you saw was wood, trees, and boats. The ship stopped moving because there was so much debris.”
Even after more then 20 years in the service, Senior Chief Petty Officer Angel Torres said he had “never seen anything like it.” Torres, then 41, was conning, or navigating, the Reagan, and he describes the houses, trucks, and other flotsam around the carrier then as “an obstacle course.” One wrong turn, he worried, “could damage the ship and rip it open.”
The Reagan—along with two dozen other US Navy vessels—was part of Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friends”), the $90 million rescue, disaster-relief, and humanitarian mobilization to aid Japan in the immediate aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. For the sailors, the destruction was horrific—they told me of plucking bodies out of the water, of barely clothed survivors sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather, and of the seemingly endless wreckage—but the response was, at first, something they’d rehearsed.
“We treated it like a normal alert,” Cooper said. “We do drills for [these] scenarios. We went into that mode.” She and her approximately 3,200 shipmates moved food, water, and clothing from below to the flight deck where it could be put on helicopters and flown to the stricken residents.
But that sense of routine soon changed.
“All of the sudden, this big cloud engulfs us,” Torres said. “It wasn’t white smoke, like you would see from a steam leak,” he explained, but it also wasn’t like the black smoke he saw from the burning oil fields during his deployment in Kuwait in 1991. “It was like something I’d never seen before.”
Cooper was outside with her team, on the flight deck, prepping before the start of reconnaissance flights. She remembers it was cold and snowing when she felt, out of nowhere, a dense gust of warm air. “Almost immediately,” she said, “I felt like my nose was bleeding.”
But her nose wasn’t bleeding. Nor was there blood in her mouth, though Cooper was sure she tasted it. It felt, she said, “like I was licking aluminum foil.”
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm local time, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck about 40 miles east of Japan’s Oshika Peninsula. The quake, the world’s fourth largest since 1900, devastated northern Honshu, Japan’s main island. At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located near the epicenter on the Pacific coast, the temblor damaged cooling systems and cut all electrical power to the station—power that is needed to keep water circulating around the active reactor cores and through pools holding decades of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel.
Several of the diesel-powered emergency generators at Daiichi kicked in to restart some of the safety systems, but less than an hour after the earthquake a 43-foot-high wave triggered by the quake swept over the sea wall, flooding the facility, including most of the generators, some of which had been positioned in the basement by the plant’s designer, General Electric.
Without any active cooling system, the heat in the reactor cores began to rise, boiling off the now-stagnant water and exposing the zirconium-clad uranium fuel rods to the air, which set off a series of superheated chemical reactions that split water into its elemental components. Hundreds of workers from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the station’s owner, struggled valiantly to find a way to circulate water, or at least relieve the pressure now building in the containment vessels of multiple reactors.
But the die was cast by the half-century-old design, with results repeatedly predicted for decades. The pressure continued to build, and over the course of the next two days, despite attempts to vent the containment structures, hydrogen explosions in three reactor buildings shot columns of highly radioactive gas and debris high into the air, spreading contamination that Japan still strains to clean up today.
And yet, despite this destruction and mayhem, proponents of nuclear power can be heard calling Fukushima a qualified success story. After all, despite a pair of massive natural disasters, acolytes say, no one died.
But many of the men and women of the Seventh Fleet would disagree. Now seven years removed from their relief mission, they’d tell you nine people have died as a result of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi—and all of them are Americans.
For the sailors on the Reagan who have spoken about it, the reaction to encountering the cloud was bewilderment.
“At first, we were still dialed in,” said Torres. “We didn’t really have a chance to take in what we were experiencing. It was more like, ‘Well, this was different.’” But when he came off watch, sitting in his office, his perception changed to “What the hell just happened?”
Cooper described the same response: “We didn’t really know what was going on.” But after about 10 minutes, the crew was told to go below deck. It was there, as she was first learning about the problems at Fukushima Daiichi from the television, that Cooper recalls hearing an announcement on the public-address system indicating that the ship might have been hit by a plume of radiation from the nearby power plant. Shortly thereafter, Cooper said, the mission got “hectic—just kind of a crazy mess.”
Cooper said the crew hadn’t been warned in advance of any radiation risk, and she didn’t think the Reagan’s commanding officers had any foreknowledge either. But after radioactive contamination was suspected, those aboard the carrier say, everything changed.
Everyone who, like Cooper, had been on the flight deck was ordered to the fo’c’sle, the forward part of the ship, to “implement decontamination.” Cooper said she was instructed to “take anything you can off without getting naked.” She was told to write her name on her discarded clothes and boots—which she saw being piled in the middle of the room—then the crew was “wanded,” as Cooper described it, and given “white, plastic painters’ suits.”
For Torres, news of the radiation came through the rumor mill before he heard about it from his commanding officer. “It was minimal”—that was the impression Torres was given—still, the ship’s meteorologist tracked the wind and talked with Torres about taking the Reagan north of whatever it was they’d just passed through. But Torres was soon instructed to head back toward the coast. They had a HADR, a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission, to complete, and since they’d already been exposed—though they’d take precautions such as turning off the ship’s ventilation—they were going back to where they’d encountered the cloud.
It was likely about this time that Cooper recalled being woken up. “I was asleep in my rack when I had someone shake the living shit out of me.” She said she was told with great urgency that she needed to get to the hangar bay immediately to get a gas mask.
As Cooper stood in her pajamas and flip-flops, waiting for her mask and filter canisters, she looked around: “People were shoving wet rags in the cracks of the hangar bay door so none of the air would seep through, and they had rags stacked high along the entire wall,” she said. “It was crazy.”
“After that,” Cooper told me, “our ship went from ‘OK, we got this,’ to, like, ‘Oh, my God… we have no idea what we’re doing.’”
For Marine Lance Corporal Nathan Piekutowski—who arrived several days later with the USS Essex, a Wasp-class amphibious-assault ship—there seemed to be some advanced warning, and he said his preparation initially proceeded in an orderly fashion: “They had us shut all the portholes, all the windows, all the doors.” Piekutowski said they attempted to seal off the berthing area and stayed inside while they headed toward Japan. He was issued iodine tablets—which are used to block radioactive iodine, a common byproduct of uranium fission, from being absorbed by the thyroid gland—and fitted for an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suit. He was also told not to drink water from the ship’s desalination system.
(Those I spoke with from the Reagan said they’d filled out consent forms for iodine tablets, but then never received the pills.)
Piekutowski wasn’t particularly troubled by these precautions. He knew they had plenty of bottled water on the ship, and, by the time they were near the coast, they were allowed back on deck with no special protection. “We were never once told to put on our NBC suits.” He had been issued big rubber over-boots and a gas mask along with the suit. “Those were in sealed plastic, like freezer bags,” he told me. “Mine stayed sealed till we got back to Hawaii.”
Torres, the senior petty officer, recounted, “One of the scariest things I’ve heard in my career was when the commanding officer came over the loudspeaker, and she said, ‘We’ve detected high levels of radiation in the drinking water; I’m securing all the water.’” That included making showers off limits.
Torres described a kind of panic as everyone rushed to the ship store to buy up cases of bottled water and Gatorade—“they didn’t want to dehydrate.”
Cooper also remembers the announcement on the water contamination: “We were like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” She was among those trying to buy bottled water, but said it was quickly taken off the shelves—reserved for “humanitarian assistance.” Instead, Cooper said she was told she’d be issued rations of one bottle of water per day. For the long, hard shifts spent outside, Cooper said it was not nearly enough. She said an attitude set in among her shipmates, “We were like, ‘Fuck that, we’re already exposed—I’m gonna drink the water.’”
“We didn’t know how else to handle it,” she told me. “Like, you’re exposed on the flight deck, you’re exposed in the hangar bay, you’re exposed in berthing, you’re exposed walking, you’re exposed eating—congratulations, now you’re drinking it.”
“You’re working up top for like 18 hours, you’re busting your ass off—you need to hydrate.”
Cooper described her days during Operation Tomodachi starting before dawn and ending after 8 pm, with one 30-minute break for lunch, using the bathroom, and any personal business she could squeeze in. “They didn’t want you coming downstairs too many times because it just took too long,” she said, describing a lengthy and isolating decontamination process that was supposed to keep her and about 20 of her shipmates on the flight deck from spreading radioactive contamination to the rest of the carrier. “If you had to go to the bathroom, you were pretty much shit out of luck,” Cooper said of the time and hassle required to get to the women’s restrooms one floor below deck. “A lot of us females had to hold it in—it was miserable.”
The long hours, the short rations, and the unrelenting tableau of death and destruction drifting by the ship combined with the constant reminders that they were exposed to an unknown amount of radioactive contamination wore on the crew. They felt committed to the mission, and gratified to help, but the threat of radiation presented an aggravating obstacle. “Every time we got close to do humanitarian assistance,” said Cooper, “we’d need to dodge another plume.”
Even when operating normally, reactors like the ones designed and built by General Electric at Fukushima Daiichi produce highly radioactive isotopes of noble gases such as xenon and krypton, explained nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who encountered the phenomenon when he worked at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Waterford, Connecticut, in the 1970s. Millstone’s first reactor was a GE Mark 1 boiling-water reactor (BWR), the same model that failed at Fukushima. (Millstone 1 ceased operation in 1998; two other reactors of a slightly different design remain in use at the facility.)
But, as detailed by Gundersen—who is now one of the directors of Fairewinds Energy Education, a nuclear-industry watchdog—superheated “cracked fuel,” like that in the crippled Daiichi reactors, “immediately releases noble gases.”
“And that happens before the explosions” that destroyed the three reactor-containment buildings at Fukushima, he said. As Gundersen sets out the time line of the disaster, fuel began to crack within six hours of the earthquake, and TEPCO’s plant operators would have known it. “They had to know,” he told me, “because when the containment pressure started to go up, that was a clear indication that the fuel was failing.”
So, in those early hours, pressure built inside the Mark 1’s containment vessel to a point where it is thought to have broken the seal on the massive metal lid, and, as plant workers desperately tried to vent some of the gas and relieve that pressure, a radioactive plume formed over the coast.
And as the venting failed and the containments on three reactor units ruptured and exploded, a volume of radioactive xenon and krypton estimated to be about triple what was released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, wafted from Fukushima Daiichi over the next eight days. “Eighty percent of the radiation went out to sea,” said Gundersen. “That’s good for Japan, but it’s not good for the sailors, that’s for sure.”
Marco Kaltofen, president of Boston Chemical Data Corporation and an engineer with over 30 years of experience investigating environmental and workplace safety, noted that sensors in Richland, Washington, nearly 5,000 miles across the Pacific, saw a sixfold increase in radioactive noble gases in the days after the start of the Fukushima crisis. Chiba, the prefecture east of Tokyo, nearly 200 miles south of Fukushima, recorded radiation levels 400,000 times over background after the explosions.
Closer to the release, Kaltofen figured, would be orders of magnitude worse. “A bad place to be is a couple of miles offshore,” he said.
When told what the sailors experienced in the earliest days of the operation, Gundersen and Kaltofen differ slightly on their interpretations. Gundersen finds symptoms like the metallic taste consistent with the radiation exposure possible from a plume of otherwise odorless xenon or krypton. Kaltofen thinks that indicates exposure to some of the radioactive particulate matter—containing isotopes of cesium, strontium, iodine, and americium—that was sent into the air with the hydrogen explosions. But both believe it speaks to a notable degree of radiation exposure.