Stakes high as ailing U.S. Navy sailors take on Tepco over Fukushima fallout


Soon after the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, Mike Sebourn says he began noticing changes in his body. First came nosebleeds, headaches and nausea. In August 2011 the symptoms worsened. Previously fit and strong, he began to lose energy and experience excruciating pain.

Today, the former U.S. Navy officer says one side of his body has withered. “My right arm is about an inch-and-a-half smaller than my left; my leg, too. Nobody can figure out what’s wrong.” After 17 years’ service on American military bases in Japan, he has been forced to retire — aged 37.

Sebourn fears his condition was triggered by his job during Operation Tomodachi, the huge relief mission mounted by the U.S. military during the March 2011 disaster. After the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant went into meltdown on March 11, he was dispatched to Misawa Air Base in far-northern Aomori Prefecture to check helicopters for radiation.

The work put him in close contact with contaminated aircraft for weeks. Radiation levels were high enough to require a mask and respirator, he says, but all he wore was gloves. “To be honest, I really hope what’s wrong with me is not radiation-related. But I know radiation works in slow decay. So I’m worried about what will happen 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Sebourn is one of about 80 U.S. Navy personnel — most in their 20s and 30s — named in a new $1 billion class-action lawsuit against Tokyo Electric Power Co. The suit claims Tepco was negligent about safety and lied to the sailors and the public about radiation levels at the No. 1 plant at the same time as Japan was asking for help for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

Citing the 2012 Diet Commission report on the Fukushima disaster, lawyers Paul Garner and Charles Bonner say the utility knew the plaintiffs were going to be exposed to unsafe levels of radiation because it was aware that the plant had experienced a triple meltdown, but chose to keep it secret.

The plaintiffs are dealing with the consequences, say Garner and Bonner, “with illnesses such as leukemia, ulcers . . . brain cancer, brain tumors, testicular cancer, dysfunctional uterine bleeding . . . and a host of other complaints unusual in such young adults.” The plaintiffs include a baby born with “multiple birth defects” to a servicewoman seven months after the meltdown.

“The injured servicemen and women will require treatment for their deteriorating health, medical monitoring, payment of their medical bills, appropriate health monitoring for their children and monitoring for possible radiation-induced genetic mutations,” says the lawsuit, which was filed in San Diego on Feb. 6. “Some of the radiological particles inside of these service personnel have long half-lives, from six to 50 to 100 years.”

Tepco and the U.S. Navy insist the amount of radiation released after the crisis was insufficient to have caused the range of medical problems cited by the plaintiffs. Neither would comment for this article about the lawsuit.

The stakes are high. If successful, the case opens up the possibility of claims from not just American military personnel and their dependents but potentially thousands of Japanese who experienced the fallout. Bonner says it has been filed on behalf of 70,000 U.S. citizens who were in Japan during the crisis, including 5,500 sailors on board the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier during Operation Tomodachi. “We expect more to join.”

Most of the plaintiffs were serving on the carrier, which arrived off the coast of Japan on a humanitarian mission on March 12. Garner says fuel melt in the No. 1 plant’s reactor 1 began five hours after the March 11 quake, “giving Tepco ample time to warn them off. “These first responders were entitled to know before sacrificing their health and lives.”

Lead plaintiff Lindsay Cooper spent much of her time on the flight deck of the Ronald Reagan during the crisis, about a mile offshore from the No. 1 plant. She recalls the constant taste of “aluminum foil” in the air during the days after March 11. “We just weren’t concerned about the radiation — our concern was getting food and humanitarian assistance to those that were in need on the coastline.”

Crew members aboard the carrier used contaminated desalinated water to shower and brush their teeth. Cooper says the captain subsequently announced that all drinking water had been contaminated. Later, when they tried to sail away from the radiation, the carrier was blocked from entering ports in Japan, South Korea and Guam.

“No ports would let us in,” she recalls.

Cooper says the radiation she ingested off Fukushima has knocked her thyroid “out of whack,” leaving her with fluctuating weight problems and disrupted menstrual cycles. Hoping for a second child, Cooper says she can no longer get pregnant. She too retired from the service for health reasons in 2011.

The lawsuit is likely to hinge on two key factors: how much radiation crew members were exposed to, and whether the bewilderingly wide range of symptoms — from inoperable brain cancer to chronic back pain — can be attributed to their exposure. Experts say demonstrating exposure is likely to be more straightforward than proving its impact.

“If the USS Reagan was offshore during March 11, 12 and 13, the sailors could have received whopping doses . . . as they clearly exhibit deterministic effects,” says Ian Fairlie, a respected independent consultant on radiation risks. He says the No. 1 disaster sent several big plumes out to sea on those dates. He calculates that most of the damage was done via inhalation and skin absorption, not water ingestion.

Even with such expert testimony, however, the plaintiffs face an uphill battle determining the exact extent of their exposure. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one U.S.-based environmental expert said establishing causation in cases of exposure to environmental contaminants — radiation or otherwise — is a major legal challenge.

“Of course we know that they were exposed to some (likely very high) levels of radiation, and that some or many of these illnesses may have been caused by that exposure, [but] it’s very difficult to prove it,” the expert wrote in an email. “And because it’s difficult to prove, it’s even harder to argue in a court of law.”

If the case goes to trial, scientists for Tepco and the navy are likely to argue that the symptoms do not match typical cases of radiation exposure, which normally trigger acute sickness in the immediate days and weeks after an accident. They will say that cancers would normally be expected to appear much later.

The first attempt to launch the suit was dismissed in December after a San Diego judge said she was unable to rule on a conspiracy charge against the Japanese government. Judge Janis L. Sammartino said she did not have jurisdictional authority to determine whether the government — together with Tepco — had lied about the extent of the disaster to its U.S. counterpart.

Sammartino left the door open for a second attempt but signaled a potentially serious legal hurdle. She said the plaintiffs must show — at a minimum — that the navy would have behaved differently “but for Tepco’s allegedly wrongful conduct.” Courts are constrained, however, from probing the decision-making processes of the U.S. military.

Garner and Bonner say the revelation, from former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, that meltdown was underway before the Ronald Reagan sailed for the coast of Fukushima relieves judges of the need to second-guess what military commanders were doing.

“The soldiers didn’t know that meltdown had happened,” says Bonner. “They were helping tsunami victims, totally unaware that Tepco was dumping millions of tons of radioactive water into the Pacific.”

Many of the plaintiffs are reluctant to talk to the media. According to Stars and Stripes newspaper, some have been threatened and harassed and “accused of being fortune-seekers” by their peers. But Mike Sebourn denies money is the purpose of the suit.

“I don’t want to get rich — I couldn’t care less. I want some kind of medical fund that will take care of us down the road if we get really sick.” Without a court ruling, Sebourn says, “There is not a single bit of evidence anywhere at all that says we were exposed to radiation.”

Sebourn is also worried about his half-Japanese son, who remained at his home base, Naval Air Facility Atsugi, in Kanagawa Prefecture, while his father worked up north. Atsugi was a “dumping ground” for irradiated equipment, says Sebourn.

“My son missed a month of school because he would throw up uncontrollably for 50 times a day. If it’s not radiation, I don’t know what else it could be. I just want to know what happened to us.”

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Enkidu

    You say:

    Lead plaintiff Lindsay Cooper spent much of her time on the flight deck of the ronald Reagan during the crisis, about a mile offshore from the No. 1 Plant.

    About a mile offshore from the plant? This is interesting because the Navy picked up its first trace of the plume at 100 nautical miles from the plant. (See http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1205/ML12052A107.pdf) Are you saying that the Navy, then aware of the plume, decided to position the ship one mile from the plant? No wonder that Ian Fairlie thought the crew could have received “whopping doses”. That’s what you’d expect at one mile.

    Remember, this is a ship with some of the most advanced radiation monitoring equipment around for the obvious reason that it’s a floating nuclear reactor. We know that they were using it. The Navy has even provided its estimated exposure to members of the crew, which were “well below levels associated with adverse medical conditions”. See https://registry.csd.disa.mil/registryWeb/docs/registry/optom/OPTOM_USS_RONALD_REAGAN.pdf . I imagine you provided this to Ian Fairlie when you interviewed him?

    For an interesting read, I invite you to review the actual complaint, available here: http://www.nextgov.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/021914bb1.pdf.

    The complaint is sure to make your head spin, with references to such outstanding sources of information as washingtonsblog, enenews, fukushima-diary, rense and globalresearch, which should give you some clue as to the author’s technical sophistication. For instance, I didn’t know that “radiation” had a half-life of 77 years, or that there’s a new scale for nuclear accidents that goes all the way to 8.

    As a resident of Japan, I owe a great deal to the crew of the Reagan and the other men and women of the armed forces who assisted with Operation Tomodachi. However, this complaint seems to be doing them more of a disservice than anything else.

  • Michael Radcliffe

    I can’t be the only person to be infuriated by the irrationality in this piece. We are surrounded by natural radiation all the time. It’s in our food, air and water. We don’t worry about this because radiation is all about the dose. But the fact is, Mr McNeill at no point attempts to report something as prosaic as the radiation levels recorded by the sensitive equipment onboard the USS Ronald Reagan. That omission alone reveals this article as simply a piece of hysteria, because the maximum dose received by anybody on the ship was equal to about one month of exposure to natural background radiation. This is hundreds of times less than is needed to cause health problems.

    Even more telling is wacky range of health issues that are being attributed to Fukushima radiation, many of which are completely inconsistent with radiation exposure, such as menstrual problems, weight fluctuations, and a magic ‘shrinking arm’. As for tasting ‘aluminium foil’, well, if you had that much exposure you would have been dead in hours.
    Did any of these people remember that they were onboard an actual nuclear-powered ship, with two nuclear reactors and a range of professionals trained to measure radiation and take protective measures if necessary? That maybe, just maybe, if there had been any genuine problem with exposure the onboard experts would have known about it? I mean, really.
    This suit is completely frivolous. You may as well sue airlines for exposing you to similar doses of radiation when you fly (they do). As for the idea that the claimants are not interested in money, I invite you to consider the amount of money they are claiming: 40 million dollars each.

  • Steve Novosel

    ““My son missed a month of school because he would throw up
    uncontrollably for 50 times a day. If it’s not radiation, I don’t know
    what else it could be.”\

    I feel quite sorry for these families. Not because they have been exposed to harmful doses of radiation – they likely haven’t, as people far closer to Fukushima Daiichi haven’t – but because nobody seems to be giving them reasonable medical advice. This man’s son was violently ill for a month and no doctor gave any possible reason for him to be so sick? Seriously?

    I wonder what is going on with the doctors at that base if that is the case.

    This article is a mess, though. The argument proffered seems to be “Look at all these sick people! Sure, their symptoms don’t match acute radiation exposure, and sure, it’s too early for the chronic conditions associated with exposure to unhealthy radiation levels to occur, but…. radiation!”

    There’s no empirical evidence of such a massive exposure to radiation, so why report as if there were? And if there is such evidence, why not give it? “What else could it be???” is not evidence.

  • Sam Gilman

    The actual story is this: a small group of sailors – using key scientific material by, amongst others, conspiracy theorists, fraudsters, a creative writing teacher, cranks, a neo-nazi and other anti-semites, as well as a clearly flattered David McNeill – have put forward a claim for damage to their health from the Fukushima releases that has pretty much no grounding in anything mainstream science and medicine has to offer on the topic of how various levels of radiation exposure actually affect human health. Their claim, if you read it, contains several errors and some clear scientific nonsense, as others here have pointed out, and demands astronomical sums of money.

    So why is McNeill trying so hard to give the impression these people have a serious case?

    About a month ago, the newspaper of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan published an article in which the author accused some of its members of journalistic malpractice. The accusation is that several journalists, McNeill among them, engaged in the deliberate rejection of mainstream science and mainstream scientific opinion on Fukushima in order to promote the story they wanted to. This article further substantiates that accusation.

    For non-science specialists writing on contemporary Japan, not knowing things like the necessary level of radiation exposure for, and symptoms of, Acute Radiation Syndrome before March 11, 2011 was perfectly excusable. We all had a bit of science homework to do that month to understand what the unfolding Fukushima accident meant for our health. However, for a professional writer on Fukushima to still not understand the health effects of radiation exposure three years later – as McNeill pretends to do for this article (he’s not a stupid or illiterate man) – is a good example of such malpractice. He cannot but know that these sailors’ alleged symptoms cannot be a result of any radiation exposure they received.

    Look at the claims: A shrinking arm? Really? Even the cancers: the doses they received (which, as Enkidu here points out, we do actually know) are too low, and the time frame (cancers take several years to develop following exposure) is simply too short. By God, if Mike Sebourn’s son really had received a big enough radiation dose to be vomiting so continuously for so long, he would have dropped dead in the first couple of days, not survive a month of it and then return to school. As Steve Novosel points out in another comment, are we to believe that Mike Sebourn or his wife never took their son to be hospitalised and get a diagnosis? Why does McNeill accept such an extraordinary story at face value? What happened to journalism?

    More importantly, it does not help Sebourn as a parent, or his son, or anyone reading, for McNeill to enable such wrong beliefs. Enabling a parent’s groundless fears probably does far more to harm his son’s health than anything else, as reports on the health of families in Fukushima have subsequently shown, and as we knew from the research into Chernobyl. To repeat: McNeill is not a stupid or illiterate man, and these reports are widely available. However, as the science is inconvenient for the story he wants to tell, McNeill makes the choice to reject it. This is a betrayal of the trust that readers put in responsible journalists. This is the essence of the accusation of malpractice.

    Of course, in addition to a mysterious anonymous expert (whose credentials we conveniently cannot check), McNeill quotes a “scientist” to back his story up. But who is Ian Fairlie, whom McNeill describes as “a respected independent consultant on radiation risks”? He’s an anti-nuclear activist connected to Greenpeace, who has been commissioned in the past to provide them with propaganda research. He earns his money from anti-nuclear organisations and as a representative of the anti-nuclear movement. He is as financially “independent” in the nuclear debate as the head of TEPCO public relations. His publications largely consist of articles published by various branches of the anti-nuclear movement. “Independent” here seems to mean “no respected scientific institution employs him”.

    Why did McNeill go specifically to Fairlie for scientific advice? Why not, instead, contact someone financially independent of both the anti-nuclear movement and the nuclear power industry? Why not contact someone employed as a radiological specialist by a university or respected research institute, who enjoys genuine respect as evidenced by a wealth of highly cited publications? For pity’s sake, you’re not a scientist, David, why not go to a genuine, bona fide scientific expert? I believe the answer is easy to grasp: McNeill would have been told that the sailors’ claims are unfounded, and he would have been denied the story that he wanted to write.

    McNeill consistently relies on fringe scientists when it comes to Fukushima, and consistently ignores or dismisses the mainstream. If he were to do this with “experts” from the climate change denial movement, or the anti-vaccine movement, or the HIV-AIDS denial movement, he’d be criticised in public by more than just one of his fellow journalists. What’s the difference here?

  • David McNeill

    Thanks for these responses. Some are very hard to understand. A $1b lawsuit against Tepco is clearly newsworthy, which is why The Japan Times has decided to print the story. It has been covered by Stars and Stripes, CNN, Fox, NY Post and many other outlets, sometimes much more hysterically that I have reported here. Are you suggesting we ignore it because we *feel* it has no merit and the sailors are gold diggers?

    The facts are that the Ronald Reagan was offshore during the Fukushima crisis and received large doses of radiation; that some crew members are sick and that they believe their illnesses were caused by their exposure. Tepco withheld information that might have led to other courses of action. The article makes no claims whatseover about the veracity of the crewmembers’ claims. I’m not in a position to make that judgement – that’s what courts are for.

    The US Navy and Tepco were both given opportunities to comment or refute the claims but declined. We quote an expert (you’ll have to ask her why she asked for anonymity) explaining the difficulties proving causality and Ian Fairlie, who is not, as some have suggested, a Greenpeace stooge: http://www.ianfairlie.org. He

    gave his opinion on the likely dose injested by the sailors, again not on the likely outcome of the case.

    I’m not sure why some commenators have dredged up the No.1 Shimbun controversay again, which is entirely different. The argument there was about whether Tokyo was under signficant threat from radiation in March 2011. Some commentators now accuse the NYT and other foreign publications of hyping that threat. You can find our response here: http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun/item/278-stop-it-already-counterpoint/278-stop-it-already-counterpoint.html

    Most foreign correspondents in Japan have grown weary of the constant barrage of criticism that now follows every article about Fukushima and radiation. The argument seems to be ‘stop worrying, everything is fine.’ Given the appalling history of mendacity and cover-up that the crisis exposed, surely it is better to have a skeptical media asking questions, even if we don’t always have the answers.

  • ChuKo

    The true facts on radiation toxicity have been carefully obfuscated for many decades by all nations committed to nuclear energy, medical radiation, and nuclear weaponry, such as the US, France, Russia, India, or Japan.

    The conventional medical-dental industries, along with the nuclear-military industry cartels, have been perpetually lying about the true toxicity of ionizing radiation, having caused the needless death of millions of people (discussed in The Mammogram Myth by Rolf Hefti).

    The distortions and disinformation about the alleged safety of (low dose) radiation or the purported lack of much harm to people, whether from medical x-rays or fallout from a disaster site such as Fukushima, continues to this day.

  • David McNeill

    Thanks for this thoughful response. You make a number of important points – esp. about Witherspoon, which I’ll take on board – I might go back to him with this information. On the quote about helicopters, apologies, it is in the Kyle Cleveland piece, cited earlier.

  • David McNeill

    If you’re accusing me of extra skepticism toward official sources, guilty. And with v good reason. They lie, all the time, as we know from Fukushima. I disagree I took the sailors’ claims at face value. I gave them space to air their claims, yes, but say unequivocally they are likely to face a hard time proving them. I agree that most science rejects claims of large scale contamination outside Fukushima – and by extension health impact. But that’s not the same as saying that these servicemen and woman could not have been affected by the fallout from Fukushima, when it was at its worst, if – as they say – they were close enough to the Daiichi plant to have injested a lot of radiation. I trust you’re as critical of TEPCO, which brought this disaster upon us, as you are of our ‘fear-mongering.’

  • Mike O’Brien

    Where do they assert this?

  • Sam Gilman

    Hi Roger,

    Thank you for taking part on this discussion. It really helps to discuss these issues.

    The distance from Atsugi in Kanagawa prefecture to the plant in Fukushima prefecture is around 300km – about 190 miles. I can perfectly understand someone like yourself who doesn’t live in Japan not picking up on this anomaly. I’m afraid your editors at Japan Focus, who really should know just where Kanagawa and Fukushima prefectures are, should have noticed and pointed this out to you. Think of a US “specialist” who believes Texas and Nebraska share a border.

    My question to you is this: Mike Sebourn makes some highly implausible claims about his limbs and about his child, and about the apparent lack of medical advice for either, in relation both to known physical phenomena in general, and in terms of what we know that radiation does to the human body in particular. He also gets the basic geography of Japan wrong, in a way which makes no sense for a trained serviceman. The court complaints themselves, and I’ve tried impressing this on Dr Mcneill with no success, rely in no small part on some horrible conspiracist sources. How much do you trust Sebourn’s testimony? He simply doesn’t seem a credible witness to me.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    “Two miles offshore” of where, exactly?

    There is a very big difference between being two miles offshore of Fukushima Dai-Ichi in mid-March 2011 and being two miles offshore of Ishinomaki. One would have been insane. The other would have been no problem whatsoever.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    As ex-military and somewhat familiar with ship-to-shore ops, I have no problem with the notion that the Ronald Reagan moved in close to the shore and was conducting flight ops from there. They were engaged in relief operations with helicopters for the most part – not fixed-wing assets. As a result there is no need to be maneuvering to keep wind over the deck.

    Helicopters are fairly short-legged, especially when loaded with cargo. Carrying a full load more than 200 km would be problematic, so you’d want the carrier as close as possible to the area where you were sending supplies.

    Helicopters are slow, especially when fully loaded. The further from the destination the carrier is, the longer it takes to get there and get back. If your goal is to make as many trips during daylight hours as possible (which it would be), you would want to make the trip as short as possible to minimize transit times. That means going in close to shore.

    Getting in close to shore does not limit operations in this environment, it enhances them.

  • Starviking


    I’m a resident of Japan. The quote from Seabourn leaped out at me, so I commented on it. Your use of quotes is exemplary, but if your piece contains inaccuracies then I should be free to comment on that. I didn’t know you were not resident here, so apologies for my harsh tone – it was unwarranted. I thought you had let his quote slip by.

    I think we can agree that Seabourn has stated one thing incorrectly to you, and through you to us.