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.

    • Starviking

      Is it a fact that the Ronald Reagan received large “doses” of radiation? I put doses in quotes as the ship itself cannot get a dose of radiation, but I get your gist.

      As for TEPCO withholding vital information, which I presume is referring to the meltdowns, did TEPCO know for sure what was going on at the time? There’s a lot of uncertainty when you can physically examine a situation.

      As for Dr. Fairlie, it’s his work which links him to Greenpeace. To be honest, reporters should use the word ‘freelance researcher’ instead of ‘independant researcher’ – I feel it gives a better description of what is going on.

      As for the Number 1 Shimbun issue, it is relevant. If previous work is shown to be inaccurate, which applies to Fukushima in spades, it must be either updated – or not referred to to validate a later point or article.

    • Sam Gilman

      First of all David, thank you for offering to engage. I look forward to your reply to the points I and others make here.

      Unfortunately, I have to start my own reply with a bit of a telling off. You make several accusations against your readers here that are quite unfounded.

      First you write as if we have said this story shouldn’t be covered. No one here at the time of writing has said that. For myself personally, I explicitly said that there clearly is an interesting story here to write about. Then, you make a strange claim about how we “feel” (your scare quotes) the story has no merit. No one here this far has made reference to their feelings at all in assessing the quality of your information; our problems are with your supportive presentation of health claims that run severely counter to mainstream medical knowledge – that is, the public propagation of bad health information. You also charge us with being people who want, as you phrase it, to say “stop worrying, everything is fine”, which – and I hate to be melodramatic here, but – given the deaths from evacuations, and the exposures to workers at the factories which certainly will cause cancers, as well as the terrible stress parents and children in the region are going through (which I linked to), issues I know all the commenters here treat very seriously, is really rather a thoroughly nasty allegation to aim at us. I’m disappointed you thought it was an appropriate accusation to make. Seriously, David, if you want a discussion, it’s better to address what people say, not what you wish they had said so that you could dismiss them without having to deal with the substantive points they make.

      Anyhow, let’s get to the meat of this: how much you think journalists have a responsibility to report, or not report, good scientific information about public health when reporting on public health issues.

      You seem to put forward the proposition that because you’re not asserting the veracity of these sailors’ health claims, you therefore have no journalistic responsibility to assess for your readers whether or not they are valid. It’s acceptable to leave them hanging in the air. That in itself is a depressingly low ethical standard for a journalist hold himself to. Do you really not aspire to be better than Fox News?

      However, the premise is not even true. Right here you say it’s a “fact” that they were exposed to high doses of radiation, when, as you know full well, that “fact” is in very serious dispute – it’s in the Stars and Stripes article you referenced. You quite clearly use both Ian Fairlie and an anonymous alleged expert as scientific ballast to the validity of the sailors’ claims. (By the way – your statement about your anonymous expert: “you’ll have to ask her why she asked for anonymity” – very funny. It’s good you can joke about this topic, David.)

      You shouldn’t even need an expert to check these claims. I’ll say it again: for someone in Japan writing professionally on radiation risks and public health three years after Fukushima, the level of studied ignorance required not to even raise a rhetorical eyebrow at, let alone challenge, stories of radiation leading to sailors with shrinking arms, instantaneous cancers, and parents who apparently can’t get a doctor’s diagnosis even though their child is vomiting fifty times a day for a month, (which, if from radiation, would be the precursor to death, not a return to school), is too much to be plausible. You’re not stupid, David and you’re certainly not naive. Not even one sentence from orthodox science on any of this for your readers worried about radiation? In what moral universe does this constitute ethical journalism?

      The thing is, the CNN report you reference states: “Medical experts are skeptical of a connection”. Why did you decide this wasn’t worth mentioning? Such opinions are found in other media reports too. Hmm. What else from other media reports have you failed to mention? Let’s see.

      – The case has been thrown out once, and has been resubmitted with some of the more lurid conspiracy theory material removed (as far as I can see, they have cut some of the anti-semitic, alien abduction and new world order conspiracy nuts in the footnote references) before resubmission. Out of curiosity, have actually you read either version of their complaint? You didn’t see the rense.com reference as a problem?

      – The Navy states clearly that the USS Reagan, a nuclear fuelled ship bristling with radiation detectors, passed through the plume 100 miles away, not 1 mile.

      – The Department of Defense has looked at the ship’s data from these sensors and found exposures less than one month’s natural exposure. Notably, the plaintiffs are not accusing the Navy or Defence Department of any wrongdoing.

      – There is, according to the Stars and Stripes article you reference, “criticism from their peers that they’re just looking for an easy payoff”. Didn’t you find that worthy of investigation? Two sides in dispute, that sort of thing?

      As far as I can see, you have pretty much failed to make an effort at balance, despite highly pertinent information not simply being out there for you, but that you’ve revealed you’ve read.

      I don’t even know what to make of you trying to dispute Fairlie’s connections to Greenpeace – you link to his website where his publications for Greenpeace can be found, as well as his article praising Greenpeace’s widely derided Chernobyl Consequences report. You can also find what can properly be described as his “stooge” report for the European Greens on Chernobyl, where they wanted to see more future deaths from Chernobyl than mainstream scientists were predicting and commissioned Fairlie and a friend of his to do the necessary. Fairlie is so (cough) “respected” that as far as I know, no serious radiological health scientist ever cites that report except as a historical oddity. I’m not aware that anyone even bothered reviewing it for a scientific journal.

      I’d believe it if you’d been taken in once by an anti-nuclear activist posing as a respected authority, but you do it consistently. In past articles you’ve cited conspiracy theorist Helen Caldicott and the disgraced Chris Busby as if they are respected experts, as well as curiosities such as high school teacher Arnie Gundersen. There is, as a schoolmaster might say, a clear pattern of behaviour. David, you’re a journalist. If there is one skill you’re meant to have, it’s checking out your sources. I can only presume, since I don’t want to call you incompetent, that you deliberately chose these people, knowing they are considered fringe, if not straightforward quacks, by mainstream scientists, because they fit your story. That’s why we mention Paul Blustein’s critique of what you do as journalistic malpractice. What he is getting at is the same thing I’m getting at here.

      Your second line of defence – that it doesn’t matter if you publish extreme claims untempered by proper scientific opinion, so long as you’re being “skeptical” – I’m afraid really is the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. It also ignores something really important that critics of your style of journalistic activism have repeated over and over again. I’m sorry if you find this wearisome, but it involves the health of a lot of people and I and many, many others think it’s very important. Despite the massive releases of radiation from the Chernobyl plant, which killed scores quickly, and probably thousands over a lifetime, research has shown that the biggest public health tragedy was psychological, especially with unfounded fear among a wider population actually unaffected by radiation – abortions, depression, suicides, alcoholism, domestic violence. It’s there in black and white in the Chernobyl Forum reports and in the broader scientific literature. And, as I linked to in my other post, we see something like this happening because of heightened fears in Fukushima.

      In Chernobyl this happened because we simply didn’t know what a large nuclear accident would do to a population. With Fukushima, the tragedy is that we do know better now about the dangers of unfounded fear, but some of us – more properly some of you journalists, David, honestly don’t appear to give two figs about this, so long as you’re being “skeptical”. I don’t mean you’re a callous person at all – I’m sure you’re not – I mean you ended up acting as if you are. I’m sorry if it makes you feel weary when we point out that you repeatedly get public health information wrong and always as an exaggeration. I’m sorry if you find it tiresome that we insist on good science rather than cranks. I’m sorry if you don’t like having it pointed out that your so-called “skepticism” never applies to the sources you like. I’m sorry if you think it’s inappropriate for educated people to question your understanding of science, and to keep questioning it if you keep getting it wrong. We don’t want facts hushed up. We want facts out there. Truth empowers people. However, it’s been very difficult for people to understand what’s actually happening and how it might actually affect them when there are all these well-to-do Tokyo-based journalists being “skeptical” and promoting pseudoscience and wild exaggeration.

      Let me finish with a quote from the New Scientist way back in 2011, which applies not only to your article here, but to your work in general on Fukushima. It’s not just me or Paul Blustein who thinks behaviour like yours is a serious problem:

      “ALARMIST predictions that the long-term health effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident will be worse than those following Chernobyl in 1986 are likely to aggravate harmful psychological effects of the incident. That was the warning heard at a conference on radiation research in Warsaw, Poland, this week.

      “We’ve got to stop these sorts of reports coming out, because they are really upsetting the Japanese population,” says Gerry Thomas at Imperial College London, who is attending the meeting. “The media has a hell of a lot of responsibility here, because the worst post-Chernobyl effects were the psychological consequences and this shouldn’t happen again.”

      I look forward to your reply.

      • David McNeill

        Dear Sam

        Thanks for your reply, which, sneeringly polite as it was, managed to accuse me of malpractice and sloppy unethical journalism.
        Not a good basis for a fraternal discussion and a depressingly low
        ethical standard for debate. For the record, I welcome discussion: I advised the editor of No1 Shimbun, Greg Starr, to publish Paul Blustein’s criticism because I thought we’d all benefit from an
        open airing; Greg was reluctant because he disliked the belligerent tone of Paul’s approach. I reply with my own name to the comments section under my articles in The Economist
        (http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2014/03/fukushima-three-years) and here – which is rarely done. Unlike anonymous, abusive commentators who fill up the comments section of newspapers, I’m known to anyone who cares to find out.

        To support your accusations, you select my JT article from this week, the No.1 Shimbun controversy and an article from the Independent almost three years old. Last one first: I have never
        interviewed Busby or Caldicott but cited them as one alarmist end of a spectrum of views about the severity of Fukushima. My citation of Busby called him a professor “known for his alarmist views” who “generated controversy” in Japan by saying Fukushima would result in 1 million deaths. I cited Caldicott as one of the most prominent of the scientists who say Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl. I think they’re both wrong but that wasn’t
        the point, which was about the difficulty of interpreting scientific
        information. As I tire of explaining to people, I don’t write headlines – and in fact often complain about them at the Independent, which also wrote the misleading sidebar.

        You could just as easily have selected this article about the remarkable bravery of TEPCO workers:

        Or this, quoting a scientist saying that Tokyo was as safe as London during the Fukushima crisis:

        Or this, playing down radiation fears in Tokyo and returning to normality:

        Or this, about sensational foreign coverage:


        this, where I try to play down public health fears on, of all places, Democracy Now:


        Or the dozens of radio shows where I was invited to hype the threat. But did precisely otherwise. And so on and on.

        On the subject of the No.1 Shimbun article, Paul Blustein’s argument was that Martin Fackler and I had overhyped Fukushima by suggesting that Tokyo was at any time under threat. His argument seems to be that because there were some people in the US State Dept. who “knew” there was no threat we should disregard all the views of people who thought otherwise. This included State Dept. and US Military Figures on the ground (http://japanfocus.org/-Kyle-Cleveland/4075), the sitting Japanese prime minister and many of his cabinet, and the first independent report into the disaster (https://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201202290078). Neither Martin nor I saw any basis at all for
        reversing our views and I still cannot see why this has anything to do with The Japan Times article.

        Ordinarily I would ignore obviously insincere attacks of the kind you mount but for the insulting assertion that I am being “taken in” by anti-nuclear activists. I have quoted far more TEPCO
        engineers, managers, government officials and nuclear regulators than anti-nuclear ‘activists.’ I’ve interviewed the head of the NRA, Shunichi Tanaka, two Daiichi plant managers, dozens of bureaucrats and MOFA officials and I have been on three tours of the Daiichi power plant – all easy to ignore if you pluck a few articles from the web. The Al-Jazeera documentary team that
        so upset Paul Blustein (and who I helped) went to the trouble of talking to METI, TEPCO and scientists who scotched rumors of a huge radiation crisis. Presumably all this proves I am pro nuclear.
        Presumably every time I report a claim by TEPCO I should also consult an anti-nuclear expert for an alternative view. That would be ‘ethical’.

        On the subject of Ian Fairlie, I don’t think that being
        commissioned by Greenpeace invalidates the opinions of an expert any more than I think that we need to rule out the opinions of people working for the government or TEPCO. From his bio: “Fairlie has degrees in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and in radiation biology from Barts Medical College in London. His doctoral studies at Imperial College examined dosimetric impacts of nuclide discharges at Sellafield and la Hague. In the past, Dr Fairlie worked on occupational health issues at the Trades Union Congress, and as radiation advisor to Greenpeace Canada. He has advised environmental NGOs, the
        European Parliament, attorneys and local and national authorities in a number of countries. Dr Fairlie has also worked at MAFF, SEPA and FSA on radiation protection matters, and was on the
        Secretariat of the FSA’s recent Consultative Exercise on Dose Assessments on radiation doses to critical groups near nuclear facilities. Until recently, he was technical advisor to environmental NGOs on BNFL’s National Stakeholder Dialogue.”

        On your specific criticism of him he replies as follows: “The fact that our report did not get critical reviews was a surprise for David Sumner and I: we’d been expecting hostile comments. The
        absence of them means the opposite of what this idiot is saying. ie the people who write scientific articles are mainly inclined to be pro nuke and their silence means we were broadly correct.”

        Presumably, from your complaint, if I had inserted a single line from a “recognizable” (pro-nuclear) expert I would have spared your wrath. As it is I wrote that: “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.” (INSERT ABSENT COMMENT FROM BOTH HERE).

        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. (INSERT COMMENT FROM EXPERT HERE SAYING THE SAME THING).

        Yes, I did read the San Diego complaint and can send it to you if you mail me at davidamcneill@gmail.com. The essence of the dismissal of the first suit had nothing to do with aliens and crackpots but because the judge felt that asking to rule on an alleged conspiracy by the Japanese government was
        beyond her jurisdiction. The lawyers and plaintiffs have removed that conspiracy charge and the suit has been resubmitted.

        On the subject of how much radiation the USS Ronald Reagan was doused with and its distance from the Fukushima shore, I agree that this is a difficult issue. We know from the Stars and Stripes article that the Navy was concerned enough by radiation to have ordered the crew to wash down the deck. We know that most of the radiation from Fukushima was blown out to sea (thankfully for the rest of us). We know that Congress is concerned
        enough to have told the DoD to look into the case. The testimony we have from the crew is that the ship was as close at 1-2 miles to the Fukushima shore before pulling back.

        Example: “We stayed about 80 days, and we would stay as
        close as two miles offshore and then sail away. It was a cat and mouse game depending on which way the wind was blowing. We kept coming back because it was a matter of helping the people of Japan who needed help. But it would put us in a different dangerous area. After the first scare and we found there was
        radiation when they (the power company) told us there was none, we went on lockdown and had to carry around the gas masks.”

        Or here (from a military figure interviewed in the same
        piece): “At 100 meters away it (the helicopter) was reading 4 sieverts per hour. That is an astronomical number and it told me,
        what that number means to me, a trained person, is there is no water on the reactor cores and they are just melting down, there is nothing containing the release of radioactivity. It is an unmitigated, unshielded number.

        As I say, I’m not in a position to judge whether the radiation these sailors ingested could have caused the huge range of problems cited in the suit. I suspect not, but I also suspect that the radiation caused some of the problems. Either way, it’s no fun interviewing people who are clearly in distress, even dying, then reading crocodile tears about the ‘psychological’ stress we cause by people who do absolutely nothing about it except tap away on their laptops having a pop at journalists.

      • Sam Gilman

        Dear David, I hope you’ve been enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

        Let me address at the beginning why I use a pseudonym on Disqus. Unfortunately, because of the feverish exaggerations of certain media outlets and the anti-nuclear blogosphere, speaking out about the poor quality of science reporting on Fukushima tends to attract a lot of personal abuse (and the occasional threat of violence). I know people with good science education who feel too intimidated to express their opinions on social media about the media coverage of health issues and Fukushima because of this atmosphere. When I get told to throw my family into the middle of a nuclear reactor and die horribly, I’d rather it wasn’t done with my partner’s and children’s real names. So I have my reasons, but I completely understand your frustration in not being able to look up who I am. However, because I’m pseudonymous, I do my best when posting to be civil and evidence-based (albeit without pulling punches – I don’t see how it’s setting a “low ethical standard” to make concrete criticisms of journalists), and to make it not matter who I am. I try to focus on what has been said and done in public. I’d like to put it on record I admire you for having to take such abuse from the ultra-right for your own journalism. Anyone who p****s those people off can’t be all bad.

        In that light, thank you for talking the FCCJ’s Number 1 Shimbun editor Greg Starr out of censoring Paul Blustein’s opinion, and good for you for revealing to the public that such Mr Starr has such tendencies. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a depressing state of affairs, especially with the atmosphere created by Abe’s secrecy laws, when the editor of the foreign correspondents’ own newspaper even contemplated doing that. It’s true Blustein’s piece is now being waved in your face, and of course, you don’t like it – but isn’t that the point of you, or anyone, defending free speech?

        To be clear: I’m not accusing you of being inhuman, insincere or anything like that. Instead I think you’ve made decisions in your reporting that I find very hard to square with the journalistic mission to inform. You’ve suggested repeatedly (I don’t know why) that I’m insincere and fake: actually, I care passionately about this issue. Not only does misreporting (ie greatly exaggerating) the health impacts of the Fukushima disaster harm a variety of people in concrete ways living in Japan, which I know from personal experience, it outright distorts and perverts the conversation we all have to have about energy, the immediate environment and climate change, which will seriously affect hundreds of millions of people if not more, and the effects of which we are already starting to see. Is there really anything wrong with wanting good science reporting on all these topics, and feeling passionate about it? I hope you don’t think you have a monopoly on caring.

        I hope we both agree that good journalism is about getting to the truth as best as we can. In that light, I want to look at what I think is the essence of Blustein’s definition of malpractice, since you seem not simply to reject the charge, but to not comprehend it, or see at all why some people might agree with it. It’s where a journalist:

        – puts forward, heavily implies, or presents without challenge, an account of the world, particularly when it touches on readers’ understanding of their health, security and wellbeing; while
        – withholding authoritative, particularly authoritative scientific information which contradicts or significantly undermines that account, or mentioning but disparaging such information without good reason; when
        – the information is something that a reasonably competent journalist should be expected to know and recognise.

        Is that clear enough for you to understand why a fair number of people think there is a problem with your journalism, even if you ultimately don’t agree?

        With regard to the medical claims made by the sailors, I believe these criteria are clearly met. No matter what rubbish most stateside journalists write about Fukushima, you have been living here and writing on Fukushima for three years, including on the health effects, and it really is unthinkable you don’t know the basics of radiation and health. There are plenty of reliable generalist resources explaining them. You say you’re not in a position to judge. Surely you are in a position to be incredibly skeptical of the claimed link between their symptoms and radiation, certainly to the point of picking up the phone and calling a mainstream specialist on radiation and health to check. That is what this journalist did here, in a very good article. Similarly, in your democracy now interview earlier this year, you talk at length about thyroid cancers discovered in the current screening programme without mentioning once a key central fact: that the researchers and other mainstream medical experts strongly believe the cancers discovered so far are unlikely to be a result of Fukushima radiation, and for well-known, evidence-based reasons. The public need to know that, and I genuinely do not understand why you thought that irrelevant. Maybe these researchers are wrong, but it’s not your call to judge them wrong by omitting this, especially if you also claim you’re not even able to judge that the sailors’ symptoms are plausible or not.

        Which brings me to a central issue: who to trust for information. People have been scared, which makes it even more difficult for them to wade through the deluge of competing information. It’s a journalist’s job to sort out which information is probably right. Gerry Thomas’ point about the media is this: you do not stand outside the Fukushima disaster. As a journalist, you’re part of what happens in terms of people’s health and welfare (I’ve personally had to deal with highly distressed people on the verge of making major life decisions based on flatly wrong information because of media giving people like Busby, Gundersen and Caldicott and worse the oxygen of publicity). That doesn’t mean there is a single party line (there is disagreement amongst proper scientists; you could go to someone like David Brenner if you want cherry pick at least respectable higher end estimates for radiation deaths), but it does mean that journalists should not indulge their politics or their need for attention by misrepresenting clearly suspect claims as reasonable. The public need good journalism here, not attention-seeking or veiled political campaigning.

        A straightforward case is who to trust over the doses these sailors received. On one side we have the US Department of Defense, an organisation under a fairly strong degree of democratic oversight. Although information may be suppressed as a military state secret, and there are scandals every decade or so to show for this (look at the Okinawa scandals now), to actively lie by producing false positive information is not part of the pattern. It’s too risky, and too difficult to maintain. The number of people who would need to be involved in manufacturing this kind of lie to cover up such harm to US serviceman is so large that we would be wandering into full blown conspiracy theory territory. That is, while it’s theoretically possible a large group of personnel, many of whom served along side those affected, are in on a huge cover-up, it’s unlikely.

        On the other side we have people whose reliability extends to using among their sources conspiracy theorist bloggers some of whom think Fukushima and/or the quake itself was caused by the British monarchy, by the Pentagon using a weather machine called HAARP, or, inevitably, by the Jews. One of their sources even in the revised complaint is a Hitler-worshipping English teacher living in Tokyo. The symptoms they say they have would ordinarily require doses so huge that a cover-up on that scale would be astonishing if not impossible.

        David – you chose the second group’s assertions about doses without reservation. Maybe you hadn’t originally looked closely at the two versions of the complaint, but even after being told that many of their sources were incredibly suspect, you still asserted that their story of high doses was “fact”. It looks like you don’t treat their whole story with the skepticism you proudly apply to sources that don’t support your general point of view. Do you think conspiracy theorists never lie?

        To be fair, you try to find a way of salvaging the idea of high doses. You refer to an uncorroborated report that 100m from the plant a rate of 4Sv/hour was detected. Let’s do some critical thinking. What would this mean for the Ronald Reagan? As Starviking alludes, the inverse square law means that at two miles from the coast (the closest the ship got) the reading would be at best 1/1000th of that if not lower; second, your own source states that the ship rapidly moved away (or did not approach) when high levels were detected by scouting aircraft (and not, as the claim implied, only whenever TEPCO said the levels were high), and in any case, the ship is covered in radiation detectors, and third, the complaint isn’t really even about that kind of radiation, it’s about radioactive materials from the plume being ingested, not the emanation of gamma radiation from the plant. So the articles you cite are actually not of any relevance to the claim. We’re still back at US Navy goes on the record saying up, conspiracy theorists making incredible medical claims saying down.

        I appreciate that at least some of them desperately believe their illnesses come from suppressed levels of radiation, and I understand it must be difficult for you having met them, to contemplate in public the idea that their cherished beliefs might be wrong. However, what about the people who get scared for themselves and their children when encouraged by uncritical presentation to believe these stories? This is not a fleeting scare as they read the article; it can contribute to long-lasting patterns of stress and negative behaviour with real health consequences. This is not a call to keep quiet about problems, but a reminder that you, as Starviking points out, are doing science journalism. “He said, she said” journalism isn’t appropriate here.

        Now, I think we can agree that one should not trust a scientific source simply because what they say accords with what you or I either want to, or believe, we should hear. Instead, we have to have criteria for trusting people that are independent of their scientific conclusions, and which instead focus on the quality of their work.

        When it comes to science, we both have a problem that we’re not trained scientists. We’re not competent to judge by ourselves who is, or isn’t a respectable expert. So we (especially you as a journalist) have no other choice but to apply a filter test of mainstream respectability: if a scientist

        – is educated in the correct area;
        – has published extensively in quality peer-reviewed journals, preferably being cited a good deal, and their work has not been subject to general post-publication savaging in academic forums;
        – their income is not dependent on the views they hold (direct financial ties to industries or campaign groups) but instead on the quality of their work – ideally employed by a university or well-established research group, and election to prestigious scientific bodies and so forth; and
        – no suspicions regarding their propriety have been raised, particularly by their scientist peers.

        then we can reasonably assume we’re in safe hands. Whatever this group of people says almost certainly represents decent science – which is why none of us here would ever say “everything is fine, nothing to worry about”, because that’s not what the best experts say. To repeat: this is not a demand for a party line: once the filter is applied, there will still be a range of opinion, which is necessary to report. However, we can fairly confident of locking out the cranks, shysters, oddballs and wannabe “Galileos”. Of course, some anti-nuclear campaigners and nuclear industry employees can be good sources of information, but they need to declare their competing financial interests, and it is imperative that they publish with good academic oversight before we put any trust in their conclusions.

        I willingly accept that you describe Busby’s views as alarmist. However, he is quoted in that article in two different places – as much as any other “expert”; You describe Caldicott as a “prominent scientist”, which she isn’t in this field (she’s a prominent activist) – even after Monbiot’s widely-disseminated expose, and after scientists for years have been calling her various synonyms of crazy. In terms of science, these two are barely on the spectrum if at all. Even before he was exposed marketing useless pills to the children of Fukushima, Busby had had his work in radiation reviewed and rejected as straightforwardly wrong, and on at least one occasion, fraudulent and/or hideously incompetent (look for the phrase “data-dredging”). When someone is “alarmist”, shouldn’t you do a bit of digging before you cite him? Can’t you even admit, in hindsight, that it was a mistake to give Busby and Caldicott such prominence?

        I understand it’s a problem for you that The Independent has poor sub-editors that provide headlines for your articles (for example, “Why Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl”) that are exactly the opposite of what you claim you intended to say, and that I shouldn’t take your choice to give prominence to Busby and Caldicott despite their lack of credentials to mean anything about your own views. It’s just that you describe those that disagree with Busby and Caldicott, which is pretty much all of mainstream radiation science, as being “on the other side of the nuclear fence” and “industry friendly”. That is, you gave a good hard nudge to the conspiracy myth, favoured by Caldicott amongst others, that the thousands of scientists around the world researching and publishing in the area, whose work goes forward for open consideration to organisations like the WHO when they compile their state-of-the-science reports, are scientifically quite compromised by the nuclear power industry. When trust has broken down between the population on the one hand, and the government and TEPCO on the other, to introduce an extra – groundless – layer of mistrust about international science in general without any foundation is simply irresponsible. Were you not aware at the time of the problem of trust?

        Which brings us back to Fairlie (who, by the way, was telling everyone in 2011 that Fukushima was worse than Chernobyl, and last year shared a platform with Caldicott at a big get-together in New York). I don’t know if you got permission from him to publish an extract from that email, but it’s quite revealing:

        “The fact that our report did not get critical reviews was a surprise for David Sumner and I: we’d been expecting hostile comments. The absence of them means the opposite of what this idiot is saying. ie the people who write scientific articles are mainly inclined to be pro nuke and their silence means we were broadly correct.”

        First of all, it shows that he believes in a conspiracy theory, whereby these thousands of scientists working in the area (aka “the people who write scientific articles”) are so impressed with his work that they (all get together? and agree to?) ignore it because of their loyalty to the nuclear industry. Secondly, it reveals that he himself believes he is not in the mainstream of radiation science (the mainstream is, apparently, “pro nuke”) – so he’s clearly not a respected expert amongst such scientists, but instead holds controversial views. Third, I think it illustrates again how your skepticism is applied only to ideas you don’t like. Here is someone saying that being ignored, unreviewed and uncited is a sign that everyone thinks the work is great. This is a laughable idea. However, you think this is such a good comeback you reproduce it here. Using silence to mean admission is precisely the same logic used by 9/11 conspiracy theorists – the government isn’t talking about it, so it must be true. You’re better than this. Journalists working for the kind of quality papers you do should be savvier than this.

        I’m not sure how such a number of journalists have ended up putting their faith in a small group of people that clearly stand on the fringes or outside of mainstream of science (what Starviking refers to as people “howling in the wilderness”). When I mentioned in my original comment a comparison with climate change denial and the anti-vaccine movement, I did it because there’s a similar thing going on there: a whole series of media friendly “experts” with their numerous earnestly-titled “research” organisations, who claim a conspiracy in mainstream science. To answer one of your questions: mentioning actual mainstream scientists here and there, as footnotes, as minor or disparaged counterbalances to the anti-nuclear talking heads, really isn’t enough. Putting aside your biases and beliefs, and using only sources that pass a quality test, is the best way forward in science writing. I think it’s what your readers expect of you.

      • David McNeill

        Dear “Sam”, I’m replying mainly to estabish one fact – Greg Starr did not try to “censor” Paul Blustein’s essay. Paul’s essay had already run in Salon. Plus, Greg was puzzled by the tone and central argument of Paul’s essay and raised it with me. There’s no conspiracy and to even put No.1 Shimbun’s freewheeling editorial policy in the same paragraph with Abe’s secrecy law is ridiculous.

        I’m not going to keep arguing with you over Caldicott and Busby. It took time to out Busby as a charlatan, and Caldicott was a fairly respected commentator on nuclear issues till she was properly grilled in debates and started throwing around her 1 million post-Fukushima dead figure. It was in my view entirely reasonable to cite them as scientific outiers in 2011 as we all floundered around in the dark. There are plenty of credible scientists hedging their bets on the long-term impact of Fukushima – Steve Wing, Paul Dorfman, Hiroaki Koide and others.

        To answer your last question, journalists learn not to treat official claims of anything at face value and to distrust the concensus on controversial issues. You’ll know that there is now a lot of pressure from the nuclear industry and its dependents to move on from Fukushima and stress business as usual. It may well be that the objective science on Fukushima is moving toward concensus on its health impact, and that the impact will prove minimal. As someone who lives here with a family, I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I suggest we all continue to exercise caution before rushing to judgement.

      • Sam Gilman

        There are plenty of credible scientists hedging their bets on the long-term impact of Fukushima – Steve Wing, Paul Dorfman, Hiroaki Koide and others.

        Only one of those three – Steve Wing – could be plausibly called a credible scientist with regard to this question, and he himself knows he’s an outlier (it’s kind of his shtick). To me, this an example of doing exactly what we keep saying here is a problem: failing to critically examine the sources you find to back up the story you have decided to tell. You’re setting yourself up to be wrong more often than is healthy for a serious journalist.

        Waiting until a scientific source is actively discredited a la Caldicott or Busby is not the way to go. Check they publish in good places on the right topic without being trashed, and develop an eye for a Potemkin CV. Busby and Caldicott would never pass this test.

    • Mike O’Brien

      No the facts are they did not recieve large doses of radiation. ANd obviously you have made a judgement about the claims by your stating that they recieved large doses.

  • 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.

    • Mike O’Brien

      And I guess that meanwhile all scientists and medical researchers in the nations that aren’t committed to nuclear energy have somehow been preventing from conducting studies.

  • 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.

    • Starviking

      No problem David, ‘thoughtful’ is what I aim for, but very seldom achieve – the net as a whole does not accomodate it well.

      Another thing about the helicopter piece is this: if the readings were taken at 100 metres, then most, if not all of the radiaton is going to be gamma rays. Alpha has a miniscule range in air, and Beta maxes out in the tens of metres for radioisotopes. To protect against radiation you can do three things, or combine them – Time, spend as little time exposed as possible. Distance, stay as far away as possible. Shielding, AKA get some protection. The problem is, it is very hard to protect against Gamma radiation and stay mobile, so if the helicopter story was accurate we’d be dealing with a far bigger story than people getting sick. The radiation levels would be akin to that around a used fuel rod.

  • 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.’

    • ” I agree that most science rejects claims of large scale contamination outside Fukushima – and by extension health impact.”

      Good, you’re making progress.

      “But that’s not the same as saying that these servicemen and woman could not have been affected by the fallout from Fukushima,”


      Yes, it *is* actually. The science is pretty clear. And even if you don’t trust scientists and official sources, just ask yourself this:

      There are a few thousand people on a CVN. If that many people are all on the same ship, in the same area, breathing the same air and exposed to the same environment, why are only a handful having health issues related to exposure to that environment? If the radiation levels were high enough to cause the kind of health effects cited, there would be a couple of thousand sick sailors. Not a few dozen. *Thousands*.

      If Atsugi was such a “dumping ground” for contaminated equipment there would be hundreds if not thousands of people with health problems. Not one dependent child who would, at best, have lived in base housing hundreds of meters if not more from any “contaminated equipment” – if the family lived on base at all.

      And finally, you repeat without comment the claim that the Ronald Reagan was refused entry to Japanese or other ports after participating in Operation Tomodachi. This claim can be proved patently false with a 2 minute search of the internet: the Ronald Reagan went from Operation Tomodachi directly to a prescheduled exercise near Okinawa (Exercise Malabar 2011) from April 2 to April 9, and then directly to Sasebo on April 19, 2011. There were no port calls between Operation Tomodachi and Exercise Malabar, true, but not because the Ronald Reagan was “refused”. There were no port calls because the ship had commitments to fulfill – and once those commitments were met, the Ronald Reagan immediately made a port call, which was covered not only by the US Navy but by Kyodo News and local media outlets.

  • 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.

    • Roger6T6

      I do not have a lot of patience with people who challenge the credibility of service men and women who became ill during or immediately after their service. Do you also think the young woman with the brain tumor fabricated that? Each of the people I interviewed were seen by physicians and have medical documentation to back up their condition.The health problems exist.

      Whether or not it is attributable directly to varying levels of exposure to radiation is not for me to determine. There is, however, a history of the United States government placing military personnel in harms way and then denying it. Look up the history of treatment of the military in the early days of nuclear testing; the experience of personnel exposed to Agent Orange; or more recent experience from Gulf War Syndrome to the debilitating ailments afflicting the workers in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

      I do not have a lot of respect for those who, from a comfortable distance, cast aspersions on people who risked their lives for this country on a daily basis and are definitely sick. The US Government went through a lot to develop the initial Tomodachi Registry, and is compiling data on patterns emerging among the military personnel.

      It is not for me to determine the epidemiological roots of their various conditions. Anyone who reads a story of mine is welcome to decide for themselves what or who they want to believe. I quote two navigators saying they put the ship 2 miles offshore. If you chose to believe they lied, that is your right. They were in a position to know and, therefor, I quoted them. I would not have quoted someone who worked below decks, for example, stating they thought they were just two miles offshore.

      I quote people at length and in context so readers can judge their credibility. Feel free to do so.

      Lastly, you asked my personal opinion.
      I do not give one. Ever.
      The government has asked for the opportunity to explain in depth how it is monitoring the ongoing health of 70,000 Americans potentially exposed to radiation from Fukushima to see if any patterns develop. You can read that in an upcoming issue.

      In the meantime, Americans who were there, working on contaminated aircraft, breathing the air and drinking water the Navy acknowledges was contaminated at one point, are getting sick. You may be prescient enough to proclaim that it is either a coincidence or a lie.

      I simply report the condition.

      Roger Witherspoon

      • “I do not have a lot of respect for those who, from a comfortable distance, cast aspersions on people who risked their lives for this country on a daily basis and are definitely sick.”

        As ex-military, neither do I. However when their shipmates come forward, as several have, and say “No, that didn’t happen” or “Yes, we had a rash of gastrointestinal problems as they (the plaintiffs) say, and it was caused by bad chicken we took aboard in Thailand” that just adds to the issues with the plaintiffs claims.

        The science does not back them up.

        Common sense does not back them up – out of 6000 people on the Ronald Reagan, why are only a couple of dozen sick if the whole ship was irradiated? Why are other people who were working on the flight deck during the same period, and there were many of them, not affected in the least?

        Their own shipmates won’t back them up.

        I have issues with armchair quarterbacks, sure. But I also know that just because someone is military or ex-military that does not mean that their version of events is automatically the correct one. If every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine was 100% truthful all of the time we wouldn’t have needed the UCMJ.

      • Sam Gilman

        Dear Roger,

        When you describe the people here as criticising “from a comfortable distance”, what do you mean? As far as I know, we all live in Japan. We have all been very clear that the issue for us is the prevention of baseless fear. We’re not sniping, we’re genuinely worried for vulnerable people who have not infrequently been exploited by the media, particularly foreign-language and overseas journalists, for exciting copy. The truth or otherwise of these allegations is of vital interest.

        I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but this needs to be said again and again and again to journalists: Fear of radiation kills people. It ruins lives. I understand that you have no familiarity with the effects of radiation on the human body, but if what these soldiers are claiming is true, thousands of people in Japan as well as thousands of US service personnel are at serious risk of early death who didn’t know it. That’s the implication of these claims. However, if the radiation-illness claims are not true – and medical experts say they are not, and all the radiation data we have indicates they’re not – but people are led into believing them by reading intentionally uncritical accounts like yours and Dr McNeill’s and begin to display the kinds of post-Chernobyl symptoms found in populations unaffected by radiation but literally debilitated by fear, would you still be happy to say “I was just reporting what they said”? There were rises in birth defects in Ukraine following Chernobyl. However, they weren’t from radiation. They were from increased alcoholism, with mothers erroneously (as it turned out) convinced by, amongst others, the media, that their babies were going to be deformed. The abortion rate across Europe peaked that year, involving mothers unaffected by radiation, but affected by fear, a lot of which was spread by the media. This is a really serious matter. I beg you, don’t presume we are just lazily sniping at a story that doesn’t matter to us or the people around us. Dr McNeill makes a habit of that and I’m afraid it really doesn’t reflect well on him.

        As GMainwaring explains, there other other servicemen and women who have expressed skepticism about this complaint. This is most certainly not a general attack on the integrity of US service personnel. We are all eternally grateful for those serving in operation Tomodachi, and I’m certainly grateful for the American presence in Japan in general. In addition to the doubts expressed by US servicemen, American journalists have consulted American medical experts who have cast very strong doubts on the medical claims made by the complainants. And, as we’ve pointed out, there are some dubious sources used for their claims (you can find them in documents submitted to the courts), including racist conspiracy theorists. There is clearly another side to this story that shouldn’t be shut down by appeals to one’s own patriotism.

        To be clear: we’re not saying that those sailors who claim they have conditions such as brain tumours and leukaemia are lying. I’m sure they have these conditions. The issue – and it’s been repeated many times here – is that the conditions people claim to have in the time frame they say they have acquired them are NOT consonant with radiation exposure in 2011. You simply don’t get cancers that fast from radiation exposure. As for Mike Sebourn in particular, rapidly shrinking limbs in a fully grown adult is certainly not a known effect of radiation; to be honest, having searched the medical database PubMed, I’m not sure it’s a known condition at all.

        There’s something I don’t quite understand about your approach to telling this story. I wonder if you could clarify something:

        a) You say that you report the whole context of these sailors’ claims about high level radiation exposure and subsequent illness and then let the readers decide.
        b) You confess you don’t have the knowledge or understanding of science and medicine that would allow you yourself to decide.
        c) However, when people who have sought out the knowledge to make a such a judgement go ahead and make that judgement and say “I don’t believe these claims”, you react with quite unpleasant hostility – this is clearly not the reader reaction you wanted from your writing.

        Forgive me, but it looks like you actually want people to believe the sailors’ claims of high doses and radiation-caused illnesses, only you don’t want to take any responsibility for implying the claims are true. Could you clarify your position on the reader’s right to decide?

  • “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.

  • 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.

    • David McNeill

      Dear all

      Just a note to say thank you for your comments. Despite the tetchiness of some posts – my own included – I think it has been productive. I’m curious enough to follow up on some of the Qs raised here. There is no question that these crewmembers are sick but I don’t know why other crewmembers aboard the RR have stayed healthy. One of the key problems with this piece was that the Navy refused to comment. “GMainwaring,” if you are in touch with crewmembers who have an alternative story to tell perhaps you could drop me a line: davidamcneill@gmail.com.

      • I think you still have the stick the wrong way around, David. The question is not “why have other crew members aboard the Ronald Reagan stayed healthy”, for we know why: they were not exposed to sufficient radiation to make them, or anyone else, ill.

        The question is: why are the plaintiffs ill. And I do believe them if they have the medical records to back them up, which at least some appear to. We know what it is not, so the question remains what is doing it?

        By continuing to phrase it as “Why are their cremates healthy?” you are still presenting it as a given that these people were irradiated, badly, that that is what is causing their health issues and therefore it is the healthy people that are the odd men out.

        Which, as I said, is turning things exactly the wrong way around.

      • David McNeill

        Thanks again. I would like to talk to more crew members, esp. those who dispute the narrative presented here. So as I say if you’re in touch with any, or know how I can get in touch, do let me know.