• Abandoned by U.S. Government, Irradiated Servicemembers Turn to Japan for Help

    July 11, 2017 // 24 Comments »

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    It was a rescue mission, but one that years later turned the tables on victim and rescuer. Abandoned by their own government, American servicemembers who came to the aid of Japanese disaster victims will now benefit from a fund set up for them by a former prime minister.

    Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 in Japan, it quickly became clear the rescue work needed far outstripped the capabilities of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. The tsunami, whose waves reached heights of 130 feet, crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, shutting down its cooling system and causing a nuclear meltdown that devastated the immediate area and at one point threatened to send a radioactive cloud over much of the nation.

    Operation Tomadachi

    The United States quickly dispatched an entire aircraft carrier group, centered on the USS Ronald Reagan, some 25 ships, for what came to be known as Operation Tomadachi (Friend). The U.S. provided search and rescue, and medical aid. Thousands of American military personnel assisted Japanese people in desperate need.

    But it did not take long before the problems started.


    The Aftermath

    Military personnel soon began showing signs of radiation poisoning, including symptoms rare in young men and women: rectal bleeding, thyroid problems, tumors, and gynecological bleeding. Within three years of the disaster, young sailors began coming down with leukemia, and testicular and brain cancers. Hundreds of U.S. military personnel who responded to Fukushima reported health problems related to radiation.

    Some of those affected had worked in the area of the nuclear disaster, some had flown over it, many had been aboard ships that drew water out of the contaminated ocean to desalinate for drinking. All personnel were denied any special compensation by the U.S. government, who referred back to Japanese authorities’ reports of relatively low levels of radiation, and to the military’s own protective efforts.

    In a final report to Congress, the Department of Defense claimed personnel were exposed to less radiation than a person would receive during an airplane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The Defense Department stated due to the low levels of radiation “there is no need for a long-term medical surveillance program.”

    However, five years after the disaster and more than a year after its final report, a Navy spokesperson admitted that 16 U.S. ships from the relief effort remain contaminated. However, the Navy continued, “the low levels of radioactivity that remain are in normally inaccessible areas that are controlled in accordance with stringent procedures.”



    Other Parts of the U.S. Government Reacted Very Differently to the Threat

    On March 16, five days after the meltdown, the State Department authorized the voluntary departure from Japan of eligible family members of government personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and other State Department facilities.

    Ten days later, the U.S. military moved over 7,000 military family members out of Japan under what was also called a “voluntary departure.” The effort, codenamed Operation Pacific Passage, also relocated close to 400 military pets.

    And around the same time, the American Embassy repeated a Japanese government warning to parents about radioactive iodine being detected in the Tokyo drinking water supply. Tokyo is about 150 miles away from the Fukushima disaster site.



    U.S. Servicemembers Sue the Nuclear Plant Owner

    After receiving no help from their own government, in 2013 a group of U.S. servicemembers (now numbering 400; seven others have died while the lawsuit winds its way through the courts) filed a lawsuit against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, the owner of the nuclear plant) seeking more than two billion dollars.

    The suit contends TEPCO lied about the threat to those helping out after the nuclear disaster, withholding some information and downplaying the dangers. The suit requests $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also requests a fund for health monitoring and medical expenses of one billion dollars.

    It is unclear when the lawsuit will reach a decision point, one which, if it implicates TEPCO, will then begin another long legal journey through the appeals process. A resolution will take years.



    Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Steps Up

    However, while the U.S. government seemingly abandoned its servicemembers, and TEPCO hides behind lawyers, one unlikely person has stepped up to offer at least some monetary help with victims’ medical bills: former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

    Koizumi left office five years before the Fukushima disaster, but has what many feel is a sense of national guilt over how the Americans were treated. In May 2016, Koizumi broke down in tears as he made an emotional plea of support for U.S. Navy sailors beset by health problems, saying “U.S. military personnel who did their utmost in providing relief are now suffering from serious illnesses. We cannot ignore the situation.”

    The former prime minister had become a vocal opponent of nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown. He responded to a request from a group supporting the TEPCO lawsuit plaintiffs and flew to the United States to meet with the veterans.

    Koizumi later told reporters he has set up a special fund to collect private donations for the former service members, with the goal of collecting one million dollars. Koizumi has already raised $400,000 through lecture fees.

    “I felt I had to do something to help those who worked so hard for Japan,” he said. “Maybe this isn’t enough, but it will express our gratitude, that Japan is thankful.”



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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Fukushima Children Suffer from Thyroid Cancer 20-50x Normal Rate

    November 28, 2015 // 7 Comments »

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    A new study says children living near the Fukushima nuclear meltdown site have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a rate 20 to 50 times that of children elsewhere.

    The difference contend undermines the Japanese government’s position that more cases have been discovered in the area only because of stringent monitoring.

    Fukushima Children Suffer Thyroid Cancer 20-50x Normal Rate

    “This is more than expected and emerging faster than expected,” lead author Toshihide Tsuda told The Associated Press. “This is 20 times to 50 times what would be normally expected.” Children are particularly susceptible because their thyroids are growing rapidly.

    Residents of Fukushima prefecture in northeast Japan should be monitored in the same way as survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say the researchers, who offer one of the most pessimistic assessments so far of the health implications of the world’s second worst nuclear disaster.

    The new information is far from unexpected.

    A screening program in 2012 found 36 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture had abnormal (though not necessarily cancerous) cysts or nodules in their thyroid glands. As of August 2013, 40 children were found to have actual thyroid and other cancers in Fukushima prefecture.

    The new study was released online this week and is being published in the November issue of Epidemiology, produced by the Herndon, Virginia-based International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. The data comes from tests overseen by Fukushima Medical University. It is significant that the published version of this comes from a journal outside of Japan; the story seems to have received little play in Japanese mainstream media. Flagship NHK News, a quasi-government organization, does not appear to be covering it in any detail. The largest media outlet offering noteable coverage appears to be left-of-center Asahi news.



    But Critics Say Little Reason for Concern

    Critics contend that no causal link has been established between the release of radiation and the cancers, leaving open the possibility of a statistical anomaly or an as yet unknown precipitator. A somewhat disingenuous report by Japan’s Institute of Radiological Sciences found some children living close to the plant were exposed to “lifetime” doses of radiation to their thyroid glands unrelated to the nuclear meltdown. Looking harder with routine check-ups, some say, leads to discovery of more tumors, inflating the tallies in a so-called “screening effect.”

    David J. Brenner, professor of radiation biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, took a different view. While he agreed individual estimates on radiation doses are needed, he said the higher thyroid cancer rate in Fukushima is “not due to screening. It’s real.”



    Background on the Disaster

    The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The earthquake caused electrical and equipment failures at the plant, cutting off cooling to the nuclear reactors. Emergency backup diesel generators came online, and operated until the tsunami destroyed the generators, due to their location in unhardened low-lying areas. This triggered the release of radioactive materials. Though classified as the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, almost from the beginning Japanese and American authorities sought to downplay its danger.

    For example, immediately after the 2011 disaster, the lead Japanese doctor brought in to Fukushima repeatedly ruled out the possibility of radiation-induced illnesses. A full five days after the meltdown, the American Embassy in Tokyo stated only that “we are recommending, as a precaution, that American citizens who live within 50 miles of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.” The Japanese government continued to hold to its earlier recommendation to evacuate only within 12 miles of the plant.

    The Embassy characterized American citizens’ reaction in Japan simply as “people are calling with concerns, but I would call it just a concern at this point.” The embassy did however quietly authorize the departure of its own dependents six days after the accident.



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