Radiation Claims by US Sailors

January 24th, 2014
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A story has been making the rounds recently about a number of sailors on the USS Ronald Reagan who are suing the US Navy and TEPCO for symptoms they claim are related to exposure to nuclear radiation on board the ship.   The Reagan did not land in Japan at the time of the tsunami or the ensuing problems at the  Fukushima nuclear power plant.  However, it did participate in the transfer of relief supplies, a mission which resulted in the Reagan spending several weeks in an area about one hundred miles away from the crippled reactors.

The lawsuit has been dismissed, but those who brought it are vowing to continue their fight, attempting to appeal or refile their claims.
WUSA has heart-wrenching the story of one of the sailors:

Maryland sailor blames Fukushima for radiation poisoning

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) — He served his country, but has his country turned its back on him? A Maryland sailor says he’s now wheelchair-bound, and he blames it on radiation he was exposed to while representing his country at what’s been called the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Steve Simmons spoke to WUSA9′s Debra Alfarone exclusively.

Simmons never needed any help getting out on the golf course, “Even if it is a bad shot, I’m still happy.”

Golf, hiking, he’s always been the guy that never stops, “I love P90X, in fact after I did P90X, I also ordered the insanity workout.”

Until November 2011.

Steve was 33. That’s when life started changing for this U.S. Naval Administrative Officer. It was eight months after Simmons served on the USS Ronald Reagan when it was the first ship to respond to what’s been called the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl – the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. It was the result of being slammed by a powerful tsunami, triggered by the most violent earthquake Japan had ever seen. Steve started feeling tired, not himself. Then, he blacked out while driving to work, and drove his truck up on a curb. Steve said his list of ailments was puzzling,

“You’re starting to run fevers, your lymph nodes start swelling, you’re having night sweats, you’re getting spastic and you’re losing sensation in your legs, and you can’t feel your legs when you’re getting 2nd degree burns on them, and how do you explain those things?”

Doctors could not. Steve’s leg muscles eventually just gave up, and he’s now confined to a wheelchair to get around.

Steve’s then-fiance, now-wife, Summer, had just moved cross-country to Maryland with her three children to start their lives together. She says she was shocked, but quickly made a plan, “Things change, I started calling around, borrowed a wedding dress, we started looking for a chaplain and we were married the day before Easter in 2012 in a borrowed wedding gown and his dress whites. It was the last time Steve was really able to spend the day on his feet.”

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Simmons. People do occasionally unexpected medical conditions, some of which are difficult to diagnose. However, there’s simply no reason to think this is radiation-related.

But this is my favorite part:

Steve explains, “As far as the big picture we still don’t have a diagnosis of what this is, still struggling to even get a doctor to acknowledge that radiation had anything to do with it.”

That diagnosis is critical. Without the Navy acknowledging that Steve wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for his time in Operation Tomodachi, his retirement and pension are at stake. Plus, he doesn’t qualify for aid in the same the way he would if he lost his legs in an IED explosion.

No doctor will say it is radiation related? Probably because they have medical training and understand what radiation does and does not do to the body. It’s just not consitstant with that. Granted, the man may be convinced that something as demonic as radiation must be the casue, that’s not going to hold up in court.

The Department of Defense says radiation levels were safe, and were the equivalent to less than a month’s exposure to the same natural radiation you pick up from being near rocks, soil and the sun.

Steve doesn’t buy that, “How do you take a ship and place it into a nuclear plume for five plus hours, how do you suck up nuclear contaminated waste into the water filtration system and think for one minute that there’s no health risk to anybody on board.”

Again, we have an emotional response. Whether an area is dangerous depends on a number of factors, like there intensity of the radiation and whether there are particles that can be inhaled or ingested. Other important considerations include the time spent in the area and whether it was indoors or outdoors. It’s not a binary safe-unsafe kind of question.

The United States Navy and Nuclear Radiation:

Based on the claims made, one might think that the United States Navy is completely clueless when it comes to nuclear radiation and dependent on Tepco to tell them whether they are in danger.   In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The US Navy is, in fact, very familiar with the hazards of radiation and fallout and well prepared to deal with them.N/A

During the Cold War, it was assumed that a naval battle would likely occur during a nuclear conflict and may involve the use of nuclear weapons by both the US and Soviet Union.  Cold War doctrine required that the US military be capable of fighting during and after a nuclear exchange, contending with the hazards of fallout.  If war broke out between the US and Soviet Union, the American military would need to remain an effective fighting force, even if that meant fighting on a nuclear battlefield.

The navy experienced these conditions directly during some of the early nuclear tests conducted by the US.  The direct experience with radioactive fallout shaped how the US Navy would plan for the contingency.

Procedures were developed for these situations.  The hazards of fallout were included in naval planning.  Ships were built to include wash down systems, capable of clearing the decks of hazardous fallout.  Water purification systems were designed to cope with radioactive fallout.  Crews were drilled on the proper safety procedures and the use of personal protective gear and detectors.   All US Navy vessels were equipped with radiation detection equipment.

nbcdrillThe potential for nuclear war did not vanish with the end of the Cold War and neither did the US Navy’s preparations for the contingency.  While it may not be viewed with the importance it was in the 1960′s, the Navy remains well trained and equipped to deal with nuclear radiation.  If a vessel were to encounter dangerous fallout, it would be quickly detected.  The commanding officers would know exactly how to respond.  If necessary, fallout mitigation and protection procedures would be instituted and, if the situation were bad enough, the vessel would be withdrawn to a safe distance.

Of course, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier like the USS Ronald Reagan would have the benefit of having additional radiation-detection equipment on board, along with numerous radiation and nuclear power experts.  The officers and crew of nuclear aircraft carriers attend US Navy Nuclear Power School and are educated in the areas of health physics and radiation safety.  Many of the crew members, especially those who are involved in engineering even wear dosimeters all the time.

Given that a Nimitz class carrier has a number of full-time radiation safety officers and carries sophisticated radiation detection equipment, it’s hard to imagine how a radiation hazard could possibly sneak up on such a vessel.  It is not as if it requires much data analysis to know when radiation levels are high.  It’s measurable immediately and would be detected, even if it came at a completely unexpected time.

Radiation Exposure, Symptoms and Effects:

One pervasive myth is that ionizing radiation causes all manner of random health problems and illness.  That is simply not the case.  Exposure to ionizing radiation causes a number of specific symptoms, depending largely on the dose received.

The effects of radiation on the human body are very well understood and documented.  This is especially true of exposure to large doses of radiation – sufficient to cause radiation sickness.  In addition to being the subject of study for much of the 20th century, radiation sickness and other effects are commonly experienced by those who are undergoing radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

Immediate, Acute Effects of Ionizing Radiation:

It takes quite a lot of radiation exposure to actually produce short term symptoms of any kind.  Receiving several x-rays will not produce radiation sickness.  Being exposed to many times what is permitted for nuclear power workers to receive in a year will not do it either.   It takes about half a seivert of radiation exposure to produce any noticeable acute effects at all.  That’s a very large amount of exposure!

It takes about one seivert to produce any significant radiation sickness.  This will generally be nausea and fattiness.  Levels above two seiverts are potentially life-threatening.

The more dramatic effects of hair loss and bleeding gums tend to be associated with very high doses.  They are not a very reliable indicator of the severity of radiation sickness.  Other effects may include suppressed immune system and inflammation.

More info on radiation levels and effects

Lingering Effects:

gravestitleIn general, survivors of radiation sickness can expect to recover fully within a period of weeks or, at most, a few months.  After the acute period is over, most symptoms will be reduced with time.  Lost hair does grow back.  Baring any additional radiation exposure, it would be highly unusual to not grow back ones hair after a period of months.

The immune system may take some time to rebound. Fertility can also be reduced, but, in all but the most extreme cases, it will be recovered.  If the exposure is severe enough, it could take months to recover completely.

The levels of radiation which are necessary to permanently damage tissue are so high that they would normally be fatal, if they represented a full body dose.  However, it is possible to receive enough radiation to cause major damage to a body part and survive if the radiation is concentrated or directed at that body part.  This is common in cancer treatment.   In many cases, nearby structures are damaged, especially those most sensitive to radiation.   For example, a person who receives radiation therapy for throat cancer may end up with damaged salivary glands that never fully recover.

Damage to the lining of the digestive tract, known as Radiation enteritis is a condition which normally resolves in a maximum of two to three months, but in the most severe cases, where tissue damage is almost complete, full recovery may not be possible.

Lympathic problems, such as Lymphedema are also possible, as are ongoing joint problems.  But since these problems only occur when the radiation is intensive enough to cause direct damage to tissues, they would only be expected in those who received locally high doses of radiation or those who had received the most severe level of whole body radiation exposure.

Anyone who is left with lingering symptoms several months after acute radiation sickness would have had to experience such a severe level of radiation exposure that they would be very lucky to be alive!

Chronic Effects:

In general, those who experience radiation poisoning, even severe cases, will recover and show no symptoms within a matter of months.  However, there are chronic effects which may manifest years later.

The most familiar of these is an increased risk of cancer.  At high doses, the increase is linear to the total radiation dose.  It is more difficult to measure at low doses, but the linear non-threshold hypothesis presumes that it remains linear all the way down to a hypothetical exposure of zero (which is actually impossible.)  LNT remains the official model used by many governments and organizations, though empirical evidence has failed to validate it and may dispute LNT.

Radiation-induced cancer is not immediate.  On average it will take ten to twenty years or more before cancer develops as a result of radiation exposure.  Of course, that is an average of a range, so it is possible that some cancers may develop sooner.   However, in a population exposed to high doses of radiation, one would not expect to see a noticeable increase in cancer for a period of at least a few years.

There are some other chronic effects.  Genetic damage can result in birth defects, although this is less common than is often reported.  Reduced fertility is normally only associated with extremely high levels of radiation exposure.

One important thing to keep in mind:  Even if we presume the linear no-threshold model of radiation exposure to be accurate, the level of exposure to the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan still results in a very small increase in the probability of cancer, relative to other potential environmental risks.   It is a significantly smaller risk increase than would result from smoking a few packs of cigarettes.

An examination of the Claims Made By the Sailors:

The area where the USS Ronald Reagan was located did not have radiation levels sufficient to cause any health concerns. The levels did rise, briefly, but were generally only slightly above normal background levels. One might claim that the instrument data from the US navy and TEPCO could have been falsified, but that does not change the fact that the ship was more than one hundred miles from the incident reactor and, given the levels released, it would not be expected to be dangerously high.

None of the symptoms described seem to indicate radiation exposure. Two years after the incident, one would not expect to see cancer develop, and, indeed, there has not been an overall increase in cancer rates. Other symptoms cited include chronic bronchitis, thyroid imbalances, chronic vaginal or anal bleeding, lymphatic problems. Few of these are known to be associated with radiation exposure, especially at the levels the USS Regan crew would have been exposed to.

None of the US Navy crew experienced acute radiation sickness. Nor did those in Japan, despite being located much closer to the reactors and receiving a substantially higher radiation dose. The entire Fukushima accident produced no radiation-related acute injuries, except for two workers who received mild burns from direct exposure to contaminated water.

More than two years after the incident, the first responders are not all dying or battling cancer. And indeed, nor are the US Navy sailors who responded. In total only about seventy sailors are claiming damages and only about half of them have any serious health problems. That’s a very small number considering over 30,000 US navy personnel were involved in the effort to deliver aid to Japan. The USS Ronald Reagan alone has a crew of 5,680. In any such large group, one would expect some individuals to have health problems.


This entry was posted on Friday, January 24th, 2014 at 9:13 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, Enviornment, Nuclear. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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11 Responses to “Radiation Claims by US Sailors”

  1. 1
    Joffan Says:

    Verdict:

    This is a case that has no foundation in fact and was correctly dismissed. The belief of the sailors concerned, no matter how sincere, does not constitute evidence that they are correct.


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    Statements that there is no safe level of radiation are an affront to science and to common sense. All the scare-talk about radiation is irrelevant. Every time a becquerel of radioactivity is released from that nuclear plant the world (fueled by the media) just goes bonkers and people on the West Coast start popping iodine pills. According to several studies, radioactive discharges from the non-nuclear industries are estimated to contribute more than 90% the population’s total exposure to radiation from human activities. Oil and gas operations contributed 35.3% and phosphate production and use 55.4%, for example, yet it is the miniscule releases from nuclear power plants that get all the press.


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  3. 3
    James Greenidge Says:

    ANS and NEI get the facts out there — and I don’t mean just on blogs! This issue has to be nipped in the bud ASAP from being a new anti-nuke rallying cry replete with live “victim heroes” to parade around talk shows. It’s essential that the medical and technical proof get out there into the public before a new FUD stain sets in!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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  4. 4
    JhM Says:

    We need to spend money on gene testing aimed at identifying genes and gene mutations that render people vulnerable to injury from radiation. If breast cancer can have a pre-disposing gene, why not radiation spills? The next step is to test the genomes of people working in an environment where accidents can occur and then disqualifying those from employment who are susceptible to radiation poisoning. Could be the same way with cigarette smoking.

    Time to stop making millionaires out of personal injury attorneys.


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  5. 5
    drbuzz0 Says:

            JhM said:

    We need to spend money on gene testing aimed at identifying genes and gene mutations that render people vulnerable to injury from radiation. If breast cancer can have a pre-disposing gene, why not radiation spills? The next step is to test the genomes of people working in an environment where accidents can occur and then disqualifying those from employment who are susceptible to radiation poisoning. Could be the same way with cigarette smoking.

    Time to stop making millionaires out of personal injury attorneys.

    I am not aware of any identified genes that would make a person more or less likely to be sensitive to ionizing radiation. It’s possible that there could be a genetic basis for some having more robust gene repair mechanisms or freeradical clearing enzymes.

    It’s not easy to find a gene or to fully understand what it does. It helps if the gene is for a condition that is easy to map in a pedigree and then go in and analyze the genes of all the subjects who have or do not have it. Right now, however, the majority of the human genetic code is not fully known.

    It’s also possible that there is no major difference in radiation response from a genetic standpoint. We do know that everyone will become sick if exposed to enough radiation. We also know that recovery is possible and that long term genetic damage is a consequence of very high exposure.

    In terms of quantifying who is at the highest risk from exposure to ionizing radiation, we can actually already determine that, to some extent. Acute radiation poisoning is going to be a bigger concern with those who are already less healthy. Ionizing radiation can weaken the immune system, so having a weak immune system to begin with is a concern.

    With regards to the longer term consequences, which would be of concern in situations where the dose is not high enough to cause acute problems but potentially high enough for chronic issues, older individuals would have the advantage. Fertility and birth defects are not as much of a concern since they’re less likely to reproduce. They would be expected to have a shorter lifespan and thus less time for cancer to develop. Also a slower rate of cell division.


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  6. 6
    Anon Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    I am not aware of any identified genes that would make a person more or less likely to be sensitive to ionizing radiation. It’s possible that there could be a genetic basis for some having more robust gene repair mechanisms or freeradical clearing enzymes.

    We do know that different animals and microbes have different tolerances to radiation (with humans having low radiation tolerance) so there almost certainly is some genetic basis.

            drbuzz0 said:

    It’s not easy to find a gene or to fully understand what it does. It helps if the gene is for a condition that is easy to map in a pedigree and then go in and analyze the genes of all the subjects who have or do not have it. Right now, however, the majority of the human genetic code is not fully known.

    I’d start by looking at the genome of people who’ve lived for generations in high background radiation areas and see what differences they’ve got but even that I suspect would be a longshot.

            drbuzz0 said:

    It’s also possible that there is no major difference in radiation response from a genetic standpoint.

    I’d say that’s doubtful, otherwise why else would most animals require higher exposure to kill than we do?


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  7. 7
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    We do know that different animals and microbes have different tolerances to radiation (with humans having low radiation tolerance) so there almost certainly is some genetic basis.

    Not necessary. Humans have a rather high cross-section compared to most of the animals we use for testing this sort of thing, and that alone may be the difference. However Doc may be right in that some organisms may have better self-repair mechanisms, but I would doubt if the difference would be significant between populations of the same species.


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  8. 8
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Not necessary. Humans have a rather high cross-section compared to most of the animals we use for testing this sort of thing, and that alone may be the difference.

    I doubt that could explain the difference when compared to microbes or among microbes.

            DV82XL said:

    However Doc may be right in that some organisms may have better self-repair mechanisms,

    That’s pretty much already been proven, at least in the case of Deinococcus radiodurans.

            DV82XL said:

    but I would doubt if the difference would be significant between populations of the same species.

    Probably not much but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a difference (and radiation resistance in animals does appear to be inheritable).

    Of course if one of the populations evolved in a higher radiation area than another then differences become very believable, a subtle reproductive advantage over many generations could be enough.


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  9. 9
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    I doubt that could explain the difference when compared to microbes or among microbes.

    That’s supposition, any rate neutron cross-section might still be very different even at those scales because of different levels of hydration.

            Anon said:

    Probably not much but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a difference (and radiation resistance in animals does appear to be inheritable). Of course if one of the populations evolved in a higher radiation area than another then differences become very believable, a subtle reproductive advantage over many generations could be enough.

    The last time I looked at the literature on this topic I did not think that the argument for inherited radioresistance was as strong as that for inherited radiosensitivity. In other words the data in my opinion shows more outliers on the sensitive end than on the resistant. This would suggest a hard upper bound where further chronic exposure would not yield a more robust population after the fragile were removed. Now I have not looked at the subject for some time, and things may have changed, but as I recall most of the work in this area was done with x-ray exposure, not heavy particle radiation, and while this may or may not effect the outcome, we need to keep this in mind when considering the relevance of these experiments.


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  10. 10
    PsihoKekec Says:

    These days, members of the armed forces are being encouraged to file disability claims with VA for pretty much anything, no matter how small chance of passing. The cult of victimhood is ingrained in all pores of society and this is merely attempt at getting the victim money by invoking the evil demon of radiation.


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  11. 11
    Mark Says:

    To be honest – the debate re LNT / safe level of radiation (etc) is not even relevant here. The report details – clinical observable effects – these would be deterministic in nature IF they were radiation related. There is no way the exposures would have been at deterministic levels (would require whole body dose exceeding about 3Gy and skin exceeding about the same). So there is a well known threshold effect and they were clearly below that.

    LNT is about cancer risk.


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