By Stephen Spotswood
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — A year after a massive earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan, resulting in a large tsunami that caused nuclear-plant meltdowns, the U.S. military is creating a database to help track possible radiation exposure for troops who participated in relief efforts and for servicemembers and their beneficiaries who were stationed or living in Japan at the time of the disaster.
The massive earthquake struck the coast of the Tohoku region of Japan on March 11, 2011, and resulted in extensive damage. The tsunami caused a number of nuclear accidents, including a meltdown at three reactors in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in the Futaba District of Fukushima Prefecture.
The U.S. military supported Japan in its disaster relief efforts in what was known as Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for “friends.”
A local woman carrying water bowed in thanks to Marines with the command element, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, who were on the way to assist with Operation Field Day here. The operation was a debris-clearing and cleanup project designed to open harbor access and area roads on the isolated island. Photo by Marine Capt. Caleb Eames.
An Unprecedented Mission
The earthquake left 13,000 dead, 15,000 missing and caused about $5 billion in damage — an estimate that is likely far too low.
The earthquake was a unique event for the U.S. military, in that it had never faced a disaster of such complexity.
“It was a trifecta. We had the earthquake; we had the tsunami; and, secondary to all of that, we had the water damage, the lack of power, and the reactor emergency,” explained Cmdr. Juliann Althoff, MD executive to the Deputy Surgeon General at the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
While ostensibly the mission was to help the Japanese government with supplies, infrastructure repair and cleanup, there was little the U.S. military could contribute.
“They honestly didn’t need that much help from us,” Althoff said at the recent Military Health Systems Conference. “Their capacity was unbelievable.”
A lot of the focus was on the approximately 70,000 U.S. military medical beneficiaries living near the reactor sites, she said. “How are we going to keep these people safe? How are we going to track them over time and make sure they’re doing OK? This part of the mission was about force health protection.”
The Fukushima meltdown created a 120-mile radius warm zone around the reactor. While the incident amounted to a very low-level radiation threat, the severity initially was unknown.
“Nobody knew how bad it was. Nobody knew how bad it was going to be. It happened in a foreign country, so we didn’t have any control over the disaster,” Althoff said. “This was unprecedented. There was nothing on the shelf that we could grab, pull down and open up and it would tell us what to do.”
It required getting guidance out to servicemembers and their families, and coordinating that guidance with what was being distributed by the Japanese government to their citizens. It also required determining if the groundwater was safe and creating guidance for nucleotide levels in the water.
Marines participating in Operation Tomodachi are checked for radiation at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patricia D. Lockhart/ Released)
By the end of the operation, it required the cooperation of several command structures, including: U.S. Pacific Command, the various military services, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Naval Reactors and the U.S. Embassy in Japan.
It was a collaboration that required a good deal of negotiation and discovery of how to work together. “How would we communicate with one voice? This wasn’t easy, and it took time,” Althoff said.
This was one of the key lessons learned from the incident, she noted. “We need to act early and do it with one voice. Giving one message to the population is really important. And you can’t put policy out without educating people about that policy.”