Navy vets say Fukushima meltdown made them sick

Two years ago, the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan wiped out villages, killed tens of thousands of people and permanently damaged the nuclear power plant in coastal Fukushima. Now, a group of U.S. Navy veterans say they got sick from exposure to radiation. Magalie Laguerre reports.

(CBS News) NEW YORK - U.S. Navy veterans Jaime Plym and Maurice Enis are part of a growing group of sailors who blame the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown for making them sick.

In March 2011, Plym and Enis were among the 5,000 sailors on board the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, both quartermasters whose job was to plot their ship's course.

Immediately after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, wiping out villages, killing tens of thousands of people, and damaging the coastal power plant, the navy diverted their ship from South Korea to Japan to provide aid. It was called Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for friend.

"We had already been there rendering aid and giving supplies and stuff for maybe a couple days before we even heard something about a nuclear power plant," Plym said. "Then, we were like, 'Oh, that put a new spin on everything.'"

"We were told we were safe, and we didn't have nothing to worry about," Enis said.

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For days, The Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, told the world the Fukushima plant was under control. But in reality, three nuclear reactors were melting down, and radioactive gases were being released.

While towns within 12 miles of the plant were evacuated in those first days, Plym and Enis say, the USS Reagan was stationed one to two miles from shore. One day, Enis underwent decontamination.

"I get my boots checked. There's nothing wrong. I get my hands checked, and the Geiger meter just goes crazy," Enis said. "They told everybody to get back, get away from me. That just made me even more nervous and more scared."

Plym said, "I developed gynecological issues, and nobody understood it, and they just kept saying 'stress,' and my cycle just disappeared, and then it would come back so badly that they would put me in the emergency room. Then it disappeared again,"

Now a couple, living together in Florida, they have completed their service with honorably discharges. Plym, 28, served five years, and Enis, 25, served four. But they say exposure to radiation from Fukushima has given them lasting ailments.

"I got a lump that popped up between my eyes, another lump in my jaw, and another lump on my thigh," Enis said,

They're joining a federal lawsuit filed in southern California (PDF) against TEPCO brought by fellow sailors who accuse the Japanese power company of giving out "false and misleading information" about Fukushima while being "aware that the potential health risk was greater than its agents were reporting."

More than 115 sailors are signed up to be plaintiffs, according to attorney Paul Garner. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

TEPCO has not filed any court papers yet. Hiro Hasegawa, TEPCO's corporate communications manager, told CBS NEWS, "The company does not comment on ongoing lawsuits."

Garner is seeking more information from the navy, which had established a registry for all military personnel deployed to Japan after the disaster.

"Nobody is tracking these people," Garner said. "Give us the records. Gives us the measurements they took off shore."

On the earthquakes' second anniversary on Monday, Plym and Enis will participate in a New York symposium on the medical and ecological consequences of the nuclear accident sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Out of the navy and attending college, neither Plym or Enis currently has health insurance, and they are seeking help with their medical bills through the Fundly website (

Plym said, "We just want somebody to give us medical care and figure out what's wrong."

In this Monday, March 21, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., gray smoke rises from Unit 3 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Tokyo Electric Power Co.