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Japan nuclear crisis: US Navy monitoring health threat to forces

Some US naval forces engaged in earthquake relief efforts have been exposed to low levels of radiation from the Japan nuclear crisis. The Navy is keeping its ships out of the radiation 'plume' and is taking precautions.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / March 16, 2011

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to transport humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies from the USNS Matthew Perry south of Japan, in this US Navy photo.

U.S. Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Casey H. Kyhl/Reuters

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Washington

The US military is keeping a watchful eye on the health of US forces in Japan and on radiation levels emitted by Japan’s Fukushima I nuclear power plant as it continues its extensive relief efforts in the wake of the country’s massive 9.0 earthquake and accompanying tsunami.

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There is reason for concern among US military officials. Already the US Navy’s 7th Fleet was forced to reposition its ships and aircraft “after detecting low-level contamination in the air and on its aircraft operating in the area,” according to a statement released by the fleet Monday.

In the meantime, the Navy continues to closely measure radiation levels – and ensure that its ships are not downwind from the endangered plant. “We continue to reposition our ships away from what’s known as ‘the plume,’ ” says Palmer Pinckney, chief of public affairs for the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.

RELATED: Japan's nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

Perhaps the most alarming development is that radiation has also been detected on US troops themselves. Three helicopter air crews – or about 17 US military personnel – returning to the USS Ronald Reagan after taking part in relief operations near the city of Sendai over the weekend were found to have higher-than-normal radiation levels coming from their bodies.

On Tuesday the 7th Fleet said that two military service members aboard the Ronald Reagan were given potassium iodide pills as a precaution after they were exposed to radiation, but that no troops have shown any sign of radiation poisoning. On Wednesday, the fleet said, a number of helicopter crews were given the tablets before flying their sorties, which would take them within 70 nautical miles of the reactors.

“The low-level radioactivity was easily removed from affected personnel by washing with soap and water,” according to the Monday statement, which added that the helicopter crew members returning to the Ronald Reagan “were subsequently surveyed, and no further contamination was detected.”

'Not a cause for alarm'

The US military is seeking to put their levels of exposure in perspective for the remainder of ships’ crews operating in the area.

“It’s important to note that the levels of radiation these air crew members are being exposed to are very, very low and not a cause for alarm,” Mr. Pinckney says. “It is something that we have to watch very carefully and make sure that we are able to monitor and mitigate against.”

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