Radiation Levels Force U.S. Ships To Change Course

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Thirteen U.S. Naval vessels have been deployed to help provide humanitarian assistance to the northern part of Japan, the region ravaged by last week's earthquake and tsunami. Some of the warships have had to change course to avoid radiation, and other ships must navigate through massive debris fields.


The United States Navy has sent more than a dozen vessels to the waters off Japan. Their mission is to provide humanitarian assistance to the many people in need after last week's earthquake and tsunami. As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, higher-than-normal levels of radiation forced some ships to change course.

RACHEL MARTIN: The U.S. military assistance mission to Japan has been dubbed Operation Tomodachi, which means friends in Japanese. The Navy's 7th fleet is in charge. I reached Lieutenant Anthony Falvo aboard the command vessel in the South China Sea.

Lieutenant ANTHONY FALVO (U.S. Navy): I am on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge. We're currently south of Okinawa, still making our way north.

MARTIN: Falvo says the U.S. ships already in position along the Japanese shoreline have been able to deliver 25 tons of aid, including food, water and blankets. They've also helped transport Japanese first responders to the disaster sites. John Stufflebeem is a retired Navy admiral. He says aircraft carriers play a key role. These are essentially big, floating airports - staging grounds for helicopters shuttling supplies back and forth to shore.

Admiral JOHN STUFFLEBEEM (U.S. Navy, Retired): Most of the overland routes are probably - and temporarily - cut off. So the ability to bring in medical supplies, or to move medical teams around, or to help with bringing in water where it's all contaminated - these are the kind of things that these connectors coming from these large ships can help do.

MARTIN: But yesterday, special equipment aboard one of the carriers, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, detected enough radiation to raise concerns. So the Ronald Reagan and other U.S. ships in the area changed course. Again, Lt. Falvo.

Lt. FALVO: And what they've done is, they've moved just north, 180 nautical miles away from the Fukushima site, just ensuring that they are not downwind of the radioactive plume.

MARTIN: It's just a precaution, says Lt. Falvo.

Lt. FALVO: These are very, very low levels of contamination. It's equivalent to one month's natural background of radiation from the sun. So what we're doing is, we're taking every precaution.

MARTIN: That means making sure Navy personnel are wearing their flight suits with the sleeves rolled down, and protective coverings on their boots. Anyone who goes off the ship is tested for radiation before coming back on board. The last of the U.S. vessels are expected to arrive later this week. They're sailing in from the west, to avoid the radiation. Navy officials on those vessels say they're seeing another, ominous sign of the disaster even before they arrive: miles and miles of floating debris.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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