U.S. Military Exposed to Radiation in Japan, Though Officials Say Danger is Minimal

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US Navy's USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier

REUTERS/US Navy/Dylan McCord/

The U.S. Navy is no stranger to nuclear power.  As of March 2010, the organization has operated 82 nuclear-powered ships with 103 reactors on ships and submarines. So when the tests confirmed that its team of 17 naval helicopter crew became exposed to almost a month’s worth of nuclear radiation in just one hour– it knew what to do.

First it took immediate action by destroying the crew’s infected uniforms and ensuring they washed with soap and water to remove the plume.  Then the crew underwent another series of tests with the results showing no contamination. Next it repositioned its aircraft carriers from the 7th fleet away from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station.  A statement then followed along with a slew of interviews stressing the crew’s minimal amount of radiation given the low dose exposure.

(More on TIME.com: See photos from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant)

The New York Times was first to report the incident raising the concern that we might have another Chernobyl on our hands. Other news agencies focused on the threat of winds possibly spreading radiation across the globe. But what was most interesting was what appeared in an AP report from a U.S. Navy spokesman trying to put this amount of radiation exposure into perspective:”Bottom line is, the amount of contamination that they were exposed to was very very low…The dosage of radiation that they received would have been less than what somebody gets from just normal background radiation over the course of a month from the sun, soil, rocks — all the things around you that give off background radiation,” said Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a U.S. Navy spokesman for the 7th Fleet.

Although concern and worry is justified over exposure to radiation, it’s probably worth pointing out that humans are exposed to radiation everyday through natural forms as well as from our man made commercial, medical and industrial activities. That’s a total of 310 mrem each year. Furthermore, it might also be worth mentioning that not even government agencies are in agreement over the long-term effects of radiation below 10,000 mrem. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission briefing document:

“Although radiation may cause cancers at high doses and high dose rates, currently there are no data to establish unequivocally the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and does rates – below about 10,000 mrem (100mSv). Those people living in areas having high levels of background radiation – above 1,000 mrem per year- such as Denver, Colorado have shown no adverse biological effects.”

About half of the total annual average U.S. individual’s radiation exposure comes from natural resources and the other half is thanks to diagnostic medical procedures such as CT scans of 150 millirems (mrem). To put that in perspective, a U.S. Navy personnel experienced 25 mrem, according to an email sent to TIME from the LT Anthony J. Falvo, USN Deputy Public Affairs Officer from the 7th fleet:

“The maximum potential radiation dose received by any ship’s force personnel aboard USS RONALD REAGAN when it passed through the area was less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun, or less than 25 milliREM.”

So while it only makes sense to be cautious over exposure to nuclear radiation, this probably won’t have a life threatening impact on those military personnel aboard the USS Ronald Reagan and it won’t hopefully change the rescue and relief mission to Japan.

(More on TIME.com: See how to help earthquake victims in Japan)