ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN — When U.S. Navy helicopters returned from a humanitarian mission on the first weekend following Japan's earthquake and tsunami, Lt. j.g. James Powell felt a slight unease.
Powell, the radiation health officer aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, knew there was a chance the choppers could have been exposed to radiation from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant as they ferried relief aid to northeastern Japan, and even though "the Japanese had told us we'd be fine," he still wanted to be sure.
"I was kind of nervous about it," the 30-year-old nuclear engineer said. "So I said, 'Let's just go check them, just in case. ... Let's just go check it out.'"
That was Sunday, March 13 — two days after the earthquake and tsunami had hit the coast and one day after the first explosion from the nuclear plant.
Thus began three days of mostly sleepless nights for Powell as he and others worked to contain contamination to the $4.5 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and calm the nerves of its crew of about 4,500.
Powell's first examination showed a level of radiation on the nose of a helicopter 50 times higher than the ship's standard. Further checks showed that helicopter crew members themselves were coming in contaminated.
"I'd never seen it on a nuclear-powered ship before, I'd never seen any skin contamination, never seen any sort of contamination anywhere that it wasn't supposed to be," Powell said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press on the deck of the carrier as sailors cleaned the expansive surface to try to strip it of any residual radioactivity.