Rear Admiral Mark “Buz” Buzby, commander of the Military Sealift Command, sat with Maritime Reporter contributing editor Edward Lundquist talked with a week before his retirement aboard USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1) at Little Creek, Virginia, on May 10, 2013. The talk centered on a unique event in maritime history. MSC had seven ships in the area east of Japan, responding to the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 19,000 people. One of them was the fast combat support ship USNS Bridge (T-AOE 10), which was part of the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group operating in support of the relief efforts. A consequence of that event was the reactor failure at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which led to the radiological contamination of USNS Bridge, as well as other ships.
Can you tell us of the events that led to the contamination threat?
During the course of one evening, when they were steaming all in company, about 150 to 200 miles offshore, they encountered a radioactive plume at sea in the midst of a driving snowstorm, a pretty snotty night at sea. And then the radiological monitors on the carrier began indicating the presence of radiation. This drove the entire force to button up—essentially doing the things we’d been practicing for throughout the Cold War, in terms of in a nuclear detonation at sea and the fallout that would then occur.
All the systems and countermeasure that been put in place on our ships for years—such as the topside wash-down system and the Citadel positive pressure air filtration system for the living areas of the ship—were put to use. Through great Providence, the Bridge, a former [commissioned] Navy ship, had a Citadel system installed. We train our mariners on how to do radiological controls, and how to do the correct precautions for handling a radiological incident. We have a radiological officer on the ship who went through formal training just like in a Navy ship, and we have all the gas masks and protective clothing and all that sort of thing. That was all there. It’s all practiced. And that night it was employed. That crew put their suits on and donned their gas masks and closed up that ship and activated the countermeasure wash-down system, just like they were trained to do. And that probably saved a lot of people from unnecessary radiation. The levels were very, very low—extremely low. Those sensors that we have on our ships detect the most minute quantities of radiation and the quantities that were encountered out there were extremely low. They were essentially alpha and beta particles, heavy particles and the best way to prevent exposure was just to have covering on your skin.
When the detectors indicate something at a very low level, that’s generally a precursor that it could get worse, that the concentration is about to increase.
So you always err on the side of caution until you figure out what’s going on, and that’s precisely what happened. The process worked exactly right. All the things we’ve trained to for all those years worked, and the crew performed magnificently. But, you know, it’s something that no one had ever been through before. No Navy ships at sea, other than Bikini Atoll tests back in the 40s and 50s, had ever gone through nuclear radiation at sea. It was all sort of theoretical. So this was kind of a first. And it was especially a first for our naval auxiliary that was out there with our people. So I was very proud of the way they responded. The master of that ship e-mailed us back reporting that this had occurred and that everybody was calm and everybody appeared to be well. But, you know, what now?
So when it was finished with its initial tasking out there, we brought the ship down to Sasebo to figure out how to decontaminate it.
Into Sasebo, or off Sasebo?
At anchor near Sasebo. We did not bring it into port.
How did it progress from there?
The first thing that occurred was the Battle Group Commander arranged for the NavSea RadCon (Naval Sea Systems Command Radiological Contamination) technicians to go to all the ships in the battle group. And as a matter of fact, the carrier itself has people that are trained because of the nuclear power plant on there, and they were able to do a basic check of all the ships inside and out to see what levels of contamination there were. Typically it was topside on the ships. The Citadel system did what it was designed to do and had kept any radiation from reaching the living areas of the ship. However, anywhere where there was a concentration of air – a vent duct, a blower, an intake for a gas turbine engine for the ship’s boilers – that was an area where that concentration of air was causing a higher than normal level of radiation, even though it was extremely low—not life-threatening in any means, but it was above normal. And again, because of the caution that we employ when dealing with radiological sorts of things, it became something that we needed to and wanted to focus on and remove so it would not be an effect on the crew. The way it was explained to me is the level of exposure from the hottest spot was about the same amount you would get from flying in an airplane from the US West Coast to Japan. The ionizing radiation you get from the sun was about the same and, in fact, when I flew over there I was told I got about the same dose as anyone would have gotten had they had contact with any of these hot spots.
I was a damage control assistant on my first ship, USS Connole (FF 1056). So I was very heavily trained in this area and knew it pretty well and actually remembered a lot of it. We were concerned with more than nuclear fallout at sea from a blast, because we were a nuclear-capable ship. And in case of an accident you had to know all the procedures to go through and how to handle it.
In a scenario like this, what are the immediate challenges?
Buzby: My concern immediately was the unknown. It can be scary if you don’t know the facts, and you don’t know what it means to you, and how it’s going to impact you. So that was kind of the first thing that ran through my head. There are 170 civilian mariners who are probably scared to death, who probably don’t really know whether they’re going to die, whether they’ve been irradiated so significantly that it’s going to cause them health issues. So we wanted to get the ship cleaned up as quickly as possible, and we wanted to ensure that none of the crew had received any dangerous levels of radiation. We wanted to reassure the crew as to what the way forward was going to be and that they were going to be fine, and that the ship that they were sailing in was safe for them to be there. I felt the best way to do that was to get it cleaned up very quickly. With the Navy ships out there, they were going to have just their crew, their sailors, go out and scrub the ship down, because it was primarily particular matter that could be removed just simply by scrubbing, soap and water, and washing off with water, and containment of that water, those rags, and all the residue from doing that. That was really the main decontamination methods. So it was fairly a mechanical process, but one that my mariners had not been trained in. And I didn’t believe it was correct for them to do that. So we made the decision to hire a Japanese company that specialized in asbestos removal and control, because the protocols are very, very similar for handling radiological contaminated material and asbestos, in terms of the personal protective equipment, in terms of the respiration protection, in terms of the collection and containment of the after effects. So we hired a company right on the spot down there in Sasebo that came aboard. They came out to the ship every day and cleaned the ship up. We were working with NavSea and, their director of radiological controls division, Captain Luis Benavidez, who worked with us very closely in those early days to figure out exactly what the right process was, to tell the ship what to do and what not to do to get the right people on hire. I thought it was very important to have someone on site right there that was a technical authority. So I got him to send a young lieutenant out there who was a RadCon certified officer, out to the ship to be there full time, and a couple of monitoring technicians that could go around and continue the monitoring process. So I wanted the crew to see that we had the ‘pros from Dover’ on site, people with technical credentials to superintend this effort. And to mark any areas that might be elevated radiation. So, we got that part of the effort moving. That took care of the mechanical piece of it.
Then I really thought it was important to reassure the crew. Just sending e-mails out there wasn’t going to hack it, in my view. This was one situation where the commander needed get out there and stand in front of his people and reassure them—tell them what had happened, tell them what we were doing, tell them that they were going to be okay. So I grabbed Captain Benavidez, and the MSC Force Surgeon, Captain Jim Rice, and my Force Master Chief [Master Chief Miguel-Juan V. Reyes], and we all flew out there and got aboard the ship and, walked around, saw what was in progress, and then stood in front of that whole crew and told them exactly what was going on, reassured them that they were going to be okay, told them that we were going to monitoring every single one of them very closely, that every one of them was going to be tested to ensure that they had not received any above normal radiation.
How long after the contamination was first reported was this?
Buzby: It was probably about a week. By the time I got out there, finally, things had settled down enough that you could actually travel out there. I wanted to reassure the crew so they would stay aboard for the deployment. This was a ship that was getting ready to deploy to the gulf, it was on its way very shortly thereafter and we could not afford to not have it not be operational. So our mission was to get it cleaned up, get it fully able to meet its mission, and that includes having a crew on board that believed they were safe and believed that they were in a safe environment. So we issued everybody a TLD to monitor as they walked around the ship to make sure they weren’t receiving any dosage. [Thermo luminescent dosimeters are passive devices, issued to the crew and worn like a badge, that measures radiation exposure.] They were offered that. They weren’t required to wear it, they were offered. And most of the crew took us up on it.
We posted all the ‘hot spot’ areas that were being worked down on the mess decks so people could see where they were. They could see, where to avoid them, but also they could see the progress as we cleaned areas up and we took the hot spots off the board and showed the actual numerical readings from the radiacs [devices used to conduct make alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron surveys]. It was very open, very transparent.
I told everybody that there was going to be a piece of paper, a document, that they were on the ship. They were going to get a copy for their medical record and there was going to be a copy kept in the DoD medical database, so that if in the future there was ever any question, ever any claims, anything ever popped up, there would be conclusive evidence that they were there, and what was done at the time. That, I think, went a long way to allaying people’s fears understanding what it was they were dealing with. This wasn’t just going to go away. Most of the contamination was in the air concentration areas. So, especially for the engineers who were going to tear into machinery and make repairs in the future, you know, like removing turbo chargers from diesel generators, doing repairs on gas turbines, they were going to encounter elevated levels of radiation. So we developed written procedures for how to handle maintenance on those things; how to contain it; what personal protective equipment to have on site; how to bag or contain the elements that were removed. We changed out a couple turbo chargers and a couple diesel engines and they all had to be bagged up and, boxed up, and disposed of, off the ship, you know, marked and everything else. We developed all those procedures so the engineers would be comfortable, knowing they could safely do the maintenance they needed to do and not be contaminated. And, long term, the ship and several other ships that were that had the potential to have been contaminated, were put into a radiological monitoring program as they go through maintenance availabilities which goes on to this day. We found the potential for contamination in the ventilation ducts, and that a lot of those old rusty ducts on the inside and fan coil units were great collectors of residual contamination. There was no really good way to clean them. So we tore out a bunch of fan coil units and blower motors out of Bridge when we were decontaminating her, and just changed them out altogether, just to remove any of that potential.
And the crew, today?
The proof of the pudding is that nobody got off the ship, nobody wanted to get off the ship—as a result of this, they went off and deployed in the gulf, were over there for eight months, with the normal rotation of people. People were coming and going off of the ship, there was no stigma attached to it, there was no, “Oh, don’t go to the Bridge, you know, it’ll kill ya,” kind of thing. And to this day it’s, it’s a page in history. I think from that point of view, I think we did the right thing. More than ever it showed the mariners that we really cared about them and that we had their backs. And by going to the place myself, I was exposing myself to whatever they were there, and hopefully they would see that I wouldn’t probably do that unless I thought it was safe myself.
The Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4) pulls alongside the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during an ammunition on-load evolution. Ronald Reagan is underway conducting flight deck certifications and carrier qualifications off the coast of Southern California. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Terry Godette/Released)
Joint High Speed Vessel USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1) at Little Creek, Va., for the change of command ceremony where Rear Adm. Thomas Shannon relieved Rear Adm. Mark “Buz” Busby as commander of the Military Sealift Command. (Photo by Edward Lundquist)
Military Sealift Command is the leading provider of ocean transportation for the Navy and the rest of the Department of Defense – operating approximately 110 ships daily around the globe.
Its mission is to operate the ships which sustain our warfighting forces and deliver specialized maritime services in support of national security objectives in peace and war.
MSC reports to U.S. Fleet Forces Command for Navy transport matters; to U.S. Transportation Command for defense transportation matters; and to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition for procurement policy and oversight matters.
MSC has a workforce of more than 9,000 people worldwide, about 80 percent of whom serve at sea. More than half of MSC’s workforce is made up of civil service mariners who are federal employees. The remainder includes commercial mariners, civil service personnel ashore and active-duty and reserve military members. The command currently operates approximately 119 non-combatant, civilian-crewed ships worldwide. In addition, the command has access to 50 other ships that are kept in reduced operating status, ready to be activated if needed.
The ships fall under six different categories:
• Combat Logistics Force
The 32 ships of Military Sealift Command’s Combat Logistics Force provide fuel, food, ordnance, spare parts, mail and other supplies to enable the Navy fleet to remain at sea, on station and combat ready for extended periods of time.
• Special Mission Program
Military Sealift Command’s Special Mission Program has 25 ships that provide operating platforms and services, to include oceanographic and hydrographic surveys, underwater surveillance, missile tracking, acoustic surveys, and submarine and special warfare support for U.S. military and other U.S. government missions.
• Prepositioning Program
MSC’s 25 prepositioning ships support the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Defense Logistics Agency, with military equipment, vehicles, ammunition and other material to support warfighters who can arrive at a location with their propositioned material waiting for them. Prepositioning ships include a combination of U.S. government-owned ships, chartered U.S.- flagged ships and ships activated from the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force. All prepositioning ships are crewed by U.S. civilian mariners who work for ship operating companies under contract to the federal government.
• Service Support
Military Sealift Command’s 15 Service Support ships provide the Navy with towing, rescue and salvage, submarine support and cable laying and repair services, as well as a command and control platform and floating medical facilities. All Service Support ships are government owned and crewed by civil service mariners, although several have hybrid crews of civil service mariners and uniformed Navy personnel working under the leadership of a U.S. Navy captain
• Sealift Program
The MSC Sealift Program provides ocean transportation for the Department of Defense and other federal agencies during peacetime and war. More than 90 percent of U.S. war fighters’ equipment and supplies travels by sea. The program manages a mix of government-owned and long-term-chartered dry cargo ships and tankers, as well as additional short-term or voyage-chartered ships. By DOD policy, MSC must first look to the U.S - flagged market to meet its sealift requirements. Government-owned ships are used only when suitable U.S.-flagged commercial ships are unavailable.
• Ready Reserve Force
The 48 ships of the RRF are maintained and crewed by the Maritime Administration and which can be activated in four, five, 10 or 20 days. The RRF includes fast sealift ships, roll-on/roll-off ships, lighter aboard ships, heavy lift ships, crane ships and government-owned tankers. When activated, RRF ships come under the operational control of MSC.
(As published in the June 2013 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News - www.marinelink.com)