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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

Protesters question safety of U.S. nuclear carrier

Staff writer

In the face of North Korea's return to nuclear development and China's ever-growing military presence, Yasunari Fujimoto believes the defense of the Japanese homeland must be secured at almost any cost.

News photo
Here come old flattop: The nuclear-powered carrier USS George Washington cruises in an exercise off Florida last year. KYODO PHOTO

Even so, hosting a nuclear aircraft carrier in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, is too high a price, says the deputy secretary general of Tokyo-based Forum for Peace, Human Rights and Environment, describing the scheduled arrival of the USS George Washington on Thursday as more of a risk than a security enhancement.

"Citizens of Yokosuka remain strongly concerned about the safety of the warship, and no satisfactory explanation has been given to us," Fujimoto said in an interview with The Japan Times last week. "The arrival of the carrier is unacceptable.

"Developments in Iraq and Afghanistan are signs that U.S. involvement often ends in conflict," Fujimoto warned.

He is demanding that the government reconsider allowing the deployment of the nuclear carrier.

The 332-meter George Washington will be the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be forward-deployed to Japan.

It replaces the Kitty Hawk, which was commissioned in 1961 and is the only remaining conventionally fueled aircraft carrier still in service in the U.S. Navy. The Kitty Hawk was deployed in Japan for a decade from 1998 and is scheduled to be decommissioned upon returning to the United States.

Yet, despite his grave misgivings about the George Washington, Fujimoto remains in the minority. Media polls have shown the vast majority of Japanese support the presence of the U.S. military in Japan to preserve the security of the country as well as the Asia-Pacific region.

On the other hand, the reaction of Yokosuka residents is mixed, as some are uneasy, particularly about the possibility of a nuclear accident in their backyard.

"The government has said that no serious incidents have taken place on nuclear aircraft carriers in 50 years. But what does that prove? Safety is not a question of probability," said Izumi Kato, secretary general of the local nongovernmental organization Kanagawa Peace Center.

Government officials have stressed the importance of having a U.S. aircraft at Yokosuka — which experts say is the U.S. Navy's most strategically important overseas base — to maintain military ties with the U.S., Japan's only defense ally.

"Considering the deterrent force (to defend Japan), it is extremely important to have an aircraft carrier based at a Japanese port," said then Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba at a Lower House session on April 21.

"Changing a conventionally fueled carrier to a nuclear-powered carrier will (also) considerably strengthen the deterrence power," Ishiba said.

The Kitty Hawk and George Washington are approximately the same size and carry about the same number of aircraft (85 to 90) and personnel (about 5,500).

But a Foreign Ministry brochure trumpets the George Washington as far more powerful than the Kitty Hawk in terms of maneuverability and range.

The nuclear carrier can reach top speed within minutes. It can run without changing fuel for approximately 25 years, and can carry twice the amount of jet fuel for its air wind than its predecessor, the ministry says.

In its bid to win over an apprehensive public, the government has repeatedly stated that there has been no record of accidents involving nuclear reactors on U.S. Navy ships since they were first commissioned more than 50 years ago.

The Foreign Ministry has also put forward other facts to reassure the public, such as the safety of the pressurized water reactors employed on the ship in contrast to Chernobyl's graphite-moderated reactors.

While requesting a commitment to safety, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura last week told the director of U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion that Japan welcomes the presence of the George Washington in Yokosuka for its contribution to regional safety and peace. Adm. Kirkland Donald responded that the U.S. will remain dedicated to safely operating the nuclear warship.

But those contesting the presence of the carrier believe that a nuclear reactor, jet fuel and ammunition on a single warship is a recipe for disaster.

Protesters point to the leak of nuclear material from the submarine USS Houston, which came to light in August.

The U.S. Navy has said that the Los Angeles-class fast-attack sub may have leaked 0.605 microcuries of radioactive water during port calls at Nagasaki, Kanagawa and Okinawa prefectures but gave assurances that the amount was too small to have any adverse effect on human health or the environment.

The possible leak was due to water seeping out of a shut valve. The U.S. Navy said in a report that its periodic testing of the valve is effective in protecting the public and the environment but gave no cause for the malfunction.

The leak enraged residents where the Houston made port calls, including the governor of Nagasaki Prefecture.

"The incident imposes substantial anxiety to our citizens," Genjiro Kaneko said in a request to the Foreign Ministry last month.

"Explanations by the U.S. Navy did not detail the cause of the leakage. I understand there are military secrets, but they must provide more details and sufficient countermeasures," KPC's Kato told The Japan Times.

Lawyer Masahiko Goto, who works with local groups opposing the George Washington's deployment, said they are not overreacting to the arrival of the warship; rather, the government is being overconfident about the carrier's safety.

A request for a meeting about the nuclear carrier by Goto and other local residents was rejected by the U.S. Navy.

"Securing peace in the region is crucial, but it can come only after securing the safety of the Japanese citizens," he said in criticizing the government's decision.

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