Fretting safety, Yokosuka public awaits atomic-powered carrier

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Kyodo News

After seeing off the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk this week, Yokosuka now has to brace for the arrival of its replacement — the first nuclear-powered U.S. vessel to be based in Japan.

Mayor Ryoichi Kabaya basically supports the forward-deployment of the 102,000-ton George Washington. But the recent fire on the vessel that hurt two sailors has heightened safety concerns among residents of the Kanagawa Prefecture city.

“I regret that the incident took place at a very bad time,” Senior Vice Foreign Minister Hitoshi Kimura said.

Indeed, both the Japanese and U.S. governments are trying to dismiss concerns about the safety of nuclear-powered military vessels and create a welcoming mood for the George Washington.

U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lt. Gen. Edward Rice recently stressed the strategic significance of having the carrier here, saying: “The George Washington is a tremendously capable asset. It is more capable than the Kitty Hawk.”

The U.S. based three aircraft carriers, including the Kitty Hawk, at Yokosuka since 1973.

As the strength of the Self-Defense Forces is limited under the war-renouncing Constitution, forward-deployed carriers have been a strategic deterrent under the bilateral security alliance.

“It has significance for the United States to continue to have a carrier in Japan geographically, in terms of Washington’s strategy toward the Middle Eastern area,” military affairs commentator Tetsuo Maeda said. “The Middle East is on the other side of the globe for the United States. Having a carrier in Japan can save time and energy of going across the Pacific 10,000 km from mainland America.”

The Kitty Hawk is the U.S. Navy’s last conventionally powered carrier, and the Pentagon said it had no other option but to replace it with a nuclear-powered flattop.

There have been few major movements opposing the deployment of U.S. carriers to Yokosuka, which is also the headquarters for the U.S. Navy in Japan and a key Maritime Self-Defense Force base.

Yokosuka is also the hometown of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who built up strong ties with the U.S. during his five years in office.

But the fire on the George Washington has fueled concerns among a growing number of Yokosuka’s residents, even though the navy has repeatedly said the incident had no effect on the ship’s nuclear system.

Rice touted the safety of U.S. nuclear vessels, saying there has not been “one single incident of release of radioactivity or an environmental issue” in the U.S. Navy in 40 years.

But Yokosuka lawyer Masahiko Goto doubts this record. He leads a group opposed to the deployment of the George Washington.

“It is true that there have been no serious accidents like in Three Mile Island or Chernobyl,” Goto said. “But the United States hides a number of incidents, which could have resulted in a major accident involving nuclear-powered military ships and submarines since the 1970s.

“The problem is that Japan has no authority to check the safety standards of the George Washington or the facilities to maintain it,” he said.

Concerns about nuclear safety are a household topic in Japan — an earthquake-prone country with more than 50 nuclear plants, some of which have suffered accidents and defect coverups.

“The operation of nuclear plants is subject to control of the Japanese government. . . . But it is very dangerous for a state to have a nuclear reactor out of its control on its soil,” Goto said.

Yokosuka citizens’ groups petitioned twice for a plebiscite on the carrier, but the assembly rejected both attempts.