Concerns remain about nuclear-powered aircraft carrier


The USS George Washington, a 97,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was deployed to Yokosuka Port in Kanagawa Prefecture on September 25. Forty years have passed since the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, made its initial port call at the U.S. naval base in Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture. This is the first time a nuclear-powered vessel has made its home port in Japan.

At 330 meters the George Washington is longer than the 260-meter Yamato, one of the two largest battleships of the former Imperial Japanese Navy. The George Washington has a crew of approximately 5,600 and is the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier deployed outside the continental U.S. It is attached to the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, whose area of responsibility extends from Asia to the Indian Ocean. The ship is expected to display U.S. might to China, which is proceeding with an arms buildup, and participate in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries where conditions remain unstable.

Unlike port calls of just a few days to lay in supplies, deployment means the carrier will be in Yokosuka for long stretches of time. The ship is equipped with two pressurized-water reactors, equivalent to a small-scale nuclear power plant. This is akin to putting a nuclear power plant in a densely populated metropolitan area.

The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a non-governmental organization, has predicted that if a reactor meltdown were to occur on the ship, 200,000 to 300,000 people would die from cancer as a result. In anticipation of the deployment of the George Washington, the City of Yokosuka increased from four to 10 the number of locations near the base at which it measures radiation. This is only to be expected.

The U.S. Navy has stressed that over the years none of its nuclear-powered vessels has had a reactor accident. The Japanese government has also consistently emphasized the vessel’s safety. But a series of incidents has raised doubts about this safety, and the concerns of the public have not been allayed.

In May, a fire occurred aboard the George Washington while it was in the Pacific off the coast of South America. It took half a day to put the fire out, and there was extensive damage including bulkheads that melted or were warped by the intense heat. The deployment of the ship to Yokosuka was delayed by one month because of this fire, which was caused by smoking in violation of the ship’s rules.

In August it was revealed that over a period of two years water with trace amounts of radioactivity had been leaking from the USS Houston, a nuclear submarine that made a port call in Japan during that time. Despite having been informed of this by the U.S., the Foreign Ministry of Japan did not immediately notify the local government or other authorities, thus revealing the ministry’s predilection for cover-ups.

According to Peace Depot, a non-profit organization, since 1980 there have been nine incidents in which radiation leaked from U.S. nuclear-powered vessels. We cannot rely exclusively on information and reports provided by the U.S.

But military secrecy presents an obstacle, and Japan has been unable to conduct even an on-site inspection of the George Washington. If the ship’s deployment must be accepted, the disclosure of more information and enhanced safety measures on the part of the U.S. are essential. In order to allay the concerns of local residents, there must be a mechanism to verify safety measures to prevent radiation leaks.

The deployment of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Yokosuka represents one more step toward the relocation of carrier-based aircraft to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni. This move, which is scheduled to be completed in 2014, is part of the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan and was intended to alleviate the noise problem at Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture. That is all the more reason that not only Iwakuni but also Hiroshima, which has experienced an atomic bombing, must not let this issue go without great concern.

(Originally published on September 26, 2008)

Related articles
Relocation of carrier-based aircraft to Iwakuni gains momentum (Oct. 3, 2008)