A mobile nuclear reactor comes to Tokyo Bay Nuke Info Tokyo No. 110

By Tsutomu Hirosawa*

There is something I want people to understand first of all. That is that nuclear submarines frequently visit the US’s Yokosuka Naval Base. Last year nuclear submarines visited 17 times for a total of 127 port days. That is down from what it once was, but it still means nuclear warships are going in and out of the overcrowded Tokyo Bay. Now an even more dangerous situation is about to be brought upon us.

On October 27th last year the US government gave notice that Yokosuka was to become the home port for a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The Japanese government announced the news the following day. It would replace the current conventional carrier, Kitty Hawk, which is fueled by heavy and light oil and is to be retired in 2008. So what were all those promises about consulting the local people and respecting their views? We are outraged at the US government, the Japanese government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In an article for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper (November 12th), Rear Admiral James Kelly, Commander of the US Naval Forces in Japan wrote, “The security environment in the Western Pacific region increasingly requires that the U.S. Navy station its most technologically and operationally capable ships forward from the United States, working with our Allies and friends from established forward-deployed positions.” He went on to state, “The people of Japan can be assured of the safety of U.S. nuclear-powered warships. U.S. nuclear-powered warships have safely operated for more than 50 years without a reactor accident or any release of radioactivity that has had an adverse effect on human health, marine life, or the quality of the environment.”

This shows the US Navy’s firm intention to preserve its overwhelming strike power in East Asia and to maintain the forward deployment posture which enables it to go beyond the framework of the Japan-US Security Treaty and rapidly strike regions such as the Middle East. A fundamental problem with home porting a nuclear aircraft carrier in Yokosuka is that it means Yokosuka and Japan will remain deeply involved in US military activities which are illegal under international law, such as the war against Iraq. However, even looking at it from the position of the US government, its aims could be achieved without a nuclear carrier. Indeed, arguments based on cost-benefit analyses have existed for a long time to the effect that it would be better to focus the fleet around a different warship. Is it perhaps more about securing nuclear technology and employment than about military necessity?

So what about safety? Aircraft carriers in themselves present big problems. Huge at about 300 meters long, they are nevertheless too short for an aircraft runway. When aircraft take off they are assisted by a catapult and when they land they are forcibly stopped using a wire, all while the carrier is moving at full speed. This is very difficult. Aircraft which fail often land in the sea. Therefore, they conduct endless difficult take-off and landing drills, which make the noise around Atsugi Base unbearable and cause residents to live in fear of crashes.

There is an even greater problem with nuclear aircraft carriers. The nuclear reactor which powers them uses highly enriched (weapons grade) uranium. Consequently, frequent adjustments have to be made. Sometimes they are brought to full power in just one minute. It is a design which is unthinkable for nuclear power plants. So aircraft carriers are nuclear reactors, which float around on the ocean carrying large numbers of nuclear weapons. Can they withstand torpedoes and the like? And surely there must be a limit to the measures for accident prevention and radiation leaks available on a ship. Clearly, they represent a different level of danger from nuclear power plants. Yet Kelly is trying to tell us that the safety of nuclear warships (nuclear submarines included) is guaranteed and that there have never been any accidents.

Unfortunately, many accidents have occurred. Just considering the accidents discovered as a result of research by US groups, which represent only a fraction of the total, there have been cases of illness and radiation exposure to operators and sailors, releases of high-level radiation into harbors and into the atmosphere, and situations that were just one step short of becoming full-blown disasters. Even if one were to be generous and admit that there haven’t been any disasters like Chernobyl, there is no guarantee that there won’t be any in future.

An email reply from the Commander US Naval Forces Japan to the Asahi Shimbun was published in the newspaper’s 23 December 2005 edition. The reply says, “A radiation related emergency is almost impossible”1, but this is effectively an admission that there is a slight chance of such a situation arising. We don’t expect that there will in fact be a major accident, but it is not impossible. The City of Yokosuka takes the same attitude. So the question arises, “What should be done about it?” The email continues, “If this situation arises, emergency response procedures will be activated, including informing the Japanese government.” We are reassured that a manual covering this eventuality exists, but “Internal procedures for emergency responses to radiation incidents on nuclear warships only envisage action by the navy and cannot be published.” In the case of aircraft carriers based in the US, it is asserted that “There are no special provisions [for residents], such as distributing iodine tablets or evacuation in the case of a nuclear accident.”

Shall we conclude then that though an accident is not impossible, there is no chance of it having an impact outside the nuclear warship? But the timing and contents of the notification are in the hands of the US military and there is no detailed explanation of the preventative measures that have been taken. (The explanations for nuclear power plants might be inadequate, but this is in a different league.) Would you go along with them if the military said to you, “Detailed, objective information cannot be released because it is a military secret, but trust us”? We know of lots of mistakes made by the US military. It used its own soldiers and citizens as guinea pigs during nuclear tests and exposed them to depleted uranium….

The fact is that beneath the surface preparations to home port a nuclear carrier have been steadily proceeding. A typical example is the extension of the pier of the number 12 berth. However, both the US and Japanese governments kept saying that this was for the current carrier. On 26 April 2004 then Yokosuka Mayor, Hideo Sawada, insisted for the first time that if this is the case the replacement should be a conventional carrier. That was effectively a declaration rejecting a nuclear carrier. The present Mayor, Rouichi Kabaya, has continued this attitude.

This attitude is backed up strongly by a petition to the mayor and the governor initiated by the Citizens’ Group Concerned About Yokosuka Becoming Home Port for U.S. Nuclear-powered Aircraft Carriers, of which we are members. So far over 350,000 signatures, mainly from within Kanagawa Prefecture, have been submitted and signatures are still being collected. The purpose is to encourage the mayor to exercise to the full his power as controller of the port, in order to prevent it becoming the home port for a nuclear aircraft carrier. In the future the US and Japanese governments will probably give notice of construction of facilities and dredging for the nuclear carrier. This is where we hope Mayor Kabaya will show his mettle. For that purpose we are carrying out all sorts of original actions.

The nuclear submarines mentioned at the beginning of this article stay a few days at a time. However, a home ported nuclear aircraft carrier would be in port for half of the year and it is believed to have two 200 MW reactors on board (each 6 times the power of nuclear submarine reactors). Refueling will not be carried out, but the risk of an accident in the course of regular maintenance will be greatly increased.

If the 10-kilometer radius used for nuclear power plants is applied, all of Yokosuka, Zushi, Hayama and the southern part of Yokohama fall within the emergency planning zone. There are 770,000 people living in this area.

For us there is just one good thing in all this. That is that we might really come to understand the feelings of people living near nuclear power plants.

1. English versions of the email message quoted here were not found. The original of the November 12th Asahi Shimbun article quoted in paragraph three, was found on the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan web site.

*Tsutomu Hirosawa is a member of Non-nuclear Citizens’ Manifesto Campaign, Yokosuka

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