September 25, 2008 / 7:49 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. nuclear warship arrives in Japan amid protests

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Hundreds of people protested the arrival of a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier at its new home port in Japan on Thursday, demanding greater safety measures.

Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington form the phrase "Hajimemashite," which means "Nice to meet you" in Japanese, as they arrive at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, September 25, 2008. REUTERS/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Clifford L. H. Davis/Handout

The United States has been trying to allay fears over the stationing of the USS George Washington carrier in Japan, the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks.

“I hope that a safe operating system of the aircraft carrier would be established, and that the emergency drills will be reinforced,” Shigefumi Matsuzawa, governor of Kanagawa prefecture was quoted by Kyodo News Agency as saying.

The George Washington, which replaces one of the oldest active ships in the U.S. Navy, will be stationed in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. The move comes at a time of fresh concerns over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

New Prime Minister Taro Aso welcomed the warship’s arrival, telling reporters there have been no past examples of leaks by nuclear-powered carriers in Japan.

“The situation surrounding Japan now, including the Korean peninsula, is difficult. I think this nuclear aircraft is good from the standpoint of U.S.-Japan security alliance, “ Aso said.

Concerns over the carrier were fueled in Japan by a fire on board the warship in May and news in August that water containing a small amount of radiation has been leaking for over two years in Japanese ports from a U.S. nuclear submarine.

“I can’t help but think about radiation damages, so that’s why I just can’t accept this,” said Rieko Kakei, a 70-year-old housewife who lives in Yokosuka.

The U.S. military has said the fire, which blazed for 12 hours and seriously injured one sailor, never posed a threat to the ship’s nuclear reactor.

Family members of the crew of the aircraft carrier welcomed the warship with balloons and signs, while several hundred residents and members of civic groups protested at a nearby park, watched by riot police.

“Nuclear aircraft carriers are dangerous to begin with. And the biggest problem is that the government is absolutely not trying to take any safety measures,” Masahiko Goto, a lawyer who has been organizing some of the protests, told Reuters by phone.

“We are the ones who will be co-existing with the nuclear aircraft carrier, so we are going to ask for stronger safety measures... as well as for the deployment to be canceled.”

Nearly 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed n Japan under the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but friction with local communities often occurs. About 2,800 U.S. military personnel are posted in Yokosuka.

Residents in the port city were angered earlier this year after a sailor was arrested in April on suspicion of murdering and robbing a taxi driver.

Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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