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Protests as U.S. ship docks at new Japan home

Protesters lined the harbor and flag-waving supporters crowded the dock as the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived at its new home port in Japan  on Thursday.
Image: Protestors march against the deployment of USS George Washington
Demonstrators march as the USS George Washington arrives in Yokosuka, Japan, on Thursday. The aircraft carrier is a replacement for the decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk, which was not nuclear powered.Junko Kimura / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Slogan-shouting protesters lined the harbor and flag-waving supporters crowded the dock as the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived at its new home port just south of Tokyo on Thursday.

The giant warship's arrival, delayed by a fire aboard the ship in May, brought out hundreds of supporters and demonstrators, though the two groups were kept well apart and no clashes were reported.

The George Washington, which can carry a crew of up to 5,600 and 70 aircraft, will become the U.S. Navy's only carrier with a home port outside of the United States. The USS Kitty Hawk, which it replaces, is to be decommissioned.

The demonstrators say the ship poses a threat to Tokyo because of the possibility of an accident in its nuclear reactor. They also are opposed to the increase in sailors who will be deployed to Yokosuka as a result of the ship swap, and say the carrier could make Yokosuka a target if hostilities break out between the United States and another country.

"We should not have a nuclear reactor, surrounded by ammunition and highly flammable jet fuel, located right outside of our most populated city," said Masahiko Goto, a local lawyer who has led protests against the ship.

Hot dogs and baby kissing
But Donald Winter, the U.S. secretary of the Navy, said the deployment of the ship demonstrates the U.S. commitment to its alliance with Japan and the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is based here.

"The 7th Fleet serves to defend Japan and deter war throughout the region," he said in a welcoming ceremony replete with brass bands, hot dogs and a baby-kissing ceremony. "By providing one of our newest and most capable carriers, the George Washington, to the 7th Fleet, we are demonstrating our commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance."

The nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington is docked at Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008. The giant warship arrived Thursday at its new home port, welcomed by a mix of cheering crowds and protesters. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) ** JAPAN OUT MANDATORY CREDIT FOR COMMERCIAL USE ONLY IN NORTH AMERICA **Kyodo News

A statement by Japan's new Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone also welcomed the carrier, but noted the Japanese concerns over a nuclear accident.

"We will continue to do all we can to assure that it is safe," Nakasone said.

The Navy says that upgrading to the George Washington will give the 7th Fleet greater range and better striking capabilities.

Along with the 7th Fleet, the largest in the Navy with about 60 ships and 20,000 sailors, there are about 50,000 U.S. troops deployed throughout Japan under a mutual security pact.

Radioactive water leak
The Kitty Hawk was conventionally powered and the deployment of the George Washington has raised concerns among anti-nuclear groups, who say it should not be located so close Tokyo, which lies about 30 miles to the north.

Such concerns were heightened when the U.S. Navy disclosed in early August that the USS Houston, a submarine, had leaked water containing radiation during several calls to Sasebo and Okinawa, in southern Japan, and Yokosuka between July 2006 and April 2008.

A Navy investigation found the leak posed no danger to Japan.

Concerns over safety were also raised after a fire broke out aboard the carrier in May. The fire, which is believed to have been caused by smoking in an unauthorized area, resulted in dozens of injuries and an estimated $70 million in damage.

The ship's commanding officer and executive officer were relieved of duty.

'Unblemished record'
Its new executive officer, Capt. Karl O. Thomas, said he was aware of the demonstrations.

"People can speak what they want to speak," he said. "If people want to protest, it is their right to do so."

He added, however, that the U.S. nuclear fleet has an "unblemished record" and said the safety concerns were unnecessary.

Sailors aboard the ship, which has been at sea for a month after completing repairs in San Diego, said they were simply glad to be back on solid ground.

"The first thing I want to do is go out and see Tokyo," said Seaman Darnell Bledsloe, 20, of Stuttgart, Arkansas. "I want to see if it looks like it does in the movies."