The U.S. Navy has announced that the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, currently stationed in Japan, will be decommissioned, and replaced for the first time by a nuclear-powered carrier.
For the first time, Japan has agreed to allow the U.S. Navy to station a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in one of its ports. The decision overturns a 30-year tradition of basing only conventional powered U.S. ships in Japan.
A conventional-powered carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, is currently stationed in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. It is due to be decommissioned and replaced in 2008 with one of the Navy's nine Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers. The Kitty Hawk is the navy's oldest active ship, and has been based at Yokosuka since 1998.
The nuclear issue is a sensitive issue for Japan, the only country ever to have been attacked with nuclear weapons. In the past, many Japanese have reacted strongly to any suggestion of allowing nuclear-powered warships into Japanese ports.
During a press conference in Tokyo on Friday, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer assured the Japanese public that nuclear safety would be a top priority.
"For the past 40 years, American nuclear-powered warships have been visiting Japan," he said. "After more than 1,200 visits in Japan, and thousands more around the world, there has not been one single incident that caused the release of radioactive material that had an adverse impact on the environment."
But opponents were not satisfied with Mr. Schieffer's assurances. The mayor of Yokosuka, Ryoichi Kabaya, voiced strong opposition to the deployment.
Shigefumi Matsuzawa, the governor of Kanagawa prefecture, where Yokosuka is located, said the prefecture "cannot agree" to the deployment. Masahiko Goto, a Yokosuka lawyer, says he has gathered 420,000 signatures on a petition opposing the deployment.
Mr. Schieffer said the United States and Japan had considered opposition views before making the decision. "In the end it was not possible to satisfy the Mayors' requests," he said. "We ask for their understanding and that of their citizens."
Rear Admiral James Kelly, the commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan, says it is essential to replace fossil fueled carriers like the Kitty Hawk with the more capable nuclear-powered ships. He says the newer ships will be better able to defend the region.
The Navy says all U.S. conventional powered aircraft carriers will eventually all be replaced.