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Submarine radiation leak stirs concerns in Japan

Date Posted: 2008-08-08

It isn’t even confirmed that a US nuclear submarine leaked trace amounts of radiation during visits to Sasebo and Okinawa earlier this year, but that’s not stopping activists from slamming both the Japanese government and the US military.

The US Navy has confirmed discovering negligible amounts of radioactive water in a gallon of water that spilled from a valve during the USS Houston’s dry dock maintenance at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The leak was discovered when the water spilled onto a worker’s leg during routine maintenance. The military concluded the water could have been leaking from the valve since as early as March, when the USS Houston was visiting Japanese ports.

Navy Captain Scott Gureck, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, says the total amount of radioactivity that could have been released at each port was less than one-half microcurie. That, he said, would be equivalent to the amount of radioactivity contained in a commercial bag of fertilizer, far less than the radioactive isotopes contained in a barium meal given patients in a hospital.

The Los Angeles-class submarine, based at Guam’s Apra Harbor, had visited Sasebo and Okinawa in late March before returning to Guam in May. The submarine had remained in Guam three weeks before heading to dry dock in Hawaii, where the leak was discovered July 17th.

Reaction has been mixed in Japan, but politicians and anti-nuclear activists alike have expressed concern over the delays in being notified about the possible leak. With the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington due to be based in Yokusuka in a few weeks, protesters have kicked up their demonstrations against American warships, complaining about potential dangers.

Akihiro Yoshida, a city official in Sasebo, confirms his city monitored local waters during the USS Houston’s visit, and said no abnormal increases in radioactivity were detected in the water. He said, though, “still, we are rather concerned.” No radioactivity was discovered during the submarine’s visit to Okinawa, where it anchored off shore near White Beach in Uruma City.

Reacting angrily to learning of the possible leak, Mayor Tsuneo Chinen demanded to know why it took months for the news to come out. “I believe it happened in Okinawa,” he charged, adding “I can’t believe American and Japanese politics. It must not happen here.” The Uruma City Assembly’s response was more measured, asking that the U.S. military “explain to citizens why there are more submarine visits,” asking that tests be conducted in waters off Okinawa, and “answer the question of whether there was any radioactive contamination.”

Assembly members say the “don’t want the American military to hide this kind of problem,” and said the Japanese Defense Agency shouldn’t hide information either. “It looks like there are many kinds of hidden problems,” members add, noting “we don’t want American nuclear submarines to visit here.”

The Heshiya area community leader says “we are afraid when submarines come to White Beach.” Heshiya is adjacent to White Beach. He asks the military to “explain to local residents what is happening, so local residents will feel better. For safety, please publish information about when submarines are coming.”

In mainland Japan, where citizen groups opposed to the USS George Washington’s deployment to Yokusuka is a heavily debated topic, attorney Masahiko Goto is criticizing the military’s withholding details about the submarine radioactivity leak. “They discovered it weeks ago, and did not inform the Japanese government immediately,” Goto said in a prepared statement. “The U.S. Navy’s handling of the accident and lack of transparency shows there is no way we can trust them,” he added.

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