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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The call came in to Yokosuka Naval Base at precisely 9:05 a.m. Wednesday: An on-base monitoring post showed a high level of radiation, just as planned. Also just as planned, precisely 21 minutes later, the Navy confirmed its nuclear-powered submarine was not to blame.

“Conditions were normal,” said Cmdr. John Wallach, spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Japan.

No actual submarine visited Yokosuka, nor did any base monitoring posts actually register an abnormal reading. But Wednesday, the second time the city of Yokosuka staged its nuclear disaster drill, the Navy participated for the first time.

“The purpose, as far as the Navy’s participation is concerned, is to exercise communication links we’ve established with the city,” Wallach said. “The city knew who to call. The people who took the call knew what to do. It worked.”

Yokosuka Mayor Hideo Sawada agreed. “It was very effective,” he said, standing in the city gymnasium, where residents playing possible radiation victims were bused after everyone pretended a disaster alarm had rung.

Although pretense was involved, the drill was anything but fun and games. Japan’s port cities have voiced concerns for years about possible ill effects from U.S. nuclear-powered warships; cities not only track the ships’ port visits but also test radiation levels before they arrive and after they leave.

“We’re concerned about a nuclear accident,” said Masahiko Goto, a member of a Yokosuka citizen’s coalition, which in April presented Yokosuka city officials with a petition signed by 100,000 people opposed to permanently basing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Yokosuka if the conventionally-powered Kitty Hawk is decommissioned.

Navy officials say no decision has been made on when or if the Kitty Hawk — at 42, the fleet’s oldest carrier and one of the very few conventionally powered — will be decommissioned.

The Navy has tried to reassure Japan the warships are not a risk.

“In 55 years of the Navy’s nuclear program, there hasn’t been a single accident” involving a nuclear propulsion system, said Wallach, the Navy spokesman.

“Our nuclear-powered warships have steamed more than 128 million miles and amassed more than 5,500 reactor years. They’ve safely conducted thousands of port visits in more than 150 ports, in more than 50 foreign countries” without a problem, he said, adding that in 2002, 14 nuclear-powered warships visited Yokosuka, usually to pick up or drop off supplies and sailors.

City officials said they believed the Navy’s safety record was flawless and were confident it would remain so.

Japan, the only nation to ever suffer an atomic bombing, also performs nuclear disaster drills because of concerns about its own nuclear reactors — 51 in all, providing about a third of the country’s electricity. In 1999, an accident at Tokaimura nuclear-processing plant exposed dozens of people to high levels of radiation and kept 300,000 residents home for two days. That further heightened fears and Yokosuka, among other cities, began drafting plans to detect and deal with any nuclear accidents.

Shigeru Yoshino, 64, was one of about 100 residents who volunteered to participate. Just before 10 a.m., he trooped into the gym, a cloth over his nose and mouth, escorted by local firefighters and men in bright yellow biohazard suits. He wore a white sign identifying him as a possible radiation victim who had injured his right arm while evacuating.

First he was tested, with a white wand passed over his body, for radiation. He was fine, the examiners told him.

His next stop was the medical area, where people in spotless white coats put a splint on his arm and tightly bandaged it from wrist to shoulder. After a few minutes, they neatly unwound the bandage. Yoshino, a neighborhood leader, said he was happy to volunteer but he doubted there was much to worry about — and doubted the drills would do much good were there a real nuclear accident.

“It is unlikely that something like this will happen,” he said. “If it did happen, nothing can be done.”

Reiko Komatsu, a Japanese harp teacher who at 61 was about the average age of most of the volunteers, had a similar response.

“I wonder if the process will go as smooth if it really happened,” she said.

By 10:30, the drill was almost over. The mayor announced that the cause of the abnormal reading had been found: X-rays used to examine welds at a local construction site.

It was nothing to worry about, he said.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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