YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The space above Yokosuka Naval Base is an air thoroughfare for Japan’s busy Haneda Airport. About 50 commercial flights pass overhead each day.

But the impending arrival of the Navy’s first nuclear-powered ship to Yokosuka has one citizens’ group calling for voluntary no-fly zones over the base. Such zones already exist over the country’s 55 nuclear power plants.

The risk of a plane-caused nuclear accident will increase once the USS George Washington arrives in 2008, says the group “Hikaku shimin sengen undo Yokosuka,” literally translated as “Nuclear-free Citizens Declaration Action Yokosuka.” Nuclear-powered submarines that stop in Yokosuka also pose a disaster risk, the group stated.

“Isn’t a nuclear-powered submarine visiting Yokosuka Naval Base a nuclear facility?” the group asked in a recent letter to the city of Yokosuka. “If a nuclear carrier comes to Yokosuka, it means that a nuclear reactor — that has several times more power than a nuclear submarine — will stay in Yokosuka Naval Base more than 200 days a year. If a flying restriction is not imposed, a situation far more dangerous than nuclear submarine visits will emerge.”

The city plans to follow up on the question, Takehito Akimoto, the city’s military base division chief, said Wednesday.

“We plan to talk about it during the process of planning disaster prevention,” he said.

A voluntary no-fly zone is more stringent than the current policy above U.S. military installations in Japan. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, U.S. Forces Japan asked that Japan impose a voluntary ban on flying below 2,500 feet within two miles of U.S. bases, said Masayasu Okuda, an official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Status of Forces Division.

Because commercial jets fly at higher altitudes, the ban mostly applies to smaller planes, he said.

“Although it is a voluntary restriction, I have been told that it is generally followed,” Okuda said.

In comparison, all aviators are asked to avoid flying over Japan’s nuclear power plants, which provide 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

Yokosuka city officials have not yet requested this status, said Okuda, adding that if they do, the central government will determine whether it’s necessary.

Okuda said he also hasn’t received a request on the issue from U.S. Forces Japan.

For now, said Jon Nylander, Commander, U.S. Forces Japan spokesman, the Navy plans to stick with the existing policy.

“The government of Japan established the restricted air spaces over the reactors and they will decide if it is necessary over the Navy base,” he said. “Whether it will be changed or not is up to the government of Japan.”

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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