U.S. sub may have leaked trace amounts of radiation at Japan, Guam bases
August 4, 2008
TOKYO — A Guam-based U.S. Navy nuclear submarine this summer may have leaked trace amounts of radiation at bases in Japan and in Guam, a Navy spokesman confirmed Saturday afternoon.
The leak on the USS Houston was found on July 17 when the submarine was in dry dock in Hawaii, according to Lt. Cmdr. David Benham, a spokesman for Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.
Navy officials are still investigating the cause of the leak and when it started, Benham said in a phone interview.
But he stressed that the leak was extremely minimal — less than amount of radiation found in a 50-pound bag of fertilizer — and that the Houston’s nuclear reactor and crew were never in danger.
"We are talking about extremely low levels," Benham said. "This is definitely not nuclear waste," he said in response to a reporter's question. "This is water."
News of the incident comes just weeks ahead of the controversial arrival of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington to be based in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo.
The carrier’s arrival was originally set for August under a Japan-U.S. security alliance, but was delayed until late September because of a fire aboard the vessel in May. The ship’s two top-ranking officer’s were relieved of duty Wednesday after the incident was blamed on cigarette smoking near improperly stored flammables. The George Washington is relieving the soon-to-be decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk and will be the first U.S. nuclear-powered ship to be stationed permanently in Japan.
The George Washington’s deployment has already triggered protests, and the fire escalated concerns many Japanese have about nuclear power.
The leak was discovered when sailors opened a valve and about a gallon of water spilled onto a sailor’s leg. The sailor and the water were tested for radiation contamination, Benham said.
The water contained about half a microcurie of radiation, or about half as much as in a 50-pound bag of commercial fertilizer, he said. Another valve was found leaking water on July 24, he said.
The state of Hawaii was notified of the discovery, and on Friday, the governments of Japan and Guam were told about it, Benham said.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was notified of the leakage Friday afternoon, an official of the ministry’s Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Division said by phone Saturday. He said the ministry requested that U.S. authorities provide updates as any new information on the leakage becomes available.
The ministry official also said monitoring posts at U.S. military bases that measure radiation showed no abnormal levels when the Houston visited.
The submarine visited Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, in March and April and anchored off the shore of Okinawa in March, the spokesman said.
A Sasebo city official said the city was contacted by the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo on Saturday morning. He said Mayor Norio Tomonaga expressed his concern that the notification from the Japanese government lagged.
Masahiko Goto, a lawyer representing a citizens’ group opposing the George Washington’s deployment, sharply criticized the U.S. Navy for allegedly withholding information about the submarine leak.
"They had discovered the radiation leak weeks ago and did not inform the Japanese government immediately," Goto said in a statement.
"The U.S. Navy’s handling of the accident and lack of transparency showed there is no way we can trust them," he said.
Many people in Japan, the only country to have suffered atomic bombings, are sensitive about the military use of nuclear technology and the presence of American forces. The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killed at least 200,000 people.
The Houston had been in Pearl Harbor for about three weeks before it was dry-docked.
The Los Angeles-class attack submarine remains in Hawaii for its routine maintenance, Benham said.
The USS Houston was commissioned in 1982, the Navy’s 132nd nuclear-powered submarine, according to the Navy’s Web site. It was used in the film "The Hunt for Red October."
The Associated Press and Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.