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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A massive opposition effort to put the planned 2008 arrival of a U.S. Navy nuclear aircraft carrier to a vote in Yokosuka was to kick off Friday.

Concerns about safety are prompting the referendum attempt, said Yokosuka lawyer and opposition leader Masahiko Goto.

Although the government of Japan and the city’s mayor support the future deployment of the USS George Washington to Yokosuka Naval Base, accidents can happen and “people have concerns,” Goto said.

“Originally, the mayor was elected by opposing the nuclear carrier, but he announced that he will have to accept it in June,” Goto said. “The people’s voices were not heard.”

A referendum would not be binding, but they commonly have been used to express local opposition to plans involving the U.S. military. In March, for example, Iwakuni city voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to bring more aircraft to nearby Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. The city’s mayor asked the government of Japan to cancel the plan. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said “there will be no change.”

The group has one month — starting Friday — to collect the signatures of one-fiftieth of Yokosuka city’s eligible voting population, or about 7,200 names, to request a municipal plebiscite, Goto said. An estimated 1,500 people have volunteered to collect signatures at Yokosuka’s train stations, he said.

“If each person collects five signatures, we will be fine,” Goto said.

If they make the minimum, the group can request a city assembly vote on holding a referendum. More signatures mean more pressure, Goto said, adding, “We want to collect as many signatures as possible.”

Yokosuka city officials have maintained that the U.S. Navy deployment is the result of an agreement made between the two countries and does not “fit” the scope of a city referendum. But Mayor Ryoichi Kabaya said that once he receives an official request, he will handle the situation in accordance with local law.

The U.S. Navy announced its intention in 2006 to bring the USS George Washington to Yokosuka to replace the conventionally powered USS Kitty Hawk, the Navy’s oldest active-duty ship. The Navy maintains that nuclear-powered warships have operated for 50 years without any reactor accidents or radioactive releases that have “hurt human health or had an adverse effect on marine life.”

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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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