YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Yokosuka city’s mayor changed his stance this week, announcing he now thinks it’s safe for the city to host a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

That may mean a warmer welcome for the U.S. Navy’s USS George Washington, which is to arrive to Yokosuka in 2008 to replace the USS Kitty Hawk, the Navy’s oldest ship and one of two remaining conventionally powered carriers.

Yokosuka Mayor Ryoichi Kabaya initially called the announcement a “crisis” but said he changed his mind after this week’s visit with Japan Foreign Minister Taro Aso.

“The safety of the carrier was guaranteed by the national government during a meeting with the foreign minister Monday. With his assured words, I made the decision,” Kabaya said during a Wednesday news conference, according to Yokosuka City’s Public Affairs Office chief Tetsuya Abe.

He also accepts the government of Japan’s joint decision with the United States as “inevitable,” he said.

“[Aso] told me Monday that there is zero possibility for the military to deploy a conventional-powered carrier,” Kabaya said. “Although faint, I still had a hope for a conventional-powered carrier but his clear denial [made me realize] I had no choice but to accept the nuclear-powered carrier.”

Kabaya said Aso convinced him of three important things:

Japan’s central government, citing the Navy’s record of no nuclear accidents in 50 years of using the technology, would guarantee the safety of the city’s half-million residents.The central government would solicit the Navy’s cooperation in drafting a disaster-prevention policy.The city government needed to make a decision before an impending deadline to start dredging the harbor to accommodate the new, larger carrier.The dredging project to deepen Berth 12 requires the mayor’s signature to start the survey work. The Japanese government spent about $114 million refurbishing and extending Berth 12 and just cut the ribbon on the new pier June 6.

The Navy is “grateful” for Kabaya’s statements and for the long history of friendship between the U.S. Navy and the City of Yokosuka, Commander, Naval Forces Japan spokesman Cmdr. John Wallach was quoted in a written statement as saying. Yokosuka Naval Base is part of the Forward Deployed Naval Forces, which includes about a dozen warships, 55 tenant commands and about 24,000 people.

Wallach called the nuclear carrier issue “critical” to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“Having one of the Navy’s most capable aircraft carriers assigned to the Forward Deployed Naval Forces greatly enhances the U.S. Navy’s ability to contribute to the defense of Japan, as well as our ability to maintain peace and stability in the western Pacific,” Wallach said.

A citizens’ group opposing the nuclear carrier has collected more than 470,000 signatures on a petition and presented it to the Yokosuka City Assembly.

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