Ambassador Schieffer: U.S. Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers are Safe

December 25, 2005

The Japanese version of this article appeared in the Dec. 25 Mainichi Shimbun on page 5.

On October 27, I informed the Japanese government that we would replace the Kitty Hawk with a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier. I hope the people of Japan will consider three key points as they think about this issue. First, we carefully considered Japanese views. Second, our bilateral alliance requires the most capable carrier be forward deployed to the Western Pacific. Finally, the safety of U.S. Navy nuclear-powered warships is impeccable.

We have closely consulted with the national government and listened very carefully to local authorities. Both Ambassador Baker and I talked with former Yokosuka mayor Sawada, and I have met several times - most recently on November 10 - with current mayor Ryoichi Kabaya. I faithfully relayed the requests of Yokosuka City and Kanagawa prefecture to our government. The Kitty Hawk successor question - including Japanese views - received the most careful scrutiny possible throughout the decision-making process.

The Navy finally decided that a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier would replace the Kitty Hawk in 2008. A careful analysis of all options revealed that neither the USS John F. Kennedy nor USS Kitty Hawk itself could properly fulfill Kitty Hawk's vital, high-tempo mission beyond 2008. Admiral Mullen, our Chief of Naval Operations, told me that the Navy is moving toward an all-nuclear powered carrier force. Indeed, since 1964, the Navy has built only nuclear-powered carriers because they are simply better warships.

The Seventh Fleet's carrier battle group is the most important force of America's most important alliance in Asia. It is the only carrier assigned outside the U.S., unmistakable evidence of how much America values its commitment to defend Japan and ensure peace and stability in Asia. Due to increased storage for aviation fuel and weapons, Nimitz-class carriers are faster and can maintain combat operations for twice as long as fossil fuel powered carriers like Kitty Hawk. Their flight decks are 10 percent larger, allowing safer and more efficient flight operations. However, there will be no increase in the number of aircraft assigned to Atsugi air base because of the change in carriers.

Our nuclear-powered warships have an outstanding safety record. Over fifty years, they have safely steamed more than 133 million miles on nuclear power. When visiting more than 150 ports in 50 countries, including Japan, the Navy has strictly observed the same safety precautions and procedures that it follows when operating from U.S. ports. Since 1964, U.S. nuclear-powered warships have visited Japanese ports more than 1,200 times, with no adverse effects on human or marine health, or on the environment.

In a recent newspaper essay, Mayor Kabaya asked, "How would the US Navy feel if there were an atomic power plant built a kilometer from their homes? That is the distance to the nearest resident's home from Berth 12, where a US carrier usually anchors at Yokosuka." In fact, many people will live much closer to the Nimitz-class carrier than one kilometer. Five thousand American crewmembers will live on the ship most of the year. Even when the carrier is in Yokosuka, the closest residents to the new carrier will be our Navy families, including more than a thousand children. We are absolutely confident that there will be no danger either to Navy families or to Japanese citizens. We have home ported nine nuclear-powered carriers in major American ports for decades without incident. These ships are extremely safe and reliable.

We would never do anything to impair our good relationship with Japan and our friendly cooperation with Yokosuka city. Japan deserves - our alliance demands - the most capable carrier available be assigned to replace the Kitty Hawk. Quite simply, that is a Nimitz-class carrier.