The aircraft carrier USS George Washington was moved this week from its Japanese port to avoid a potentially costly and complex future cleanup to remove traces of radiation, the Navy’s top uniformed official said yesterday.
The carrier did not face an acute, near-term radiation threat that would have forced its departure from Yokosuka, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) south of the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, said Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead.
Rather, Roughead said, he wanted to move the flattop because even residual traces of radiation on a nuclear-powered warship, while not harmful from a health standpoint, could be mistaken as a sign of a shipboard nuclear leak requiring identification and cleanup, he said.
“The fact that somebody could go aboard and detect some trace, I think, injects challenges,” he said in an interview. “When you think of an aircraft carrier that has literally thousands of miles of ventilation ducting in it, you’ve got a significant cleaning issue.
‘‘My view was ‘let’s just get her out,’ get her away from where she could pick up any sort of contamination so that that ship stays clean,” Roughead said.
U.S. Navy ships and helicopters have been involved in rescue efforts following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11.
The U.S. military has about 38,000 personnel ashore in Japan and an additional 11,000 afloat in the region or dispersed among 85 facilities on Honshu, Kyushu and Okinawa, according to U.S. Forces Japan.
“Radiation levels” from the crippled power plant “are not life-threatening or health-threatening -- for all Americans there -- but I watch that very closely,” Roughead said.
“I am very comfortable were we are in Japan in terms of the safety to our people and the precautions being taken,” he said.
The Japanese government has struggled to contain the ripple effects of the natural disasters that crippled the nuclear facility north of Tokyo.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said fuel rods at the plant have been damaged, releasing five kinds of radioactive material and contaminating seawater for the first time.