Political parties, trade unions, environmentalists and many concerned citizens of Tamil Nadu have stepped up their opposition to the arrival of the USS Nimitz, even as the aircraft carrier draws closer to Chennai harbour for its four-day goodwill visit to India from July 1.
The American warship is now around 10 nautical miles from the Chennai coastline but protests from several quarters has led the Indian government to carry out a safety assessment of the nuclear-powered ship.
A high-level security team has been aboard the Nimitz since Thursday for the assessment.
Apart from the safety concerns, political leaders are also sceptical about India reversing its past policy opposing the transit of nuclear weapons in its neighbourhood.
MDMK leader Vaiko said: "...as Kalpakkam and Koodankulam atomic power stations are located on Tamil Nadu's coast, there is a fear that the visit of a nuclear-powered warship to the port here would endanger the country's security."
Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D Raja added: "We are surprised to see a reversal of India's age-old policy of not allowing warships into its territorial waters."
AIADMK leader J Jayalalitha had earlier noted: "This is a serious issue and the possible radiation hazards to the people of Chennai cannot be taken lightly."
But defence ministry officials and the US government have rubbished the radiation aspect, pointing out that Nimitz has some 6,000 personnel on board and that any radiation leak would affect the ship's crew first before causing damage to others.
Meanwhile, Vel Murugan, a lawyer in Chennai, has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) at the Madras High Court "to urgently discuss the entry of US nuclear-powered warship USS Nimitz". The court, however, refused to admit the petition, saying the Nimitz visit "was a matter between two countries", and that a court could not interfere.
But Murugan plans to approach the court again. "This is not only about the USS Nimitz, it is a larger issue and needs to be sorted out," he said.
Left-led trade unions like the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), port workers federations and several groups like the All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation and the People's Union for Civil Liberties plan to stage a protest at the Chennai port July 2.
The US government, however, has asserted that the nuclear safety record of US nuclear-powered warships has been outstanding and that there has been no nuclear accident in the 56-plus year history of the programme.