updated 3/16/2011 2:43:23 PM ET 2011-03-16T18:43:23

President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended the use of nuclear energy despite the calamity in Japan where a nuclear power plant leaked radiation in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

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The president told Pittsburgh television station KDKA that all energy sources have their downsides but that the U.S. — which gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power — needs to look at the full array of them.

Story: US energy chief: don't delay new nuclear plants

The president said facilities in the U.S. are closely monitored and built to withstand earthquakes, even though nothing's failsafe. Proponents of nuclear power fear their efforts to win over the public to the safety of their industry have been dealt a tremendous blow by the disaster in Japan.

Story: Helicopters drop water on damaged reactors

"I think it is very important to make sure that we are doing everything we can to insure the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear facilities that we have," the president said in a second TV interview Tuesday, with KOAT in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"We've got to budget for it. I've already instructed our nuclear regulatory agency to make sure that we take lessons learned from what's happening in Japan and that we are constantly upgrading how we approach our nuclear safety in this country," he said.

U.S. breaks with Japan over warnings
On Wednesday the White House recommended that U.S. citizens stay 50 miles away from a stricken nuclear plant, not the 20-mile radius recommended by the Japanese.

The order comes after Obama met Wednesday with top advisers and the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As late as Tuesday, the U.S. had not issued its own recommendations, advising citizens instead to follow the recommendations of the Japanese.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says the move does not signal a lack of confidence in Japan. He says the NRC is using its own data and making its recommendation on how it would handle the incident if it happened in the U.S.

Carney says the White House consulted with the Japanese government before making the recommendation.

White House plays down some concerns
The president said he's been assured that any radiation release from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant along Japan's northeastern coast would dissipate before reaching the U.S.

In Japan the crisis was spiraling as a fire broke out at a reactor a day after the plant emitted a burst of radiation. The government ordered people living within 20 miles of the plant to seal themselves indoors to avoid exposure.

Video: What to know about radiation poisoning (on this page)

At the White House Tuesday, Carney said that unlike some other countries the U.S. was not recommending that American citizens leave Tokyo over radiation concerns. Carney said that U.S. officials have determined Americans in Japan should follow the same guidance Japan is giving to its own citizens.

Nonetheless, Austria said it is moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka and France recommended that its citizens leave the Japanese capital.

Video: Expert: U.S. not prepared for nuclear crisis (on this page)

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has told Americans to avoid traveling to Japan.

More U.S. military exposed to radiation
Meanwhile, more U.S. military crews were exposed to radiation Tuesday as the Pentagon ramped up relief flights over the reeling country.

The Defense Department said the Navy started giving anti-radiation pills to some of those exposed, and Americans on two military bases south of Tokyo were advised to stay indoors as much as possible.

With more aid for victims on the way, the U.S. Navy said it was redirecting three ships to work in the Sea of Japan on the country's west coast rather than risk the hazards of radiation and the debris field in the waters off the east coast.

Sensitive air monitoring equipment on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington detected low levels of radioactivity from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant as the carrier sat pier-side at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, said Tuesday.

Video: US military expands Japan relief efforts

Davis said that while there was no danger to the public from the radiation levels, the commander recommended as a precaution that military personnel and their families at the two bases, Yokosuka and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, limit their outdoor activities and seal ventilation systems.

The Navy said Monday that radiation was detected by another carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and that 17 helicopter crew members had to be decontaminated after returning from search and rescue duty. The Navy said more crews were exposed to very low levels of radiation Tuesday and had to be decontaminated.

Potassium iodide pills were given to a small number of those crew members as a precaution, said Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman.

A three-ship amphibious group, including the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Essex, was directed to position itself in the Sea of Japan and was to arrive Thursday for other relief duties.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said his department has assembled a team of 34 people and sent 7,200 pounds of equipment to Japan to help monitor and assess the situation with the nuclear reactors.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Expert: U.S. not prepared for nuclear crisis

  1. Transcript of: Expert: U.S. not prepared for nuclear crisis

    GUTHRIE: All right, James Acton from Carnegie , thank you so much . Aton Edwards is a disaster preparedness expert and the author of "Preparedness Now!" Aton , good morning to you.

    Mr. ATON EDWARDS: Good morning.

    GUTHRIE: I want to put a map up on the screen. It may be disturbing to a lot of folks here in this country. We're showing not only the quake zone where we're most quake prone in this country, but also where the power plants are in this country.

    Mr. EDWARDS: Mm-hmm. Right...

    GUTHRIE: As we -- as we look at that, how much a danger is this country and how prepared are we for an accident like this?

    Mr. EDWARDS: Well, we're not prepared for an accident like this. I mean, the Japanese have invested an enormous amount of resource into, you know, tsunamis and earthquakes and fortifying their infrastructures, and we've got a long way to go before we get to that point. And the American people aren't prepared. The American infrastructure isn't prepared because we don't have the medical situation, the health care. If we had a disaster of this magnitude and we had an enormous amount of injuries and deaths and, you know, infrastructural damage, we'd be in serious trouble.

    GUTHRIE: We only have about a minute, but you have a couple of items here with you. And Nuke Alert , what would this do?

    Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah, what this is is it's a civilian radiation monitor because, you know, people don't know what a millisievert is and a gray...

    GUTHRIE: Correct.

    Mr. EDWARDS: ...you know, carry all these things. This thing can chirp when you put it near something that emits radiation. It'll chirp like a bird. The more radiation the more it chirps. Now, what you have here is a particulate respirator.

    GUTHRIE: This.

    Mr. EDWARDS: A full-face -- a partial face respirator.

    GUTHRIE: You suggest people should have these at home?

    Mr. EDWARDS: Oh, yeah, I would say so because it's, you know, it's very inexpensive, it's something that you can put on your face that, you know, could protect you from the inhalation of, let's say, radioactive material. Because if it embeds in your lungs it's going to emit in your lungs and it's not good.

    GUTHRIE: And finally, iodine -- Matt's about to talk to Dr. Nancy about these, so we'll get into that issue -- but you say it's good to just have them just in case.

    Mr. EDWARDS: Yeah. But I think the American people are taking this too far. We don't have to really worry about getting these pills right now and having a mad rush for this. This is a thyroid blocker, it protects you from getting, you know, cancer in the thyroid. It's something that you can have if you live near a nuclear reactor, but it's not something that we need to rush and panic and buy it and like that. You know, in that way it's just not necessary right now.

    GUTHRIE: All right, Aton Edwards , great to have your information this morning.

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