The United States on Wednesday authorized the first evacuations of Americans out of Japan, taking a tougher stand on the deepening nuclear crisis and warning U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.
President Barack Obama placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan to discuss Japan's efforts to recover from last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-chi plant. Obama promised Kan that the U.S. would offer constant support for its close friend and ally.
But a hastily organized teleconference with officials from the State and Energy Departments underscored the administration's concerns. The travel warning extends to U.S. citizens already in the country and urges them to consider leaving. The authorized departure offers voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya and affects some 600 people.
Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy said chartered planes will be brought in to help private American citizens wishing to leave. People face less risk in southern Japan, but changing weather and wind conditions could raise radiation levels elsewhere in the coming days, he said.
Dependents have not been ordered to leave, but if they choose to the State Department bears the expense of their transportation, NBC News reported.
"This is the lowest step on our hierarchy," Kennedy said.
A message from U.S. Ambassador John Roos on Thursday urged "as a precaution" that American citizens who live within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant to evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.
The State Department set up an e-mail address — firstname.lastname@example.org — at which Americans could seek help leaving the country.Map: Interactive: Explore Japan's earthquake (on this page)
The decision to begin evacuations mirrors moves by countries such as Australia and Germany, who also advised their citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and other earthquake-affected areas. Tokyo, which is about 170 miles from the stricken nuclear complex, has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, though Japanese officials have said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital.
U.S., Japan differ on precaution
Earlier Wednesday, the Obama administration urged the evacuation of Americans — estimated by the Japanese census at 52,000 — from a 50-mile radius of the stricken nuclear plant, raising questions about U.S. confidence in Tokyo's risk assessments. Japan's government was urging people within 20 miles to stay indoors if they could not evacuate.
How much radiation is dangerous?
Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday that he advised Obama to extend the advisory to 50 miles during a meeting Wednesday. It was in effect only a few hours before the full "authorized departure" was announced in the evening.
White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to minimize any rift between the two allies, saying U.S. officials were making their recommendations based on their independent analysis of the data coming out of the region following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.
"I will not from here judge the Japanese evaluation of the data," Carney told reporters. "This is what we would do if this incident were happening in the United States."
"We believe radiation levels are extremely high," he said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. had consular personnel in the Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures and was sending officials out to check on Americans.
"We have consular teams on the ground," Toner said. "Where they can, they are going door to door. They are going to hospitals. They are trying everything in their power to reach out and find American citizens."
The Pentagon said U.S. troops working on relief missions can go within 50 miles of the plant with approval. Spokesman Col. David Lapan said the U.S. would review requests from the Japanese for assistance that would require troops to move within that radius, though no approval for such movement had been given since the stricter guidelines were enacted.
The Pentagon said troops are receiving anti-radiation pills before missions to areas where radiation exposure is likely.
With the arrival of three more ships to the massive humanitarian mission, there were 17,000 sailors and Marines afloat on 14 vessels in waters off Japan. Several thousand Army and Air Force service members already stationed at U.S. bases in Japan have also been mobilized for the relief efforts. "Authorized departures" — in which the United States provides its own transportation to get Americans out of a dangerous situation — are relatively rare, but the announcement Wednesday marks the third such evacuation in the last month and a half. The U.S. government chartered flights to take Americans out of Egypt beginning Jan. 31 and ferries to remove them from Libya beginning Feb. 23.
Airmen have been flying search and rescue missions and operating Global Hawk drones and U-2 reconnaissance planes to help the Japanese assess damage from the disasters. The operation is fraught with challenges — mainly, figuring out how to continue to provide help amid some low-level releases of radiation from the facility, which officials fear could be facing a meltdown.
Weather also temporarily hampered some relief plans Wednesday. Pilots couldn't fly helicopters off the deck of aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan until late afternoon because of poor visibility.
The 7th Fleet said 15 flights with relief supplies were launched from the eight-ship carrier group, about half as many as the 29 flights reported the previous day to deliver food, water, blankets and other supplies.
Several water pumps and hoses were being sent from U.S. bases around Japan to help at Fukushima, where technicians were dousing the overheating nuclear reactors with seawater in a frantic effort to cool them. The U.S. had already sent two fire trucks to the area to be operated by Japanese firefighters, said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
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Other countries' precautions
Britain, Australia and Germany have already advised their citizens in Japan to consider leaving Tokyo and earthquake-affected areas.
Andreas Peschke, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, said an estimated 5,000 Germans were in Japan before the earthquake but that only about 1,000 are believed to remain in and around the capital. The German Embassy in Tokyo also has been "partly relocated" to the consulate general in Osaka, Peschke said.
France has urged citizens with no pressing reason to stay in Tokyo to return to France or head to southern Japan. The government has asked Air France to mobilize aircraft in Asia to assist with departures.
Serbia and Croatia also advised their citizens to leave Japan, and Croatia said it was moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka because of the nuclear crisis.
More than 3,000 Chinese have already been evacuated from Japan's northeast to Niigata on Japan's western coast, according to Xinhua News Agency. On Tuesday, Beijing became the first government to organize a mass evacuation of its citizens from the quake-affected area.
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