NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2011 3:31:53 AM ET 2011-03-17T07:31:53

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 — japanemergencyusc@state.gov — 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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Video: Conflicting reports stoke radiation fears

  1. Closed captioning of: Conflicting reports stoke radiation fears

    >>> about this apparent disagreement between the u.s. and the japanese, let's look at what the head of the u.s. nuclear regulatory commission said today to congress about one of those fukushima reactors.

    >> we believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent fuel pool . and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high.

    >> in other words, the americans saying that it's worse than japanese officials have let on. all of this leads us to a chief environmental affairs correspondent, anne thompson . anne, we thought something was up when the americans wanted their people further away from it than the japanese standard earlier today. what's behind this apparent disagreement?

    >> reporter: well, brian, it's a crisis in the confidence in the information they are getting from the japanese government . in fact tonight tokyo electric power company is denying that that spent fuel pool is indeed dry. it says that everything is stable at reactor 4. and you have the head of public affairs for the nrc, the nuclear regulatory commission , who's trying to walk back some of mr. jazco's comments today saying they understand the japanese are denying that there is a problem at reactor 4. they're trying to run that to ground. but what he's saying is they are erring on the side of caution. they're trying to be very conservative because this is a very serious situation. brian.

    >> anne thompson in our london bureau tonight. anne, thanks.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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