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Obama defends nuclear energy

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.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

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.

"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 warningsOn 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.

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.

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.

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.