U.S., Japan set different evacuation standards around nuclear plant

A woman is scanned for radiation exposure at a temporary scanning center for residents living close to the quake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) AP Photo/Gregory Bull

A woman is scanned for radiation exposure at a temporary scanning center for residents living close to the quake-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Here's the question: how many miles do you need to be from the Fukushima reactors to be safe? Here's the answer: Apparently it depends on whether you're American or Japanese. Yes, an absurd answer -- but that's the state of play in Japan right now.

How did we arrive at this strange situation?

Before today both Japan and the U.S. government agreed that people within 20 miles of the damaged reactors should evacuate. Today, America's Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed that to 50 miles. Japan for the present is sticking with 20 miles.

White House press secretary Jay Carney tried to explain the discrepancy at his press briefing today. Carney, who previously said that Americans in Japan should follow the safety instructions from the Japanese government, acknowledged the break from that earlier advice. 

Nations' advice to citizens differs on Japan

Americans should listen to the U.S. government and evacuate if they're within 50 miles, he said. Does that mean Japanese residents in the same area should also follow that advice? Carney wouldn't say. And what about mixed Japanese/American families? Whose advice should they follow?

Carney refused to acknowledge that the Japanese 20-mile standard is "inadequate" - he said it's only "different." But how could it be anything other than inadequate if Americans within 50 miles of the plants are being told their lives are in danger if they don't evacuate?

Why not just say everyone within 50 miles, including Japanese, should evacuate? Carney wouldn't say, but a pretty good guess is that the U.S. doesn't want to look like its telling Japan what to do.

An argument could be made that this is an example of diplomatic manners and national pride trumping common sense -- even when lives are at stake.

To make the situation even more uncomfortable, the U.S. ambassador released the new 50-mile instructions in the middle of the night Japan time. Why? Government officials in D.C. say they don't know.

This situation also raises a broader issue - is the Obama Administration's decision to disagree with Japan on the evacuation zone a sign that President Obama and his experts have lost confidence in the government of Japan?

Carney wouldn't answer that question directly, but did make clear that U.S. citizens in Japan should now stay in "constant contact" with the U.S. embassy - and follow their advice.

Complete Coverage: Disaster in Japan

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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