The United States 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 Obama on Wednesday 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, and "expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people," the White House said.
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.
Separately, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo said it chartered 14 buses with over 600 seats for to ferry U.S. citizens from the Sendai area to Tokyo. The State Department announced the move in a tweet, saying buses will begin departing Friday.
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.
France also said Thursday that it was chartering flights to allow its citizens to leave Japan free of charge.
There is no indication that the U.S. is planning to order a major evacuation of U.S. citizens from Japan. However, the U.S. does have plans "on the shelf" for such a scenario, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports reports, including calling up the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which is made up of commercial airliners that could fly 18,000-50,000 people a day out of Japan.
Aircraft have been flown shifted to bases on Okinawa and Guam in order to open up ramp space at Atsugi Naval Air Facility south of Tokyo. Air evacuations would leave U.S. Navy ships in the area free to continue their relief efforts.
Anxious to safeguard the U.S. relationship with its closest Asian ally, Obama told Kan Wednesday evening about the steps the U.S. was taking, shortly before the State Department announced the first evacuations.
But the alliance looked likely to be strained, with the U.S. taking more dramatic safety precautions than Japan and issuing dire warnings that contradicted Japan's more upbeat assessments.
Earlier Wednesday, the Obama administration urged the evacuation of Americans 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.
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."
Until Wednesday, the U.S. had advised its citizens to follow the recommendations of the Japanese government. As late as Tuesday, Carney had said those recommendations were "the same that we would take in the situation."
But conditions at the nuclear plant continued to deteriorate, with surging radiation forcing Japan to order workers to temporarily withdraw. Obama met at the White House with Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who recommended the wider evacuation zone.
During testimony at Congress on Wednesday, Jaczko said anyone who gets close to the plant could face potentially lethal doses of radiation.
"We believe radiation levels are extremely high," he said.