U.S. authorizes American evacuations from Japan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States has 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 nonessential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.

President Obama placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Wednesday 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. Mr. Obama promised Mr. Kan that the United States would offer constant support for its close friend and ally, and he “expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people,” the White House said.

But a hastily organized teleconference late Wednesday 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.

Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department will coordinate departures for eligible dependents.

The decision to begin evacuations mirrors moves by countries such as Australia and Germany, which 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.

Anxious to safeguard the U.S. relationship with its closest Asian ally, Mr. Obama told Mr. Kan on Wednesday evening about the steps the United States was taking, shortly before the State Department announced the first evacuations.

But the alliance looked likely to be strained, with the United States 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 press secretary 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,” Mr. Carney told reporters. “This is what we would do if this incident were happening in the United States.”

Until Wednesday, the United States had advised its citizens to follow the recommendations of the Japanese government. As late as Tuesday, Mr. 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 withdraw temporarily. Mr. Obama met at the White House with Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who recommended the wider evacuation zone.

During testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Mr. 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.

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