WASHINGTON (AP, WACH) - 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 non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.
Roughly 40,000 U.S. service members and Defense Department civilian employees are stationed in Japan. Spokesmen for both Columbia's Fort Jackson and Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base said Thursday that neither installation currently has personnel deployed to Japan.
The U.S. is doing minute-by-minute analysis of the fast-moving situation, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.
Passengers and cargo arriving from Japan are being screened for radiation "in an exercise of caution," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday. She said no harmful levels of radiation had been detected.Related Stories... Report: SC among nation TMs most at-risk sites for nuclear catastrophe Sen. Graham: Japan disaster shouldn't hinder U.S. progress SCANA: Jenkinsville nuclear site safe
President Barack Obama addressed the country Thursday afternoon saying there is no threat of a significant amount of radiation reaching Hawaii or the mainland of the U.S.
The President also pointed out the U.S. government is doing everything it can to help residents living in Japan. He also reiterated the fact that the evacuations are to keep U.S. citizens safe.
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.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military will coordinate departures for eligible Defense Department dependents.
Family members eligible to relocate will receive travel instructions from their local commands, Lapan said, noting that the relocation is temporary and that the family members will return when the situation in the region is resolved.
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.
The Pentagon said U.S. troops working on relief missions can get closer than 50 miles to the plant with approval. 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.
"U.S. forces remain in Japan and the U.S. has full capability to fulfill our alliance commitments to defend Japan and maintain peace and security in the region," Lapan said.
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.
What do you think about the Pentagon's decision to authorize the voluntary evacuation of U.S. civilians from Japan? As always, we want to hear from you.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)