By Ben Geman - 03/17/11 11:02 AM EDT
The State Department announced late Wednesday it is arranging voluntary evacuations from northeast Japan for family members and dependents of U.S. government officials, signaling growing concern about overheating reactors at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The department is also urging U.S. citizens to defer travel to Japan. It says those already in the country should consider leaving.
Patrick Kennedy, who is the State Department's undersecretary for management, said the voluntary evacuation plan for diplomats’ family members affects up to 600 people, covering the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the U.S. Consulate in Nagoya and a branch of the department’s Foreign Service Institute.
Kennedy said that while there are still commercial flights out of Tokyo, the department is arranging chartered travel for U.S. government family members who choose to leave, and for "any American citizens who might need assistance."
Desperate efforts to cool the overheating, badly damaged plant continued Thursday as Japanese military helicopters dumped water onto the complex to help prevent increased radiation releases, the Associated Press and other outlets reported.
The U.S. has urged American citizens within 50 miles of the stricken
plant to evacuate the area, and Kennedy said the U.S. government is
working to facilitate departures.
Kennedy spoke at a briefing with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman, who noted U.S. efforts to stay abreast of the nuclear plant's condition and levels of radiation.
“We’ve heard a lot of conflicting reports. Obviously, there are elevated levels of radiation at the reactors. We are in consultation, comparing notes,” he said.
The Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission have dispatched experts to the country.
Earlier Wednesday, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told a House panel of a grave situation at the Fukushima plant, noting there was no water in reactor No. 4 – which was not operating at the time the quake hit – and the fuel rods there were exposed as a result.
“We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures,” he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Japanese prime minister briefed Obama directly on the “status of Japanese actions to contain the nuclear emergency and to bring the situation under control,” according to a White House summary of the discussion. It noted that Obama “again conveyed his deep condolences at the tragic loss of life and the widespread suffering in Northeastern Japan.”
The two leaders spoke more broadly about the disaster as well. Here’s more from the White House summary released late Wednesday:
“The President briefed Prime Minister Kan on the additional support being provided by the U.S., including specialized military assets with expertise in nuclear response and consequence management. The two leaders also discussed the welfare and safety of American citizens in Japan and the President described steps that the U.S. is taking in this regard. He thanked the Prime Minister for his commitment to help American residents,” the White House said.
The summary adds:
“The Prime Minister expressed Japan’s appreciation for the extensive humanitarian, technical and other support provided by the United States. The two leaders reaffirmed that U.S. and Japanese experts and officials would continue to cooperate closely and they agreed to remain in close touch through this challenging period. The President promised that the United States will always stand by Japan, our close friend and ally. The President expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people, and his confidence that Japan will make a full recovery from this disaster.”
The voluntary evacuation will also apply to military families, Kennedy said.
“The Department of Defense is going to implement the State Department-approved voluntary departure for eligible Department of Defense dependents stationed in Japan,” he said.
But Kennedy strongly emphasized that the voluntary evacuation effort will not weaken the U.S. response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami – he noted that “all Embassy, consulate, and other U.S. Government operations continue and are unaffected by this action.”
“The Department of Defense has confirmed that U.S. military services and operations also continue without interruption. U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian assistance teams continue to assist the Japanese authorities throughout the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami,” Kennedy said.
This story was updated at 7:32 a.m.