TOKYO — The United States on Thursday began evacuating Americans from Japan amid fears that four tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors may be closer to a core meltdown.
The State Department said that it had arranged charter flights to South Korea and Taiwan for family members of embassy staff and other U.S. government personnel living in three major Japanese cities, Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama. Any American in Japan can take advantage of the U.S. flights, the State Department said, but private citizens would be expected to reimburse the government for the expense.
The U.S. Navy said it, too, would begin evacuating families of sailors stationed at two bases near Tokyo, Yokosuka Naval Base and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, starting Thursday night or Friday morning. In northern Japan, the commander of Misawa Air Base said it also would evacuate family members.
The announcement of evacuations from the Tokyo area, 150 miles south of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, heightened tension among foreigners in the Japanese capital and on the country's U.S. military bases, home to more than 38,000 active duty troops and 43,000 family members.
Anxiety had been steadily rising in recent days as the extent of the reactors' problems became known, and conversation among Americans has focused on possible changes in wind direction that would blow more radioactive debris toward Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.
On Wednesday, the United States embassy, acting on advice from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, recommended that anyone living within 50 miles of the damaged reactors should leave, if possible. That's four times the size of the 12-mile evacuation zone Japan has ordered.
Thousands of foreign residents jammed the Justice Ministry's Tokyo Immigration Bureau Thursday to get re-entry permits, which they would need if they left Japan and then tried to come back into the country.
More than 2,500 people stood in line outside the office at mid-day, according to Kyodo News Agency. The office received 10,000 permit requests Wednesday and was on track to exceed that figure for Thursday, Kyodo reported.
The news of the voluntary evacuation delighted many at the Navy bases. Yokosuka detected slightly elevated airborne radiation levels this week and residents were advised to limit outdoor activities to avoid exposure. Thursday, their community forums were buzzing with detailed questions about which documents they would need to evacuate and what they should pack.
At Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, the largest of the military installations on Japan's main island, the base commander took to the military's FM radio channel to urge people to "breathe through your nose and relax." Col. Otto Feather said he expected a voluntary evacuation plan for Yokota would be announced in the next day or two.
"I know there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to get out of here ... . The last thing we want is people panicking and clamouring and clawing to get out of here, at a time when we need calm and patience," he said.
Yokota's air monitoring continued to show normal results, he said, and he said he and his wife planned to stay. The radio station replayed the interview with him every half hour.
Meredith Whitney, a civilian who works at Yokota's civil engineering squadron, said she noticed the base dividing into two camps: The worried and the un-worried.
"Most of the people I know have kids and so they're leaving, largely because they don't want to take any risks with their children," said Whitney, a native of Overland Park, Kan., who is married to a Coast Guard officer based at Yokota.
Whitney said she believes radiation levels have not reached unsafe levels and that she won't leave unless the evacuation becomes mandatory.
(Ruskin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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