(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. State Department announced Wednesday night that it is sending charter aircraft to Japan to help Americans seeking to leave the country amid the threat of radiation exposure from damaged nuclear plants there.
The department said it will assist the families of U.S. diplomats in Japan as part of a move called "authorized departure," which is the voluntary evacuation of those families that wish to leave. Seats on the charter aircraft will be available to both embassy families and private Americans.
U.S. consular officers are also at Japanese airports looking for Americans who need help getting out of the country. The State Department said that commercial flights have resumed at all airports except Sendai Airport and that commercial seats are still available.
The families of diplomats that are eligible for departure are those stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the Consulate in Nagoya, and the language training center in Yokohama. Up to 600 individuals are eligible from those three facilities. Other diplomatic families stationed elsewhere in Japan are not eligible.
The voluntary evacuations come as the State Department bumped its travel alert for Japan to a warning, strongly advising U.S. citizens to defer travel to the country as uncertainty remains over radiation exposure.
Officials said there are still conflicting reports about the amount of radiation that has leaked from the damaged nuclear reactors, but the Department of Energy has deployed flying sensors to Japan to gather data about radiation levels on the ground.
"We are watching the situation at the plants continuously. We’re trying to get some ground data on what the actual condition is," Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman said on a conference call. As I think you know, [Energy] Secretary Chu made available the detectors that will pick up possible contaminations on the ground. We sent those over; they are flying around now and we hope to have data from that."
"We've heard a lot of conflicting reports. Obviously there are elevated levels of radiation at the reactors. We are in consultations, comparing notes. The International Atomic Energy Agency is sending out regular reports, were reading them carefully. And many colleagues professionally have been consulting with each other as well," Poneman added.
The U.S. also added to its warning to Americans Wednesday to stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and officials urged Americans to take "prudent precautions" even if they aren’t in that area.
"Given the situation, we recommended the evacuation of American citizens to at least 50 miles in keeping with the guidelines applied in the United States," Under Secretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy told reporters. "Since the continued or increased release of wind-blown radioactive material cannot be ruled out, American citizens in Japan are advised to take prudent precautions against potentially dangerous exposure. As a general matter, residents in areas farther from Fukushima prefecture face less risk of significant exposure, but changing weather conditions and wind direction mean that radiation levels in the future might become elevated."
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