By Lauren Frayer, AOL News
March 17, 2011
Charter planes are heading to Japan to evacuate U.S. citizens, as Washington raises its warnings about possible nuclear fallout at quake-ravaged nuclear reactors there. But many Americans are vowing to stay and help relief operations in their adopted country.
"Unless the U.S. government orders all American citizens to get out of the country, I don't think I'm going anywhere," Jeff Fleishman, a 25-year-old English teacher from Ohio, told AOL News by telephone from Tokyo. "I want to help -- volunteer in the relief effort -- but I want things to calm down and be safe in my area first. It's a bit dangerous."
Fleishman was teaching at a small school less than 50 miles from the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant when the quake struck.
"My parents, like everyone, just want me to come home," Fleishman said. "But I want to help, and there's all this conflicting information. It's very confusing."
The Japanese government has ordered a mandatory evacuation zone 12 miles around the troubled nuclear site and cautioned people within 20 miles to stay indoors. But a top U.S. State Department official, Patrick Kennedy, described the danger zone as extending 50 miles from the plant -- including where Fleishman was living.
Fleishman was one of several Americans who spoke to AOL News by phone from the Dubliner Irish Pub in downtown Tokyo, where they were celebrating St. Patrick's Day -- as well as their luck as quake survivors.
"My fiance is Japanese, and many of my friends are Japanese. To sort of leave them in lurch seems a bit cruel or unfair," another American reveler, Jessica Ocheltret, told AOL.
"I live here, my life is here, and to just up and leave when things get tough? It would have to be a pretty bad situation to get to that," the 30-year-old Arizona native said, adding that she has been receiving daily e-mail updates from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. "If there's one thing I could communicate to the public back home, I'd like to tell them, Please, not to worry."
Voluntary evacuations are being arranged for the families of U.S. Embassy staff and military personnel in Tokyo and other cities, and the State Department urged Americans to avoid visiting Japan and to consider leaving if they're already there. Changing wind and weather could put the capital within range of radioactive contamination in the coming days.
Emergency crews are using water cannons, fire trucks and helicopters to try to douse Fukushima's overheated reactors, destabilized by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Fires, explosions and radioactive emissions have ensued.
"We believe radiation levels are extremely high," Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told lawmakers Wednesday on Capitol Hill. He was referring to contamination at the Fukushima site.
But several Americans living in Tokyo, about 170 miles from Fukushima, told AOL News by phone today that they're not terribly concerned. Tokyo has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but Japanese officials have said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in or near the capital, according to The Associated Press.
"They have a live Geiger counter on the Internet for Tokyo radiation levels, and quite honestly, there's nothing out of the ordinary radiation-wise -- it's at the same level it was at least year," Jeff Allan, a technology writer originally from Boston, told AOL over a Skype call from his Tokyo apartment.
"So it doesn't really seem to me something to be overly concerned about," he said, explaining his decision to stay put for now.
Allan said he thinks the mood has actually improved in the Japanese capital, with people getting back to regular schedules and grocery store shelves now stocked, compared with a few days ago.
"Of course, people are concerned about the threat they possibly face from the nuclear power plant, but you can't live under that shadow every day. You have to keep going," he said.
He said he worries more about the possible long-term effect this nuclear crisis could have on tourism and expatriates moving to Japan. The college graduation and employment cycle begins in Japan in April, and there's usually a huge influx of new graduates and new job recruits at that time of year, Allan said.
"Now, a lot of these people are postponing their plans. ... Plus tourism -- you don't want to show up in the middle of these 6.0 to 7.0 aftershocks, and people who were planning to visit up north -- well, that's an entirely different problem. And then you have the nuclear power plant situation," Allan said. "Definitely, it's not the vacation spot right now."