WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, trying to reassure a worried nation, declared Thursday that "harmful levels" of radiation from the Japanese nuclear disaster are not expected to reach the United States.
Obama also said he had asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a "comprehensive review" of the safety of all U.S. nuclear plants.
"When we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people," Obama said.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, providing roughly 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
Customs and Border Protection said there had been reports of radiation being detected from some cargo arriving from Japan at several airports, including in Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. Radiation had not been detected in passengers or luggage. And none of the reported incidents involved harmful amounts.
Obama said he knows that Americans are worried about potential risks from airborne radiation that could drift across the Pacific. "So I want to be very clear," he said. "We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it's the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories."
During an earlier visit Thursday to the Japanese Embassy, Obama signed a condolence book and said: "We feel a great urgency to provide assistance to those . . . who are suffering."
In the book he wrote, "My heart goes out to the people of Japan during this enormous tragedy. Please know that America will always stand by one of its greatest allies during this time of need.
"Because of the strength and wisdom of its people, we know that Japan will recover, and indeed will emerge stronger than ever," he wrote.
U.S. taking steps to evacuate citizens
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 this morning. In northern Japan, the commander of Misawa Air Base said it also would evacuate family members.
Dealers raising some Japanese car prices
DETROIT — The disaster in Japan could slow shipments of popular cars like Toyota's Prius to auto lots. And many dealers are already taking advantage of expected shortages to raise prices.
Buyers will now typically have to pay sticker prices, instead of enjoying discounts that had been the norm for small cars and hybrids imported from Japan. Besides the Prius, models that suddenly cost more include Honda's Insight, Fit and CR-V; Toyota's Yaris; and several Acuras and Infinitis.
Dealers are acting on the possibility that disruptions in car deliveries from Japan will cause a shortage of higher-demand vehicles. Demand will exceed supply.
The price increases "will last weeks, if not months," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights for TrueCar.com, a website that tracks what cars sell for at dealerships.
Anxiety ripples through quieter Tokyo
TOKYO — In a city where everything works, suddenly not quite everything does.
It's little things, mainly. Automatic teller machines that stop dispensing cash. Bare shelves in the corner store. A darkened skyline and silent streets.
In one of the world's most orderly and efficient megacities, every small new breakdown causes a palpable ripple of anxiety. People fear it's a sign of far greater disorder to come, and feel powerless to ward it off.
Shortages are minor compared to those in the earthquake zone, but add to the general nagging sense of concern. Staples such as milk and rice have all but disappeared, amid what seems to be panic buying.
"People are hoarding because they are bracing for what they fear could be another disaster," said Nobue Kunizaki of the Risk and Crisis Management Education Center in Yokohama. "People want more information, but they don't seem to be getting it."
Watching for radiation has become like watching the weather. The public broadcaster NHK does a daily rundown of radioactivity levels, and this week it ran a how-to segment on protective measures. There's a video website set up by a Tokyo man, with the camera pointed 24 hours a day at a Geiger counter.
What were once boisterously crowded public places — noodle bars, pachinko parlors, curry joints — are devoid of customers. One of the few places where there are crowds to be found are the city's two main airports, where many people are trying to book flights out.
Russians stock up on radiation medicines
MOSCOW — Fears of radioactive contamination from the crippled nuclear plant in Japan are spreading to Russia's Far East. Residents there are ignoring official assurances that there is no danger and are beginning to stockpile food, medicines and face masks.
"People are in a panic," said Dmitri Mukhotin, a spokesman for Pharma Premium, a chain of pharmacies in the region, where there has been a run on iodine products and other items that are thought to protect the body from fallout or from radiation sickness.