WASHINGTON — President Obama said yesterday the United States will stand by longtime ally Japan as it recovers from last week’s earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear crisis that those twin disasters spawned.
Meanwhile, the Navy reported that several US ships involved in the relief effort had to be moved away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after officials found out that the ships and 17 helicopter crew members had been exposed to low levels of radiation. The plant’s cooling systems failed after Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.
US officials said the design of the Japanese reactors and the distance across the Pacific Ocean mean there is little probability of harmful levels of radiation reaching the United States, including Hawaii or US territories.
Obama said he has offered Japan any assistance the United States can provide.
“I know all of you, young and old, have been watching the full magnitude of this tragedy unfold,’’ he told a school audience in Virginia. He called the people of Japan “some of our closest friends and allies.’’
Commander Jeff Davis, spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, said air monitoring equipment on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan detected that the warship had been exposed to very low levels of contamination. It is presumed that the seven other ships traveling together in the carrier groups also were exposed, but only the Reagan — which has an air monitoring system meant to detect problems with the ship’s own nuclear power — picked it up, he said.
Smaller hand-held equipment kept on ships for detecting surface contamination separately determined a low level of exposure for the 17 helicopter crew members who had returned to the carrier after a search and rescue mission over Japan, Davis said.
“The amount of contamination that they were exposed to was very, very low,’’ Davis said from the command ship USS Blue Ridge, which is near the Philippines and headed toward Japan. “It was easily taken care of by washing with soap and water. Once they had discarded their clothing, washed with soap and water and were retested, there was no additional contamination detected.
“The dosage of radiation that they received would have been less than what somebody gets from just normal background radiation over the course of a month,’’ Davis said.
He said officials moved the ships out of the downwind path of the nuclear plant.
“We are committed to this operation — we’re going to do it,’’ Davis said. “We just wanted to make sure that we’re doing it in a manner that accounts for the environmental risk.’’
So far, two US Navy P3-Orion surveillance planes have been mapping debris fields and working as spotters for search and rescue missions, passing on information on the location of victims on to Japanese officials.
They have mapped a huge debris field in the water that is one nautical mile wide by 60 miles long, and workers have recovered some bodies but no survivors.
The US assistance operation will be stepped up with the arrival of Marines.
They are expected to use the USS Tortuga amphibious dock ship to pick up some 300 Japanese civil defense workers on the island of Hokkaido and ferry them and 90 vehicles to the island of Honshu today.
The Navy also has agreed to allow use of the deck of the Reagan as a floating platform for refueling Japanese helicopters being flown by the coast guard, police, and other civilian agencies in the relief effort.