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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Disaster aid puts new face on US military in Japan

A Japanese auxiliary multipurpose support ship, the Hiuchi, pulls a U.S. ship loaded with fresh water that is to be used at the crippled Fukushima Dai AP – A Japanese auxiliary multipurpose support ship, the Hiuchi, pulls a U.S. ship loaded with fresh water …

SENDAI, Japan – With 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, the U.S. military responded quickly to the tsunami that devastated the northeast coast. Just one year after tensions over the U.S. bases forced out a Japanese prime minister, the relief mission is showing a new and welcome face of U.S. troops the Japanese have hosted — sometimes grudgingly — for decades.

Roughly 20,000 U.S. troops have been mobilized in "Operation Tomodachi," or "Friend." It is the biggest bilateral humanitarian mission the U.S. has conducted in Japan, its most important ally in Asia, and it is ramping up fast.

As logistics gradually improve, U.S. troops have been moving farther into hard-hit zones and providing tons of relief supplies and badly needed manpower to help the hundreds of thousands of Japanese whose lives were shattered in the March 11 disaster.

In a part of Japan that hosts few U.S. bases, the Americans in uniform are a high-profile presence.

"To be honest, I didn't think much about the U.S. troops until now," said Arika Ota, 29, who works at an amusement center in the coastal city of Sendai. "But when I see them working at the airport every day, I'm really thankful. They are working really hard. I never imagined they could help us so much."

The Sendai Airport cleanup is one of the troops' most visible — and successful — operations so far.

Sendai is the biggest city in the region hit by the tsunami and its airport was utterly destroyed. The grounds and runways were covered in mud, rubble and more than 1,000 vehicles that were tossed about by the sea. The first floor of the terminal building was caked in sandy sludge, its windows were shattered by the tsunami and its shops were a jumble of garbage and broken souvenirs.

Now, the runways are clear enough to handle large cargo planes, the tossed-about cars have been placed in rows and the second floor houses a command center.

Capt. Robert Gerbract, who is in charge of the U.S. Marines' cleanup operations, said when he arrived last week he felt like he had stepped back in time.

"It looked like if you had left an airport alone for 1,000 years. It was like an archaeological site. It was hard to figure out where to begin," Gerbract, an Iraq veteran from Wantaugh, New York, said as he looked out at the runway from the Marines' makeshift command center in the airport's departure lounge.

For Marines like Gerbract, it's a satisfying assignment.

"I'd much rather be carrying relief food packages than a rifle, to be honest," he said.

The Marines are just one facet of the U.S. operation.

Within days of the tsunami, the USS Ronald Reagan was stationed about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off Japan's northeastern shore. It had to reposition itself due to radiation from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility but is now sending sorties to hard-hit towns. The U.S. Navy has 19 ships, 140 aircraft and 18,282 personnel assigned to assist in the operation. It is sending barges filled with freshwater to help cool the reactor site.

The Air Force has opened its bases for relief flights. Its transport planes have flown dozens of missions and its fighters have flown over the devastation in search of survivors. Two of its aircraft have helped the Japanese monitor the nuclear plant.

Nearly 500 soldiers with the U.S. Army in Japan, which has fewer troops here than the other branches, have delivered blankets and other supplies and are conducting support and refueling for military helicopter operations.

The U.S. forces stress that they are not taking a lead role. That is being done by Japan itself, which has mobilized more of its troops than at anytime since World War II.

"What we're doing is coordination with the Japanese army," said Gunnery Sgt. Leo Salinas, of Dallas, Texas. "Every mission we do is a bilateral mission. They are all Japanese-led and under Japanese initiative. These guys are our allies and, more than that, they are our friends. Whatever they want us to do, we will do."

The Japanese public is very pro-America and generally sees the military presence as a benefit.

But the relationship is complicated by a strong pacifist undercurrent in public opinion borne from World War II. Japan's own military is strictly limited to national self-defense and many Japanese feel the U.S. presence here could make their country a target or draw Japan into a conflict involving American troops over Taiwan or other flash points.

Even at the shelters where crucial U.S. help is arriving, some Japanese expressed mixed feelings about the troops.

"I feel thankful that they are helping us," Yoko Hiraoka, 40, said as a convoy of U.S. Marines arrived at her evacuation center in the city of Higashi Matsushima on Saturday. The Marines set up showers, which the evacuees have lacked for two weeks.

"But I still have reservations about having U.S. troops in Japan," Hiraoka said. "I'm happy today, and I appreciate their help, but it doesn't fundamentally change the way I feel."

The U.S. troops are stationed throughout Japan under a mutual security treaty signed in the 1960s. Tokyo strongly supports the alliance, because it saves Japan money on defense and serves as a powerful deterrent force in the region, particularly as China's military strength and economic clout rise.

But opposition to the bases is high on the southern island of Okinawa, a strategically important outpost that hosts more U.S. troops than any other part of Japan.

That concentration of forces — including the Marines who make up the bulk of the on-the-ground assistance here — is an endemic source of friction with local residents, who complain of overcrowding, the danger of accidents and base-related crime.

Tensions between the Marines and Okinawans boiled in 1995, when two Marines and a sailor raped a local schoolgirl. The outrage from that attack led to an agreement that the U.S. military would reduce its presence in Okinawa.

Both sides agreed to close down Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, an airfield in the middle of a heavily populated area that has long symbolized the military burden for Okinawans.

But after more than a decade, the base remains open. Washington wants to replace Futenma with another facility on Okinawa before relocating 8,500 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam, as it had agreed to do by 2014.

Okinawans have strongly opposed the construction of any new facilities.

Unable to make any headway in the dispute, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign last year.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, said he believes the disaster relief mission will help build goodwill, but does not expect it to have much impact in Okinawa.

"The goodwill of the Japanese to the Americans ... even to the American presence in Okinawa, has not really been a problem of the mainland," he said. "The problem remains Okinawa. The Okinawans will be saying, 'Of course it's good what the Americans did, but why do the bases have to be in Okinawa?'"

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    US rushes freshwater to help Japan nuclear plant

    U.S. Navy's barge YOGN-115, back, is towed by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force's multi purpose support ship off the coast of Isumi, Chiba Prefectur AP – U.S. Navy's barge YOGN-115, back, is towed by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force's multi purpose support …

    SENDAI, Japan – U.S. naval barges loaded with freshwater sped toward Japan's overheated nuclear plant on Saturday to help workers struggling to stem a worrying rise in radioactivity and remove dangerously contaminated water from the facility.

    Workers at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant have been using seawater in a frantic bid to stabilize reactors overheating since a tsunami knocked out the complex's crucial cooling system March 11, but fears are mounting about the corrosive nature of the salt in the water.

    Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. is now rushing to inject the reactors with freshwater instead to prevent pipes from clogging and to begin extracting the radioactive water, Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Saturday.

    The situation at the stricken plant remains unpredictable, government spokesman Yukio Edano said Saturday, adding that it would be "a long time" until the crisis is over.

    "We seem to be keeping the situation from turning worse," he said. "But we still cannot be optimistic."

    The switch to freshwater was the latest tactic in efforts to gain control of the six-unit nuclear power plant located 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

    The switch was necessary because of concerns that salt and other contaminants in seawater were clogging pipes and coating the surface of reactor vessels and fuel rods, hampering the cooling process, NISA said.

    Defense Minister Yoshimi Kitazawa said late Friday that the U.S. government had made "an extremely urgent" request to switch to freshwater. He said the U.S. military was sending water to nearby Onahama Bay and that water injections could begin early next week.

    The U.S. 7th Fleet confirmed that barges loaded with 500,000 gallons of freshwater supplies were dispatched to the Fukushima plant.

    Radiation has been seeping from the plant since a magnitude-9 earthquake and an ensuing tsunami on March 11, making its way into milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.

    Tap water in several areas of Japan, including Tokyo, has shown higher-than-normal levels of radiation. In the capital, readings were at one point two times higher than the government safety limit for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine.

    But levels have fallen steadily since peaking Wednesday, and Tokyo metropolitan officials said Saturday that tap water was now safe for babies to drink.

    Just outside a reactor at the coastal nuclear plant, radioactivity in seawater tested some 1,250 times higher than normal, Nishiyama said. He said the area is not a source of seafood and the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health.

    However, tests conducted 18 miles (28 kilometers) offshore found radioactive iodine-131 at levels nearing the regulatory limit set by the Japanese government, the International Atomic Energy Agency said. The tests also detected another radioactive substance, cesium-137, at lower levels.

    IAEA experts said the ocean will quickly dilute the worst contamination. Radioactive iodine breaks down within weeks but cesium could foul the marine environment for decades.

    Nuclear safety officials suspect a breach in one or more of the plant's units, possibly a crack or hole in the stainless steel chamber around a reactor core containing fuel rods or the concrete wall surrounding a pool where spent fuel rods are stored.

    Suspicions were aroused when two workers suffered skin burns after unexpectedly encountering water that was 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found in the units, NISA said.

    Such a breach could mean a much larger release of radioactive contaminants than had been thought. The most likely consequence would be contamination of the groundwater, experts said.

    Radioactivity was on the rise in some units, Nishiyama said Saturday.

    "It is crucial to figure out how to remove contaminated water while allowing work to continue," he said, acknowledging that the discovery would set back delicate efforts to get the plant's cooling system operating again.

    Workers have begun pumping radioactive water from one of the units, Masateru Araki, a TEPCO spokesman, said Saturday.

    Plant officials and government regulators say they don't know the source of the radioactive water. It could have come from a leaking reactor core, connecting pipes or a spent fuel pool. Or it may be the result of overfilling the pools with emergency cooling water.

    But a breach in the chamber surrounding the reactor core seemed "more likely," Nishiyama said.

    The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a nation already overwhelmed by the disaster and devastation wrought by the tsunami.

    Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines were clearing away debris so they could keep searching for bodies and bury the dead. The official death toll was 10,151 Saturday, with more than 17,000 listed as missing, police said. Those lists may overlap, but the final death toll was expected to surpass 18,000.

    Hundreds of thousands whose homes were destroyed still have no power, no hot meals and, in many cases, have not showered in two weeks. Those living within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius of the plant have been evacuated.

    Life was also tough in the ghost towns inside a larger voluntary evacuation zone, with most residents choosing to flee and wary truckers refusing to deliver goods.

    In Minamisoma, a city of 71,000 about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of the nuclear plant, all but one or two shops shut their doors because of a lack of goods and customers, said city official Sadayasu Abe.

    "Commercial trucks are simply not coming to the city at all due to radiation fears," he said Saturday.

    Military troops and some private companies took up the task of delivering rice, instant noodles, bottled water and canned foods to eight central spots in the city, Abe said.

    He said the city was urging the 10,000 or so still holding out to leave since the situation at the plant remains precarious.

    "Life is very difficult here," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "We have electricity, gas and running water, but no food."

    Crisis in Japan: How Serious Is Nuke Breach? Play Video ABC News – Crisis in Japan: How Serious Is Nuke Breach?


    Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa, Jeff Donn, Mayumi Saito and Joji Sakurai also contributed to this report.

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