The commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific says he is sending his troops into the danger zone near the Japan's crippled nuclear power plants as needed, and if necessary he will send more to help prevent a meltdown of the reactors' fuel and the release of large amounts of harmful radiation.
In a phone call from his headquarters in Hawaii, Admiral Robert Willard told reporters at the Pentagon everything possible must be done to avoid the worst case scenario.
"That would be a situation where the recovery effort to keep the cores covered in these reactors would ever be abandoned. And we believe that that can't happen, that we must do everything required to keep water and cooling affecting these reactors," said Willard.
Japanese engineers working in and near the reactors have had difficulty keeping the reactor cores cooled and spent fuel rods covered with water. If they fail in that effort, large amounts of radiation would be released, creating a contamination cloud that could affect millions of people in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
But Admiral Willard says reports he has received indicate the team at the reactors had more success on Thursday and he is "cautiously optimistic" a full meltdown of the nuclear fuel will be avoided. He indicated he will send more forces into the most dangerous area near the reactors to help if necessary.
"We, when necessary, will conduct operations inside that radius, when they're in support of the Japanese Defense Forces," he said. "So while U.S. citizens are constrained from operating in there, my forces are not, when they're needed to conduct humanitarian assistance, disaster response or logistics support to our Japanese friends or to our own forces or any other forces that we happen to be supporting."
Admiral Willard has 15 ships and thousands of naval, ground and air force personnel working to help Japan deal with the damaged nuclear reactors and the humanitarian crisis caused by the earthquake and tsunami. And he has unmanned, remotely controlled aircraft that can fly close to the reactors to gather data without endangering any pilots.
He also has a small team working with Japanese officials to assess the danger in areas near the reactors, and he has 450 more experts in radiological contamination on alert to be deployed to Japan if needed.
In addition, all U.S. aircraft and ships in the area have sensors on them, and any data on radiological contamination is immediately shared with the U.S. and Japanese governments.
Admiral Willard says he is in regular contact with Japan's top military officer, General Ryoichi Oriki, and the U.S. commander in Japan is sharing a headquarters with the Japanese disaster relief commander. Willard says the American and Japanese militaries are well prepared to work together in such a situation after decades of close relations and joint exercises.
"Exercise in disaster response and humanitarian assistance is part of our regular exercise series, and then together we go beyond that to become truly two interoperable militaries," he said.
Willard calls the current joint relief effort a "natural fit", but he acknowledges that the triple disasters - the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown threat - go beyond anything the two militaries have ever practiced dealing with.