'If there's no time to escape, I'll lock myself in at home'

 

JOURNEY TO FUKUSHIMA: TOKYO IS scrambling unsteadily back on to its feet. Its buildings are intact, its vast transport network is creaking back to life, mobile phones work again, patchily.

Aircraft land in the main international airports but traffic crawls through the streets. The weary government keeps control from the centre of the vast city.

But the world outside, along the Pacific coast to the northeast, has been knocked flat on its back.

Battered by tsunamis, rocked by a steady, terrifying string of aftershocks, thousands of people bed down for the second night in makeshift refugee centres.

The world’s media has descended on the capital, looking to tell this story, and 300km north of Tokyo comes the biggest story of all – a fire at a nuclear plant that could potentially rival the twin nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986).

Getting there, over roads buckled and warped by Friday’s huge quake, is an ordeal. With two of my colleagues we rent a car and begin the long journey through Tokyo’s clogged traffic and then on to almost empty highways toward Iwaki city in Fukushima prefecture, as close to the plant as we can get.

As we drive, we listen to live reports on state broadcaster NHK, which says the Fukushima No 1 plant has started to go into meltdown.

It is terrifying news, filtered through the oddly emotionless tones of a professional translator. It is the first time the reactor core of a nuclear plant has melted in Japan, informs the announcer.

An explosion has torn the roof from the complex. Radiation has leaked into the atmosphere. About 120,000 people around the plant have been told to evacuate. At teatime on Saturday, prime minister Naoto Kan announces to millions of Japanese that the perimeter has been expanded to 20km.

Japan’s technological confidence has been shattered by quakes before.

In 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake, with its famous images of toppled highways and collapsed buildings, killed 5,000 people, injured more than 400,000 and brought global humiliation to a country proud of its construction prowess.

Four years ago, another huge quake struck almost underneath the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Niigata, sparking fires, leaks and a crippling shutdown. Officials were forced to admit they had not known about the fault underneath the 8200-megawatt Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex.

Most people want to believe Mr Kan when he says that the government is working hard this time to make sure “not a single resident” will suffer any effects from the radiation.

Not Yoshi Watanabe, though, who lives with his wife and two young children about 135km from the Fukushima plant. “They don’t know what they are doing,” he says. “They should extend the perimeter further but they can’t because they can’t handle that scale of evacuation.”

Experts say meltdown is under way in both Fukushima’s No 1 and No 3 plants. Seawater is being used to cool No 1 but No 3 is overheating dangerously, perhaps catastrophically.

“We seem headed for a disaster exceeding Chernobyl, possibly by far, if both troubled reactors blow in the coming days, or possibly weeks,” warns Gavan McCormack, author of Japan as a Nuclear State.

Followed, depending on winds, by fallout over northeast Asia, the rest of Japan of the Pacific, the sun sinks behind the highway. We pass a convoy of fire engines and truckloads of self-defence force troops, on their way to the coast to help rebuild devastated villages.

At an almost deserted service station, Chieko Matsumoto stands waiting for customers as NHK public television flickers live in the corner. The power plant is an hour away. “Not far enough,” she says. “I’ve been told not to go outside and breathe the air, to stay here and watch the TV. It’s just so scary.”

In pitch darkness we enter Iwaki City. Apart from a handful of cars, the streets are deserted. Restaurants and bars have been closed. The blinds have been pulled down in the local Denny’s. Even the 7-Eleven convenience store has shut its doors.

We spot a schoolgirl walking quickly in the dark. “I’m on my way to pick up my mother,” she tells us. “We’re going to the refugee centre. I’ve been told to stay indoors and not breathe in the radioactivity.”

The local municipal gymnasium has been converted into a makeshift shelter. Dozens of people are lying on futons and blankets, some clearly exhausted. A truck arrives bringing pot noodles, water and toilet rolls.

“It’s our second night here,” says Tsukase Yoshida (33).

He fled with his family after the first tremors on Friday, which were so strong they knocked him off his feet.

“Now this,” he says. “We heard rumours about the radiation before it was announced on the radio. My family are so tired.”

In a corner, Shun Moue (22) and her boyfriend Sugunori Sakuma (24) cuddle to keep warm.

“We saw the news of the plant leak on TV,” says Moue. “The quake was terrible, but I worry more about the plant. We get only limited information. Are they really going to be able to make it safe?” Sakuma shrugs his shoulders. “They’re doing their best,” he says.

On the radio, experts are speculating on the worst-case scenario at the plant 30km up the coast. “If there’s no time to escape, I’ll just go home and lock myself in,” says Moue. “There probably wouldn’t be time to run away.”

Some day they plan to marry, perhaps have children. Will they feel safe raising them here? Sakuma frowns. “This is where my family is from,” he says. “Where else would I go?”

People inside the centre begin drifting off to sleep. News arrives that the container inside the reactor was undamaged in the explosion and that radiation levels are falling.

Today the giant city of Tokyo will suffer a power cut for the entire day.

Tiny and frail, Yoshiko Fukaya (79) is wrapped in blankets that rise and fall with her breathing. She shrugs as she is told the news. “There’ll be something else,” she says.”