TOKYO - Japan raced to avert a catastrophe on Wednesday after an
explosion at a quake-crippled nuclear power plant sent radiation wafting
into Tokyo, prompting some people to flee the capital and others to
stock up on essential supplies.
The crisis escalated late on Tuesday when operators of the facility said
one of two blasts had blown a hole in the building housing a reactor,
which meant spent nuclear fuel was exposed to the atmosphere.
aircraft carrier reportedly sails into radioactive cloud
bodies found on tsunami-stricken Japanese coast
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged people within 30 km (18 miles)
of the facility -- a population of 140,000 -- to remain indoors, as
Japan grappled with the world's most serious nuclear accident since the
Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.
Officials in Tokyo -- 240 km (150 miles) to the south of the plant --
said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal at one point but was
not a threat to human health in the sprawling high-tech city of 13
Toxicologist Lee Tin-lap at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said
such a radiation level was not an immediate threat to people but the
long-term consequences were unknown.
"You are still breathing this into your lungs, and there is passive
absorption in the skin, eyes and mouth and we really do not know what
long-term impact that would have," Lee told Reuters by telephone.
Around eight hours after the explosions, the UN weather agency said
winds were dispersing radioactive material over the Pacific Ocean, away
from Japan and other Asian countries.
Authorities have spent days desperately trying to prevent the water
which is designed to cool the radioactive cores of the reactors from
running dry, which would lead to overheating and the release of
dangerous radioactive material into the atmosphere.
They said they may use helicopters to pour water on the most critical
reactor, No. 4, within two or three days, but did not say why they would
have to wait to do this.
"The possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening," a
grim-faced Kan said in an address to the nation earlier in the day.
"We are making every effort to prevent the leak from spreading. I know
that people are very worried but I would like to ask you to act calmly."
Negligible levels of radiation detected in Tokyo
Levels of 400 millisieverts per hour had been recorded near the No. 4
reactor, the government said. Exposure to over 100 millisieverts a year
is a level which can lead to cancer, according to the World Nuclear
The plant operator pulled out 750 workers, leaving just 50, and a 30-km
(19 mile) no-fly zone was imposed around the reactors. There have been
no detailed updates on what levels the radiation reached inside the
"Radioactive material will reach Tokyo but it is not harmful to human
bodies because it will be dissipated by the time it gets to Tokyo," said
Koji Yamazaki, professor at Hokkaido University graduate school of
environmental science. "If the wind gets stronger, it means the material
flies faster but it will be even more dispersed in the air."
A Reuters reporter using a Geiger counter showed negligible levels of radiation in the capital.
Despite pleas for calm, residents rushed to shops in Tokyo to stock up
on supplies. Don Quixote, a multi-story, 24-hour general store in
Roppongi district, sold out of radios, flashlights, candles and sleeping
In a sign of regional fears about the risk of radiation, China said it
would evacuate its citizens from areas worst affected but it had
detected no abnormal radiation levels at home. Air China said it had
canceled some flights to Tokyo.
The US Navy said some arriving warships would deploy on the west coast
of Japan's main Honshu island instead of heading to the east coast as
planned because of "radiological and navigation hazards".
The risks of the US relief mission have been illustrated by the growing
number of US personnel exposed to low-levels of radiation. Still, a Navy
spokesman said exposure levels of returning crew were well within
safety limits and that operations to assist close ally Japan would
Several embassies advised staff and citizens to leave affected areas in
Japan. Tourists cut short vacations and multinational companies either
urged staff to leave or said they were considering plans to move outside
"Everyone is going out of the country today," said Gunta Brunner, a
25-year-old creative director from Argentina preparing to board a flight
at Narita airport. "With the radiation, it's like you cannot escape and
you can't see it."
'What the hell is going on'
Japanese media have became more critical of Kan's handling of the
disaster and criticized the government and nuclear plant operator Tokyo
Electric Power Co (TEPCO) for their failure to provide enough
information on the incident.
Kan himself lambasted the operator for taking so long to inform his office about one of the blasts, Kyodo reported.
Kyodo said Kan had ordered TEPCO not to pull employees out of the plant.
"The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier's
office for about an hour," a Kyodo reporter quoted Kan telling power
"What the hell is going on?"
Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong,
said the blasts could expose the population to longer-term exposure to
radiation, which can raise the risk of thyroid and bone cancers and
leukemia. Children and fetuses are especially vulnerable, he said.
"Very acute radiation, like that which happened in Chernobyl and to the
Japanese workers at the nuclear power station, is unlikely for the
population," he said.
Nuclear radiation is an especially sensitive issue for Japanese
following the country's worst human catastrophe -- the US atomic bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
There have been a total of four explosions at the plant since it was
damaged in last Friday's massive quake and tsunami. The most recent were
blasts at reactors No. 2 and No. 4.
Villages and towns wiped off the map
The full extent of the destruction from last Friday's 9.0-magnitude
earthquake and the tsunami that followed it was becoming clear as
rescuers combed through the region north of Tokyo where officials say at
least 10,000 people were killed.
Whole villages and towns have been wiped off the map by Friday's wall of
water, triggering an international humanitarian effort of epic
proportions. A 6.4-magnitude aftershock shook buildings in Tokyo late on
Tuesday but caused no damage.
About 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in
near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the
government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water. Tens
of thousands of people were missing.