TOKYO—Panic swept Tokyo on Tuesday after a rise in radioactive levels around an earthquake-hit nuclear power plant north of the city, causing some to leave the capital and others to stock up on food and supplies.
Several embassies advised staff and citizens to leave affected areas, tourists cut short vacations and multinational companies either urged staff to leave or said they were considering plans to move outside Tokyo where low levels of radiation have been detected.
In one sign of the panic, Don Quixote, a multistorey, 24-hour general store in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, was sold out of radios, torches, candles, fuel cans and sleeping bags on Tuesday as a Reuters reported visited the shop.
Tourists such as Christy Niver, of Egan, Minnesota, said they had had enough and were leaving. Her 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, was more emphatic. “I’m scared. I’m so scared I would rather be in the eye of a tornado,” she said. “I want to leave.” The Czech Symphony Orchestra left Tokyo by bus for Ishikawa prefecture on the west coast.
“Some of them wanted to go home after the earthquake but it’s pretty much impossible to get tickets for a hundred people now,” said Hitomi Sakuma, a friend of the orchestra who was seeing them off at a Tokyo hotel.
U.S. banking giant Citigroup said it was keeping workers in Tokyo informed but there were no evacuation orders, said a spokesman, adding the bank was closely following guidance by the U.S. Embassy, which has not urged nationals to leave. Indian software services provider Zensar Technologies Ltd told its 55 employees they can send their families back to India, said chief executive Ganesh Natarajan.
“If the situation worsens then we will shift our Japan business to centres in Shanghai and Pune,” he told Reuters. Pune is a western Indian city where the company is based. Some international journalists covering the disaster from the worst-hit region around the northeastern city of Sendai, devastated by Friday’s mammoth earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 10,000, were pulling out.
The Tokyo office of Michael Page International, a British recruitment agency, was closing for the week. “I am leaving for Singapore tomorrow and will work from our Singapore office,” said one employee. Levels of radiation had risen in Tokyo but for now were “not a problem”, the city government said. Radiation levels in Saitama, near Tokyo, were 40 times normal levels — not enough to cause human damage but enough to stoke panic in the bustling, ultra-modern and hyperefficient metropolis of about 12 million people.
Winds over the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex, about 240 km north of Tokyo, are blowing slowly in a southwesterly direction that includes Tokyo, but will shift westerly later on Tuesday, a weather official said. The wind is moving at a speed of about two to three metres per second, said the official with the Japan Meteorological Agency who is based in Fukushima Prefecture, the location of three troubled reactors.
One scientist, however, urged people in Tokyo to stay calm. “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.”
STRANDED AIRLINE PASSENGERS
Yoshiyuki Sakuma, a musician who lives in Yashio city in Saitama prefecture, just north of Tokyo, was alarmed after finding supermarkets had sold out of rice, a Japanese staple. He was now searching for bread. “If you lose electricity, water and gas, at least you can still eat bread,” he said.
The French Embassy in Tokyo warned in an 0100 GMT advisory that a low level of radioactive wind could reach Tokyo in about 10 hours, advising citizens to leave the city.
The German Embassy urged all Germans and their relatives to to consider leaving Japan, especially those with families. China’s embassy asked its nationals to cooperate with authorities if an evacuation order is issued. Such an order would seem unthinkable for one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated cities.
Some wanted the government to expand the 30 km evacuation zone surrounding the nuclear plant. “The evacuation zone may not be enough,” said a Hiroshima-based Japanese scientist who treats nuclear radiation victims.
“The main lasting effect will probably be in milk produce and the radiation in milk because the cows go around like vacuum cleaners and absorb the radiation spread over a wide range and those particles are easily transferred into the milk, which is in turn easily absorbed by babies and children.”
The number of stranded passengers at Tokyo’s main international airport at Narita was rising but only China’s national airline Air China had cancelled flights to Tokyo. Others were monitoring the situation. Japan’s prime minister said radioactive levels were high around the power plant and the risk of more leakage was rising.
The worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 has drawn criticism that authorities were ill-prepared and revived debate about the safety of atomic power.