'Government keeps on changing story'
Published 15/03/2011 | 10:23
The hotel's fire alarm went off. A receptionist banged on my door. "Very sorry," he said. "You have to leave now. There is an emergency. You have to leave right now."
At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the problems for engineers fighting to prevent a serious meltdown had just doubled -- and, by the end of the day, were set to treble. A huge explosion had taken place at a second reactor, two days after the first one set the whole country on edge.
A third reactor appeared to be heading the same way, with its cooling system failing and its nuclear fuel rods partly exposed.
I and others, some of them already refugees from the plant's 20km evacuation zone, found ourselves fleeing again from a danger which seems to keep changing shape.
Officials insist that no reactor's casing has actually been breached, and any radioactive releases have been small. But if they grow larger, Koriyama is probably the first big place they would reach. Here on the front line, the official message of comfort is heard with growing scepticism.
With all the hotels closed, I spent last night in a Japanese family's private home just outside the city. In one of those only-in-Japan moments, a complete stranger stepped forward to offer a tatami mattress bed to a foreigner he'd never even met before.
The Imamura family didn't speak a word of English, nor I Japanese. But thanks to Google Translate, we could still 'talk' to each other, taking it in turns to tap our words into our respective computers. It was a privileged view into the lives of people living under a potential radiation cloud.
The Imamuras have a traditional Japanese house in a small town. There's a wood-burning stove with a kettle on it, low tables and cushions to sit on, and the wood and paper walls are ideal for absorbing the aftershocks which still rippled through yesterday.
They haven't been able to buy groceries or petrol for two days, but they are living on food from the freezer, and on their nerves. They didn't go to work yesterday -- offices and shops are closed -- but spent virtually the whole time attached to the TV, watching the various graphic demonstrations of potential disaster scenarios on the news channels.
"We just do not know what to make of what the government is telling us," said Kauo Imamura. "They seem to keep changing their stories. They say there is no danger, then they evacuate people. They say there is no radiation, then they start checking everyone for radiation. My real worry is this: do they even know what's going on themselves?"
What we do now know for certain is that the engineers are struggling to pump enough water to keep the reactors' radioactive fuel rods covered and cool -- and have resorted to the unprecedented measure of pumping in seawater.
There seems to have been some small, non-disastrous, melting already. But whether something much worse happens depends on how much more of the fuel rods are exposed, how much more melts, and how much heat is generated as a result. And that is what nobody can know.
"You look at statements made on TV and you see that the reassurances are often quite weak," said Toshihiro Imamura. "They say there is no 'immediate' danger, or that the event has been graded less serious than Three Mile Island 'at the current state of information.'"
The room I slept in had a little corner shrine. When not watching TV, the family sometimes prayed at the shrine. "We are doing this more than we usually do," admitted Mrs Imamura. "A tsunami is terrible, but at least you can see it, and you know when you've survived it. What is peculiarly psychologically unsettling about this is that it's invisible, formless, and you might already have been affected, without knowing. (© Daily Telegraph, London)