Thousands flee as nuclear panic escalates
Huge traffic jams snake south from exclusion zone
A week ago, in the first confused hours after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan, the main road out of Tokyo quickly became clogged with traffic as thousands drove north to find friends and relations feared dead or missing in the ensuing tsunami.
Yesterday, the cars were moving in the opposite direction as thousands of Japanese ignored their government's advice and began to flee south from Fukushima, the little-known Japanese town that, like Chernobyl, has now given its name to a nuclear disaster.
But if "flee" suggests speed, that would be to mislead: for mile after mile the cars barely moved above walking pace as they inched south from Nasushiobara, the last town north of Tokyo before you enter the wrong side of the 50-mile exclusion zone designated by Britain and the US.
Many of the drivers stared out from behind protective surgical masks, some allowing their chins to sink forward on to their steering wheels, as if giving up any hope that the traffic would move again.
Others were unable to hide their impatience, willing the slothful snake of cars forward by drumming on their dashboards or nervously tap-tapping the ash from their cigarettes into empty cola cans.
Many declined to give interviews, waving apologetically from behind their masks, as they refused to open their windows. Whether this was because of the perceived radiation risk, the ice-cold winds or the sight of a foreigner asking questions on the roadside was impossible to know.
"We're fleeing the radiations," said Katsuya Terakado, a 37-year-old carpenter who, with his girlfriend Rie Yanai, was entering their seventh hour of queuing for petrol. "We've come from Iwaki but have only managed 200km in seven hours."
Japan's government continues to say that radiation levels outside its own 20-mile exclusion zone pose no threat to human health, and that it has no plans to increase the size of the zone to match the US-British limit. However, many Japanese are not waiting to find out which is correct.
American officials said the situation was "deteriorating", one European said it was "out of control", while Japan's defence minister said engineers were trying desperately to reconnect power to restart the pumps that could cover exposed fuel rods with water.
For many, television pictures showing helicopters trying to douse Reactor Four from the air with 2,000-gallon water bombs smacked of desperation; a last roll of a die that, to many, now feels loaded against Japan's nuclear engineers.
It was impossible to count the cars on National Route Four from Fukushima to Tokyo, but the southbound traffic was solid on a 30-mile stretch south of Nasushiobara yesterday.
The tailback was exacerbated by the fuel shortages that created huge queues that snaked back out of petrol stations for several miles, blocking one of the carriageways and bringing already heavy oncoming traffic to a halt.
Many in the queues still had more than half a tank remaining, but fear means that very few people in Japan now dare to let their gauges fall, stretching already taut fuel supply lines to breaking point since everyone now fills up twice as often as before. "We can't afford to let the level get too low," said Shigaru Takano, a 56-year-old gas meter man from Fukushima, travelling with his wife Kei (41) and their two sons. "If the car runs out then we are totally stuck."
The couple, with their two boys, Shinyu (10) and Yuya (8) in the back seat with a pile of Japanese manga comics for entertainment, were heading to the town of Kawaguchi, just north of Tokyo, to stay with the boys' aunt.
"My sister has been worrying more and more, pressuring us to come out of Fukushima," said Mrs Takano. "We held out, but when we saw the smoke coming out of the reactor on the television last night, that was enough. My husband queued all night for a quarter tank of gas."
For the inhabitants of Nasushiobara, the exodus south was making life near impossible, with many complaining that even getting to work was a trial -- either for lack of fuel or because of the traffic jam.
Many said they just stayed at home and watched the news, which now shows continuous live pictures of the smouldering Fukushima reactors.
"Everyone is hoping the government will do its utmost to prevent a meltdown of the reactor cores," said Yoshiko Oohashi, the lead co-ordinator of evacuation efforts at Nasushiobara City Hall, who admitted her own doubts and fears.
Will the government's utmost be enough? "We can only hope so," she said. "I have to stay calm. I'm a leader, so that is my duty, but I know we can only hope for the best now." (© Daily Telegraph, London)