Fear and anger as families queue in the cold for contamination test
The sense of fear was palpable, but in the large town closest to Japan's overheating nuclear reactors, families formed orderly queues in the cold to undergo checks for radioactive contamination.
Under the glare of arc-lights in Koriyama, men in biohazard-outfits, goggles and respirators issued mask-muffled orders to the line of people waiting to be swabbed and swept with a Geiger counter.
Those who were "clean" were free to go. The rest were diverted to showers where their skin was scrubbed of radioactive material thrown out by the explosion on Saturday morning at Number One reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, 30 miles away.
Emotions ranged from dazed confusion to fiercely controlled anger.
"Angry? Of course I am angry," said 35-year-old Tetsuya Kumagami as he stood shivering in the car park, his feet clad in yellow plastic bootees after undergoing a decontamination shower with his mother, father, wife and two-year-old daughter.
"I was in Tokyo when the blast happened," he said above the hysterical wailing of his daughter who was too traumatised to accept the comforts of her mother. "I just told my family to get out of the town."
Mr Kumagami, an engineer who also works at the Fukushima plant, said he had brought his family to the centre under his own volition, fearing they had been contaminated.
"There has been no system. We came here of our own accord. Our town, Namie, was only 20km away (from the explosion) and I think it is not fit for human habitation. The government has not done enough, we even have to dispose of our contaminated clothes," he said.
In an area where the nuclear industry has a prominent presence, others exhibited a resigned acceptance of the risk the industry brings.
"It's my father who I'm worried about," said 24-year-old Keiichiro Usami, waiting his turn along with the family's two pet spaniels. "Dad was at home when the explosion happened and that's only three miles from the blast."
Mr Usami, a 52-year-old contractor who works as a painter at the nuclear complex, appeared not to be too bothered by his son's concerns. "I work at the plant so I have these checks all the time," he said with an empty smile. "When the explosion happened I was patrolling the neighbourhood and I heard it go."
The explosion that destroyed the building above reactor Number One exposed 160 people to potentially dangerous levels of radiation, including 60 elderly patients who were awaiting evacuation from the nearby town of Futabe, officials said.
"I wasn't scared because I saw the smoke was from dust and concrete so I knew the reactor itself hadn't blown," said Mr Usami.
"If it had really gone up it would have been like the Hiroshima atom bomb, so even at the time I wasn't too scared."
Japan's authorities continued to reassure the public that there was no widespread threat to public health from the radiation leak, even as they admitted that the Number Three reactor was at risk of a partial meltdown.
Without power, and with the station's valves and pumps damaged by the tsunami, the authorities said they had resorted to drawing seawater mixed with boron in an attempt to cool the unit's overheated uranium fuel rods.
Members of the public in Koriyama appeared remarkably sanguine in the face of the potentially catastrophic nuclear disaster.
"We haven't tried to escape," said 22-year-old Maki Ishkawa, a waitress who was queuing to fill water bottles at an aid centre in the city.
"There was no warning, or alarm or guidance from the government, so I didn't worry. Anyway, we have no other place to go."
As night settled over the decontamination site, private vehicles and ambulances continued to deliver more potential patients to join the queue, many wrapped in blankets against the chill. By 10pm, more than 2,000 people had been processed, although the authorities declined to say what proportion had been found to be contaminated.
For Mr Usami, the news was good. "Okay!" he said, giving a thumbs-up as he left the centre with his son and two pets. "All okay!" (© Daily Telegraph, London)