Shigeko Tadano is worried about her daughter’s shoes. They are white leather Converse, about a size 5, and apparently, they are slightly radioactive. Yukie stretches her leg while a doctor in a lab coat and face mask takes a second reading with a Geiger counter. Though her feet are registering 1000 units, the doctor assures her everything under 3000 is safe. “The shoes are a little bit high,” says Dr. Keiko Yamada, the head doctor of the public health center in Yonezawa. “You can just wash them. But if you’re worried, you can wrap them in a plastic bag and throw them out.”
As Japan’s nuclear crisis intensified on Wednesday with another reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant appearing to have ruptured and started releasing radioactive steam, people living in the shadow of the unfolding catastrophe continued to pack up and leave.
Some 70,000 residents have already been evacuated from a 12-mile area around the plant, and another 140,000 people in a 19-mile radius have been told to stay indoors. Several evacuation centers have been set up in parts of Fukushima prefecture that are still safe, but many residents understandably feel that those are a little too close for comfort. Instead, hundreds have come to Yonezawa, a city of 90,000 about 60 miles west of the Fukushima plant, where a public gymnasium is now a temporary home for hundreds of evacuees. On Wednesday afternoon, the shelter had to stop taking new evacuees, and started sending new arrivals to other prefectures. “People come here because it’s far away from the disaster,” says Shigenori Hasegawa, section chief at the Yonezawa public health center. “The centers in Fukushima are crowded, and people may feel they’re too close.”
Norimasa Kato certainly felt that way. A resident of Minami-soma, a city within the 19-mile radius of the power plant, Kato first went with his family to an evacuation center in Fukushima prefecture that was about 30 miles away from the plant. But after one night, he says, “We wanted to get as far away as possible.” Kato says the process of getting out was confusing: there were loudspeakers blaring messages outside, but they had been told to stay indoors and couldn’t hear them. It wasn’t until a neighbor called to tell them that the road they lived on had been blocked off to keep people out that the Katos starting packing. “We got so much conflicting information, we just decided to leave,” he says.
(See: Photos of Fukushima on the brink.)
Indeed, since the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s east coast last Friday, conflicting information has become a defining characteristic of Japan’s handling of its triple disaster. Despite the fact that over 8000 people remain missing six days on, the government has either been slow to collate — or slow to accept — a death toll larger than the count of 3676 announced on today. The flow of information regarding the activity at Daiichi has been difficult to follow, with authorities today announcing that the No. 2 reactor had ruptured and was released steam, while at the same time saying that it was not likely to be serious.
One of the most directly destabilizing parts of this apparent lack of coordination has been the severe gas shortages experienced across Honshu island, despite roads being relatively open. Lines at some gas stations have had eight-hour waits, and often at the end, there is only a small ration of gas being doled out. Even some of the trucks supplying gas have run out of gas. An elderly brother and sister at the evacuation center, sitting aloft a millefeuille of cardboard, foam, futon and blankets, said when the news started to emerge that Minami-soma, where they also live, was becoming dangerous, they didn’t have any gas. “We had to wait a day to get enough gas to leave,” says the 82-year-old Kuniyoshi Tanaka. His older sister, 84, sits beside him and listens with her good right ear.
Kuniyoshi, like many of the people sitting in this gymnasium on a snowy March evening, has been taken off-guard by the nuclear crisis in his backyard. Though they lived next door to the Daiichi power plant for decades, many took the assurances of Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, at face value. “The company was telling people it was safe. They promised it was safe. Where the hell did that promise go?” asks Kato. “We had no idea such a thing could happen. We had only heard the word ‘Chernobyl.’ Now I’m expecting a total meltdown.”
(Read: What’s happening at Fukushima?)
In addition to wondering whether they will ever be able to go home again, the refugees are anxious about the level of radiation they were exposed to before leaving. In Yamagata prefecture alone, there are four radiation exposure testing centers; as of yesterday, the testing center in Yonezawa has screened 1374 people with radiation detectors borrowed from a university, where, in more normal days, they are used to make sure x-ray equipment is not leaking radiation. Unlike at some other centers, the doctors and nurses in Yonezawa have decided not to wear full protective suits when testing patients. And unlike the workers at the Daiichi plant, who continue to be exposed to dangerous doses of radiation as they try to bring the reactors under control, residents around the plant have only been exposed to low levels of radiation.
But more important, says Dr. Yamada at the health center, is being sensitive to the people coming in for testing. “There was an earthquake, a tsunami, and now a nuclear crisis,” she says. “People are nervous. We don’t want to exaggerate the situation.” Yamada also says that since Hiroshima — after which people exposed to radiation were subjected to terrible discrimination — this is a sensitive topic in Japan. “We don’t want people’s feelings to be hurt. We don’t want them to feel like victims.”
So far, they’re not. Only three of the patients that have been scanned at the center this week have had levels of radiation approaching the dangerous level of 3000. The process of being screened is more about personal peace of mind than public health. A young man, who asked not to give his name because he works as a clerk in the town of Iwaki, comes in to get screened after waiting outside all day in a long food line. Yamada holds the Geiger counter over his head, and watches the meter reading. “There hasn’t been anyone badly affected by this, so don’t worry,” she assures him. After a few seconds, the reading comes out — only 100. She measures above his hands, under his neck, over his heart, and on his feet and shoes — all 100. “I’m relieved. I was really worried,” he says. “You can’t see [radiation]. You can’t smell it. You don’t know if you’re affected.”
Shigeko Tadano is also relieved that she and her daughters have low readings, despite the irradiated Converse that she suspects are registering high because she left them outside overnight. She and her girls just evacuated from Minami-soma late Wednesday afternoon, leaving her husband behind to continue his work with the city coordinating disaster response efforts. But he is not her only concern. The tsunami also hit the coastal town, and her mother and father’s house was in the wave’s path. Her father was found and rescued by helicopter, but her mother has not been located. Now, to get her children to safety, Tadano, too, has had to leave. “We’re so worried about her, but there’s nothing we can do,” she says. “We can’t go back.”
—with reporting by Tai Dirkse