Fears Spiral Near Ground Zero of Japan’s Nuclear Disaster

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Captain Yokoyama knows all about nuclear hazards. The Hiroshima native’s great-uncles and great-aunts were killed by the American atomic bomb that leveled the Japanese city at the end of the World War II. Yet here he was in the town of Natori, little more than 50 km from the site of the Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and has been leaking radiation into the air in what scientists have labeled the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Yokoyama was part of a 100-strong firefighting crew from Hiroshima participating in a search-and-rescue effort that in Natori has meant only discoveries of more bodies. But even as Yokoyama finished pulling a corpse out of the miles of rubble that is all that is left of this flattened port town, his mind hovered on a colorless, odorless, tasteless substance that is spreading across eastern Japan. “Those of us from Hiroshima, more than anyone else, we understand the dangers of radiation,” he said. “I’m extremely concerned.”

(See scenes from the Fukushima crisis.)

On Tuesday, four days after the quake, a local firefighter said that about 1,000 Natori locals had died, while other reports put the figure at 2,000. The location of some of the dead were marked by strips of red cloth that surviving residents had tied to piles of partially submerged rubble or crushed homes. But what made this gruesome scene even more grim was the nuclear pall hanging over the entire region. On Tuesday, the Daiichi plant in Fukushima prefecture suffered a series of dangerous setbacks: a fire in one reactor, an explosion in another and dangerously hot rods that could spark a full nuclear meltdown.

The radio, the only source of information for many stranded people in the area, broadcasted a relentless tempo of disaster advice: the 140,000 people still remaining within 30 km of the nuclear plant should stay inside and seal their windows and doors until evacuation plans are carried out; laundry should be brought indoors; ventilators should be shut off. Throughout it all, the message from government officials and radio announcers was for Japanese to stay calm. “Be alert, but please don’t panic,” urged one announcer. Nevertheless, a shaky-sounding Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan acknowledged on Tuesday that there was “an extremely high risk” of even higher radiation levels. So far, radiation detected in Tokyo, 250 km away, was eight times higher than normal but still considered a low health threat. To treat the potential health risks of radiation in the air, experts interviewed on Japanese radio suggested a wide variety of measures, including eating large amounts of seaweed, a traditional Japanese ingredient that is full of iodine.

Even in areas that were not seriously affected by the earthquake or tsunami, the nuclear risk turned once bustling communities into ghost towns. In the city of Fukushima, the prefectural capital with a population of 300,000, streets were nearly devoid of human life. Mieko Sato was one of the few residents outside. “We don’t have any gasoline, so we can’t go anywhere,” she said of her family’s plight, shared by many who live in the area. “If we had gas, we’d definitely leave.” (On Tuesday, the driver of a fueling tanker for fire-fighting vehicles announced that his truck had run out of petrol, too.)

(Read: What does the earthquake mean for gas prices?)

Some people among those who still had places to live in this ruined region couldn’t bear to leave home. Eri Kuroda, who had ventured outdoors to buy three bottles of water, acknowledged that she was worried. But she was staying put. “I have a cat, and I can’t take my cat with me,” she said. “She’s really cute.” In another part of the city, the streets were as still and silent as a cemetery, save a black cat that darted between two shuttered stores. The black feline might not mean bad luck. But Fukushima, a city whose name means “fortunate island,” is still bracing itself for a nuclear disaster.

(Read: Japan’s special art of endurance.)