The Japanese people were glued to their televisions Wednesday morning as the fate of what may be the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history hung in the balance. As smoke poured out of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, a helicopter crew from NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting company, broadcast the latest disaster live as it unfolded.
At 10:30 a.m. local time (8:30 p.m EST) an official from Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the plant operator, stated at an emergency press conference that company officials had “no idea” what is causing the smoke or even which of the facility’s reactor units was smoking.
The official was clearly irritated by reporters’ repeated questions about why the company could not do anything to examine the cause of the smoke. TV pundits stressed the need to pour water into the reactor to cool down the fuel rods. However, it became clear that the remaining 50 or so TEPCO employees on the site were not about to follow through. It turns out that the workers at the plant had been ordered to remain indoors due to the high level of radiation since the previous evening.
If, as now seems a distinct danger, the situation gets far worsens, the risks will widen and could affect a large portion of the country, including Tokyo, which is home to 13 million people some 150 kilometers south of the plant.
In the capital life is already becoming increasingly difficult each day. In my neighborhood of Kichijoji, a western suburb, some 20 shoppers were waiting for a supermarket to open at 10 a.m. Lining up at a grocery store. It’s a scene I’d never before witnessed. No matter how long they wait, they won’t be able to buy staples such as water, milk, rice and
A Tokyo gas stations sign declares there’s no gas. At a nearby gas station, Ken, a 24 year-old gas station attendant with gold-dyed hair, was trying to stop cars from entering.
“We sold out all of gasoline yesterday. I don’t know when we can get more,” he told me. “We kept asking our company to send some, but never got an answer.”
Western Japan, which includes the metropolises of Osaka and Kyoto, hasn’t been affected at all by the Kanto-Tohoku earthquake, which on March 11 devastated the northern coastline and claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people. Roads from the west to Tokyo are undamaged. Yet we Tokyoites are facing a severe shortage of gasoline and many other items.
“Our company has more than 10 stations in the eastern part of Tokyo alone,” Ken told me. “But only a few are operating now. Each of them has got a long line of cars in front of the station. I am going to help them from now.”
All this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of people to the north who are suffering far greater deprivations. Temperatures in the Tohoku region plunged below freezing last night. Many of 450,000 people at 2,500 evacuation camps spent the night without heat due to a lack of oil or kerosene. It is reported that the health of many evacuees is worsening.
At 11 a.m. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government was considering sending Self-Defense Force helicopters to the Fukushima nuclear plant to put out the fire that’s causing the smoke. But the situation is now too dangerous for even the military to approach.
At noon, the plant was still smoking. Fears of further radiation leaks remain high.