Thousands flee Tokyo as experts try to calm contamination fears

Supplies are short, the neon signs off. David McNeill reports from a spooked metropolis

The stuff of science fiction novels and bad disaster movies has arrived in the world's largest metropolis after radioactivity was detected in Tokyo's city centre yesterday, the possible prelude to a disaster forewarned but never really expected: the meltdown of a nuclear power plant and the showering of fallout over 28 million people.

Experts and government ministers said that the radiation levels in the city were negligible, and that the battle to save the stricken plant in Fukushima was making progress. But they warned that contamination within the danger zone around the plant, about 250km north-east of the capital, was dangerous to human health, and told people inside the zone to evacuate or stay indoors.

The crisis follows an explosion at the plant on Tuesday, which is believed to have caused a crack in the chamber of reactor No 2. Steam and radioactive substances reportedly poured through the crack, sending contamination levels soaring. The government's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, later said that the levels quickly fell again, but refused to rule out further leaks. Engineers are still pumping seawater into reactors No 1, 2 and 3 in a bid to cool them and prevent meltdown, and last they were battling falling water levels in No 5 and a fire in No 6. Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned last night that the risk of further contamination from the Fukushima complex was "still high".

Thousands of foreigners and Japanese citizens are fleeing the capital. Several airlines, including Air China and Lufthansa, have stopped flying into the city's airports. But experts tried to dampen down fears of a catastrophe: "We don't believe it is necessary to evacuate Tokyo, even though the radioactivity is certainly out there," said Masako Sawai, of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre. "However, there is a possibility that our view may change depending on how the reactor activity progresses."

The crisis wiped billions from Japan's stock market, sending the Nikkei share index down 10.55 percent yesterday. The central bank has pumped about $280bn into the financial system since the weekend in a bid to shore up confidence.

Shibuya Square is normally the buzzing youthful heart of Tokyo, its giant neon signs and television screens towering over an intersection permanently clogged with pedestrians and cars. Today, the screens are blank and the neon has been switched off to save power. The crowds have thinned and many of the people hurrying through the square have cases and overnight bags.

"We're being sent west by our company, to Osaka," said Ryousuke Sanada, who works for a food distributor. "They say it's just a normal transfer, but they're worried about the radiation. Of course I'm scared, but I don't think the worst will happen as long as people pull together."

Experts have appeared nightly on television to caution against over- reaction, saying that a Chernobyl-style catastrophe is unlikely. Modern nuclear plants are built better, they say, and the Fukushima complex has been shut down since last Friday. But such reassurances have not soothed the sense of impending doom in the capital, or the steady stream of apocalyptic headlines. "Radioactivity in Greater Tokyo at 100 times normal levels," screamed last night's copy of Sponichi, a tabloid newspaper.

Some have heard that the Emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, though there is no evidence that it is true. "That's not what concerns me," said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya Station. "My biggest problem is getting petrol. They sold me just 20 litres today. How am I supposed to work on that?" A scratchy broadcast from a dashboard television in his car keeps spitting out the latest dreadful news from Fukushima. "If it blows what can we do? We're finished," he said.

The shops have started running out of water, toilet rolls and rice as the city's beleaguered citizens panic-buy and supplies get clogged in the country's transport arteries. Candles, facemasks and umbrellas have run out in some stores too, after government officials advised using them to protect from fallout. "Leave the umbrellas outside your door when you come back home," said one. Many convenience stores have shut their doors after ending up with nothing to sell, a minor but telling sign of the disintegration of normal life in a city where the stores light up almost every street.

Around Shibuya, groups of young people could be seen wearing masks and carrying umbrellas, though the skies were clear. "My mother told me it would protect me," explained 15-year-old Ryo Umebayashi, a high school student. "I don't know if it's going to work, but I guess it's better than nothing." And if the radiation worsens? "I don't know," he shrugs. "We're talking about going to Okinawa [in Japan's far south] but none of us has enough money."

The symbolism of youngsters sheltering from radioactive precipitation in a country that gave the world Black Rain, the term used by survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to describe nuclear fallout, is not lost on the city's older citizens. "It's like the situation after the [Second World] war," one told state broadcaster NHK this week. "It's frightening, but we rebuilt then and we were far poorer."

The faces on trains from Shibuya are sombre, the carriages filled with the pensive energy of a normally stoic people wondering what on earth tomorrow will bring. History's strongest earthquake, a tsunami that washed away towns, villages and thousands of people in its muddy embrace, a string of nerve-wracking aftershocks, 400,000 people stranded, and the constant dread that the Frankenstein monster that once helped keep Shibuya Square lit like Christmas will have its revenge.

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