Fleeing Continues as Japan Raises Its Nuclear Threat Level

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Kyodo / Reuters

People ride bicycles past houses destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami as snow falls in Natori on March 17, 2011

The five Buddhist monks hurried toward the gleaming bullet train, their wooden sandals click-clacking on the platform, their pale gray robes fluttering in their wake. For two days, they had slowly made their way from their mountainous monastery in Fukushima prefecture, not far from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, to the city of Niigata, which serves as a regional transportation hub.

When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northern Japan on March 11, felling ancient pines and toppling a statue of Buddha off an altar, the residents of the monastery felt the ground buckle under them. But the monks had no Internet or cell phones — and the landline was severed. So they had no idea that a killer tsunami had rushed inland, obliterating entire villages and leaving more than 15,000 people dead or missing, according to estimates a week later that are sure to rise. And they certainly didn't know that a cloud of radioactive material from the quake-damaged Daiichi nuclear plant was permeating the surrounding air.

Only five days after the earthquake, when an out-of-breath prefectural volunteer arrived by foot up quake-damaged steps to their monastery, did they discover the red-alert crisis gripping Japan. Advised by government officials to abandon their monastery, the Buddhist holy men descended from the mountain. Some then made their way by foot, bus and taxi to Niigata station, stopping for long, cold stretches as their vehicle's driver scrounged for gas in a region where petrol, food and water are running out fast. "This is such an unimaginable thing that has happened," said one monk, settling into his train seat as evacuating families pulling hastily packed suitcases squeezed by. "I was looking at the newspaper [for the first time] and I still can't believe it." (The monk wished not to give his name because he had not gotten permission from his abbot for media interviews.)

The monks were heading to the southern town of Nara, where a Buddhist charity would take them in. They joined a flood of people from northern and even central Japan who are fleeing what they fear could become a radioactive environment. Fresh from escaping their mountain, the monks could be excused for not having adequate information about the events of the past week. But even Japanese who have followed the news via radio, TV, newspaper and the Internet feel frustrated by a lack of information about a possible meltdown at the Daiichi plant that might spew a toxic plume of radioactivity over Japan.

On the afternoon of March 18, Japan raised the rating of the unfolding Daiichi disaster from 4 to 5 (out of 7), a level that is equal to that of the infamous Three Mile Island catastrophe. The same day, a spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the Daiichi plant, acknowledged that the only way to stop the smoldering disaster might be to bury it in sand and concrete, the way Chernobyl was finally neutralized. Meanwhile, Japanese officials said they were trying to restore electricity to the damaged plant, which has suffered a series of explosions and fires — and houses dangerously overheated fuel rods and spent-fuel pools. Reconnecting the power cable could possibly enable engineers to operate water pumps that might fill leaking pools used to cool down the reactors. But even if power is reconnected, success is hardly guaranteed, because the pumps themselves may have been rendered inoperable by the earthquake.

The day before, soldiers, police and firefighters tried to lower the temperature of the nuclear cores by spraying seawater from helicopters and water cannons. That March 17 effort appears not to have cooled the reactor parts adequately, according to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman, in part because much of the water showered from the helicopters missed its target. Separately, a TEPCO spokesman said on March 18 that "preparatory work has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped."

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear regulatory organization, arrived in Tokyo on March 18 and met with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano again urged Japan to provide information to the international community in a faster and more complete fashion, according to Japanese press reports. It was an unusually blunt criticism, especially since Amano is Japanese.

On the morning of March 18, the electricity-resumption campaign was under way. But a few hours later, it was abruptly suspended. By that afternoon, workers swathed in radiation-protection suits were again hard at work, spraying water by truck and chopper onto the smoking plant. So far, 20 workers are believed to have been contaminated by radiation, and scores more are under observation after finishing their shifts at the hazardous site. Radiation levels in, around and above the plant have fluctuated wildly, forcing workers to toil under dangerous, volatile conditions.

A trail of smoke or steam rising from the second of Daiichi's six nuclear reactors is also causing alarm, because officials say they do not know why the white gust is spewing into the air. Unit 2 suffered an explosion on March 15, but what damage was caused by the detonation is not yet clear. Currently, winds are sending most of the radioactivity leaking from the plant east over the Pacific Ocean, relieving residents of Tokyo, one of the world's most populous cities and less than 155 miles (250 km) from Daiichi. But the direction of the winds can easily shift.

All in all, details about the unfolding disaster are reaching Japanese citizens in a piecemeal and less-than-transparent fashion — and there is little likelihood of any rapid resolution to the crisis even if electricity is restored or the reactor is somehow cooled. "This is something that will likely take some time to work through, possibly weeks," said Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at a briefing in Washington.

And even as a high-stakes nuclear operation played out in real time, an unseasonable cold front dumped snow on a populace already devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, with millions of people huddled in emergency shelters, damaged homes or temporary lodgings. At a government center in the town of Natori, where hundreds are believed to have perished during the tsunami, thick snow fell as crowds peered at lists thousands long of people confirmed dead or alive. Some of the death rolls contained details that, it is hoped, might help identify unknown corpses: "A woman. 50-70 years old. 153 cm. [5 ft.] Missing some lower teeth. Two amulets around her neck. Body discovered in cow pasture."

Yuko Ito, whose house was washed away by the tsunami, was rejoicing after she found her friend's name on a survivor list. "I'm so happy," she said. "I feared she might have died, because her house is so close to the ocean and I didn't see her in any emergency center." But Ito made another gruesome, if expected, discovery. Her mother-in-law's name was on an inventory of those confirmed dead. "I'm just grateful that we have her body so we can give her a proper funeral," Ito said, as she tried to figure out how to get to the makeshift morgue in a region where there's so little gas that some cars sit abandoned on the side of the street.

Meanwhile, at Niigata station, 6-year-old Kosuke Kikawada stood in line for the train with his mother and younger brother — and tried not to cry. After all, he's the big brother in the family. Blinking back tears, Kosuke talked by cell phone with his father, who had decided to stay and run his store in Fukushima prefecture, in a town just outside the 30-km [10.6 mile] radius the government has designated for enforced evacuation because of the brewing nuclear crisis. The rest of the family was heading to a relative's home in the south. "Papa, do your best," the boy said, tears spilling down his face. "I'll see you soon."