Covering a Nuclear Disaster

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

A photographer holds a radiation detector indicating 0.35 millisieverts in Sendai, Japan, on March 20, 2011. Generally people are exposed to as much as 10 millisieverts a year from background radiation

One by one, they cracked. One European journalist abandoned his fuel-empty rental car in Fukushima, panicking at the prospect of staying a minute longer in the capital of the prefecture where the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was leaking radiation into the air. Another swathed himself in a raincoat and duct tape before fleeing the area a few hours later. Still another just started hurtling west in a car, even as the other journalists in the vehicle pleaded for him to stop and let them off so they could continue reporting. A couple of hours later, he finally halted the car; by then, they were in another prefecture. Earlier that morning, woken by a loud siren, the skittish journalist had woken up yelling "Air raid, air raid," startling the other members of the media squeezed into the hotel room with him. "I thought, Wait, who's attacking Japan?" recalls a colleague. "It wasn't the Americans. Was it the Chinese? I was completely confused." The noise turned out to be a passing fire truck.

Many of the foreign reporters covering the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami had seen plenty of death and destruction before heading to Japan. But what has so unnerved many journalists this time is an enemy that is odorless, colorless and tasteless. The sounds of mortar fire or precautions needed to avoid being kidnapped are things that some of us have been trained to understand. But radiation was an unknown threat to most of us, just as it was to many locals — even if Japan is the only country in the world that has suffered a nuclear attack. What exactly did a microsievert measure? What did a dosimeter do? How was it that we were supposed to take iodide pills but be worried about radioactive iodine? Could seaweed really counteract the effects of radiation, as one Japanese radio announcer had alleged? I had to supplement my Japanese with words that were not part of my normal vocabulary: radiation exposure, nuclear fuel rod, core cooling system.

The rumors blew wild and unsubstantiated, especially in an area where phone and Internet services were limited by the natural disaster. A wire photographer, we heard, had been near the crippled plant area and was found with abnormal levels of radiation on his body. But was it three times or 30 times the normal amount? And what did that mean, anyway? Soon, news organizations and photo agencies began pulling their staff out of the area around Sendai, the earthquake and tsunami zone's biggest city, which is around 60 miles (100 km) from the damaged reactor site. The evacuation of one media group catalyzed the next, emptying out hotels once so packed that journalists were sleeping in the lobbies.

TIME's editors were very cognizant of the potential health concerns. By phone and e-mail they reiterated that the priority was our safety, not the story. Still, the TIME team in Sendai went around and around in logical loops trying to decide whether we should stay or go. In the end, because levels of radiation detected in the air around where we were staying weren't high, we decided to stick around for a while.

The winds were blowing south, which was good for those of us who were based north of the plant. When it started raining and snowing, we debated whether this was a good or bad thing in terms of radiation exposure. (It was, we eventually agreed, a bad thing.) TIME's Tokyo reporter resorted to reading me over the phone information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about radiation poisoning. Basically the advice boiled down to 1) getting out of the area and 2) taking a long, soapy shower to get rid of surface radiation. But how to take a bath in an area where there was no running water because of the earthquake and tsunami? And the whole point as journalists was to be there.

Add to that the constant shortage of fuel that made traveling anywhere difficult. (A fuel truck filled with diesel gas for fire trucks was stuck in our hotel's parking lot because it, too, had run out of petrol.) We made a pact never to allow the car's gas meter to dip below half, the amount of fuel needed to make an escape to a transportation hub four hours away, in case radiation levels spiked. One day, we veered out of our way to rescue a fellow reporter stranded in a city that had become a ghost town because of radiation fears.

To further protect ourselves, we traveled the decimated region with a jerrican filled with petrol squeezed in between the two front seats. The car air smelled like gas, but given that we were heading to an area not far from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, inhaling gas fumes seemed a better option than sucking in potentially irradiated air. As it turned out, when we got to one town flattened by the tsunami a firefighter's Geiger counter showed the radiation level at 0.0. The firefighter, military and police squads were busy pulling bodies out of the tsunami wreckage. The threat of radiation was the last thing on most locals' minds. We cracked the car windows after that.

When I eventually arrived in Tokyo, a city usually bathed in neon, the streets were eerily dark at night. But even though some residents, both local and foreign, have begun to flee Japan's capital because of radiation worries, many seem resigned to sticking it out. Over the weekend, news that small amounts of radiation had been found in spinach, milk and tap water largely elicited shrugs. "We have to drink water to survive, and the government says it's safe, so I'll keep drinking," says Tokyo lawyer Michi Hidano. "Maybe in 30 years' time there will be an increase in certain illnesses caused by radiation. But that's something we can't worry about now." Life must go on.