Radiation fears prompt Tokyo exodus
Airlines from Asia and Europe have halted flights into Tokyo, while multinational firms made plans to relocate employees as anxiety continued to grip Japan over the continuing nuclear crisis.
Despite official reassurances that radiation levels in the capital posed no threat to health, a steady stream of tourists, residents and expatriates left the city by plane and bullet train. Austria said it was moving its embassy out of Tokyo to the western city of Osaka.
Setbacks in the struggle to avert disaster at an atomic power plant in the north-east of the country also sparked a fresh round of panic buying in the Japanese capital, where tiny amounts of radioactivity registered for the first time since last Friday’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
People in Tokyo endured another day of anxiety as they heard that the plant had been rocked by two more explosions and evidence emerged that water in a pool storing spent fuel rods may be boiling.
Tokyo is already experiencing serious disruption to its transport network after the Tepco, the city’s electricity supplier, decided to implement rolling power cuts triggered by widespread disruption to power generation by the disaster.
“I’m not that worried about another earthquake – it’s the radiation that scares me,” said Masashi Yoshida, who was waiting for a flight out of Haneda airport with his five-year-old daughter.
Those among Tokyo’s 12 million people who decided to stay snapped up batteries, torches, candles and sleeping bags, and stripped shelves of bread, bottled water, instant noodles and canned food.
The hoarding frenzy, partly prompted by the prospect of regular power cuts over the next six weeks, threatens to hamper efforts to divert supplies to the quake zone, where millions are suffering food and water shortages.
Scientists said higher radiation levels near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where more than 200,000 people have been evacuated or told to stay inside, posed no immediate threat to the capital, which is 150 miles to the south.
Naoto Kan, the prime minister, urged 140,00 people living within 19 miles of the plant to remain indoors. About 70,000 people living within 12 miles have already been evacuated. “I know that people are very worried, but I would like to ask you to stay calm,” Kan said.
“Radioactive material will reach Tokyo but it is not harmful to humans, because it will be dissipated by the time it gets there,” said Koji Yamazaki, a professor of environmental science at Hokkaido University on Japan’s main north island.
Prolonged fears of a serious accident could weaken Tokyo’s role as an international financial hub. Several firms said they were pulling staff out, including 350 Indian employees of the software services exporter Infosys Systems.
But major financial firms in Japan were going about their “business as usual,” said the International Bankers Association, which represents firms such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.
The French embassy advised its citizens to leave and the German embassy advised people with families to do the same. China is poised to evacuate its nationals from badly affected areas of north-east Japan.
Several international airlines said they would avoid Tokyo until they were certain the danger had passed. Lufthansa became the first European airline to announce its daily flights to Tokyo would switch to Osaka and Nagoya at least until the weekend, and Air China cancelled flights from Beijing and Shanghai.
Taiwan’s EVA Airways said it would not fly to Tokyo and Sapporo for the rest of the month. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic said services to Narita and Haneda, Tokyo’s main airports, were not affected.