As Japan nuclear crisis unfolds, a small town questions government reassurances

Few in Japan, however, are placing blame for the unraveling nuclear disaster directly on the Democratic Party of Japan, which has wrestled with crises since taking over from the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009.

Alexander Tidd/US Navy/AP
Japanese citizens moving food and water out of a Sea Hawk helicopter on Tuesday, March 15. Ships and aircraft from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group are conducting supply missions throughout northern Japan to assist in the aftermath of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Five days after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the northeastern coast of Japan, the Japanese government is struggling to contain an escalating nuclear crisis – even as it continues to assure the public that those beyond the troubled plant’s immediate periphery are safe.

But in a quiet fishing and forestry region some 550 miles south of the overheating reactors, citizens are beginning to doubt those claims.

“I don’t know what to believe. Radiation has already been detected in Tokyo and I think it will eventually reach us, too,” says Anri Sumi, a health center clerk in the town of Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, where business as usual has otherwise resumed. Many townspeople echoed her concerns.

The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant appeared to worsen on Wednesday as white steam billowed from one of the reactor buildings and the government announced a second fire in reactor No. 4 and that a vessel containing fuel rods was likely damaged. Three other reactors at the plant were also in critical condition, and reactors No. 4 and No. 5 are being carefully watched. Meanwhile, nearly half a million tsunami and earthquake survivors remain in need of food, water, and other basic supplies.

The government has ordered all residents within 12 miles of the Fukushima plant to evacuate and those between 12 and 19 miles from it to remain indoors, while maintaining that people farther afield face no health risk.

Café owner and long-time antinuclear activist Mari Oe, however, said the government was not providing enough timely and detailed information. She also challenged the claim that a disaster of this scale could never have been predicted.

“We’ve been warning of this possibility for years,” says Ms. Oe.

In contrast, many residents praised Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s overall disaster response.

“They’re doing everything they can. I think Kan is showing excellent leadership,” says Hiroyasu Chiba, a retired sawmill worker.

“He’s doing what anyone would do in this situation,” agrees Kayoko Yutani, a housewife.

By Wednesday afternoon, 3,771 people had been officially declared dead and nearly 8,000 missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunamis that followed. According to national broadcaster NHK, 340,000 survivors remained in emergency shelters, many without heat, water, food, or any way to contact relatives.

In Shingu, batteries, bottled water, and ramen noodle soup had sold out at the three main supermarkets.

Shuji Urashima, a gas station manager, said he sent 20 kilograms of rice, two boxes of ramen, and a supply of batteries to his sister in Tokyo, where post-earthquake panic has stripped many stores. He said he was dissatisfied with Kan’s leadership.

“The government is in a real mess. I have no idea how much I can trust them,” he says.

Few, however, placed blame for the unraveling nuclear disaster directly on the Democratic Party of Japan, which has wrestled with fiscal and political crises since taking over from the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009.

Politics were a distant concern for those with loved ones in northern Japan.

“Our focus is on finding family members,” says English teacher Tim Detmer.

Four of Mr. Detmer’s aunts by marriage live on the decimated Iwate coast. He last heard from any of them just after Friday’s earthquake hit, and before the tsunami washed in.

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