Japan is gripped by fears of a nuclear apocalypse as radiation levels soars and the nuclear crisis threatens to spiral out of control.
Experts warned that the crippled Fukushima plant has become a nuclear risk second only to the Chernobyl disaster.
More than 140,000 residents within 19 miles of the plant were ordered to stay indoors – in addition to the 180,000 already evacuated from the immediate area.
Terrified families clogged roads and crowded the Tokyo airport in an effort to flee, fearing the worst. The nation is consumed by chilling echoes of Hiroshima’s destruction in images from the aftermath of tsunami.
The crisis at the nuclear plant has been growing since Friday’s tsunami knocked out the cooling systems essential to prevent the plant’s uranium and plutonium fuel rods from overheating and melting. Three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors were working when the disaster struck.
Then, on Saturday and Monday morning, fireballs rocked the site when hydrogen gas – released deliberately to ease pressure inside reactors 1 and 3 – ignited. On Monday night, a third hydrogen explosion hit reactor 2 and in the early hours of yesterday morning reactor 4 was rocked by an explosion damaging the roof.
The blast at reactor 2 demolished the building housing the reactor and damaged the 80-inch steel and concrete containment unit that protects the radioactive core. It raised concerns that the casing may split, sending out a catastrophic cloud of dangerous radiation.
Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the blast may have hit the unit’s suppression chamber – a large doughnut shaped structure below the core. A crack would have allowed radioactive steam and particles to escape.
France’s Nuclear Safety Authority said the disaster now equated to a six on the seven-point international scale for nuclear accidents, ranking the crisis second only in gravity to Chernobyl in 1986.
The authority’s chief Andre-Claude Lacoste said: ‘It is very clear that we are at a level six. We are clearly in a catastrophe.’
The alarm spread worldwide. In Europe, some 500 bone marrow transplant centres were put on standby to treat any victims from Japan.
Levels at the plant site peaked at a dangerous 400 millisieverts yesterday – four times the level that can trigger cancer. However, they had fallen again by the end of the day. Japan ordered a 30-mile no fly zone over the exclusion zone to stop the spread of radiation.
Broadcasts on NHK television had an apocalyptic tone: ‘For those in the evacuation area, close your windows and doors. Switch off your air conditioners. If you are being evacuated, cover yourself as much as possible and wear a facemask. Stay calm.’
Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan told residents: ‘The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out.’
Despite this, officials stressed that radiation levels were safe and called for calm.
Potassium iodide pills, which deal with the consequences of radiation, were changing hands for Ł300, instead of a few pounds.
The U.S. took new steps to protect its personnel from radiation by moving warships to safer waters.
At the Yokoshuka Naval Base, 200 miles south of the plant, it told personnel and families to limit time outdoors and to close off ventilation systems ‘as much as practical’.
Firms began evacuating staff from Tokyo German companies such as BMW and Bosch said they would take foreign staff out of the country. Several German banks were doing the same.
Fear and tension are running high in Japan. We can only pray that the crisis will come to pass without any further catastrophe.
Japan, you will never walk alone!