Glimpses of Hope in Japan

One nuclear plant is now stabilized—and, miraculously, a woman and her grandson were found alive after nine days in the rubble. Lennox Samuels reports on the country’s small successes.

03.20.11 9:29 AM ET

One nuclear plant is now stabilized—and, miraculously, a woman and her grandson were found alive after nine days in the rubble. Lennox Samuels reports on the country’s small successes. Plus, nuclear plant workers reveal the chaos after the quake hit.

As Japan’s nuclear crisis moved into its second full week, weary citizens awoke Sunday to a mixture of mostly encouraging news as well as a potentially significant setback in efforts to prevent a catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Authorities connected two reactors to outside power sources and were poised to do the same for the remaining four; ended water-spraying operations at two of the most at-risk reactors, with utility officials announcing a drop in radiation levels around the compound; and said radioactive material found in some tap water, food and milk would not affect people’s health.

But by the afternoon, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was saying temperatures at the No. 3 reactor—site of an earlier explosion and one of the units that have been most difficult to repair from damage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—had begun to rise again and that instead of trying to address the problem through the unit’s suppression pool, workers would open a vent to relieve pressure. An hour after making the announcement, however, officials said the action would be postponed because the pressure was stabilizing and the situation was not urgent. If carried out, the move would cause a 100-fold spike in the level of radioactive iodide around the reactor. “It does not necessitate an immediate release at the moment,” said Cabinet Chief Secretary Yukio Edano, adding that while authorities are preparing to take action, they were only observing the situation for the time being.

Authorities announced the rescue of an 80-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy from beneath rubble in hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture, nine days after the disaster began. The dramatic and welcome news came as the National Police Agency said that more than 20,000 people are now missing or dead, with 8,133 confirmed deaths—the worst fatality toll in Japan since World War II. The number of people seeking shelter continues to rise, with more than a quarter million flooding into 2,300 evacuation centers around the country. Edano said the central government is coordinating with local governments to handle the influx and hopes to soon develop a comprehensive logistical plan. The centers have been struggling with a lack of food, water and essential supplies. Edano also said the government has no plans to expand the evacuation zone from 30 kilometers, or 18.6 miles, around the Fukushima plant. The United States has established a danger radius of 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, around the plant.

Medical authorities also reported an increase in the number of people complaining of disaster-related ailments, mostly hypothermia—it is very cold in parts of the northeast, with up to six inches of snow on the ground in some areas. Doctors said the stream of patients never stops and that overcrowding looms. The Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, built to accommodate 400 patients, reported that it now houses 1,000, with some put up on sofas or even on the floor.

One firefighter phoned his wife to tell her about the task he and his men were confronting, and she said, “Please become a savior for Japan.”

The developments come as the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan shows signs of finally understanding—and accepting—that its reaction to the disaster has been lacking. So far, Kan has mostly made statements urging Japanese to be calm, and to unite to “ rebuild Japan from scratch.” The strategy led many local politicians and ordinary folks to lash out at the government, criticizing its confusing edicts, slow and incomplete disclosure of information, and failure to provide quick and sufficient aid to localities, especially those trying to handle an unexpected influx of evacuees from areas closest to the nuclear plant. "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," said Edano, who from the outset has served as the Kan administration’s stolid, perfunctory, and none-too-forthcoming spokesman.

If not exactly showing eagerness, the government is now clarifying new wrinkles in the repair campaign more speedily, with the nuclear agency quick to call briefings where officials employ maps and charts to explain sometimes complicated developments. Many Japanese have been especially hungry for news and explanations about the presence and threat of radiation, not only in the area immediately around the plant in Fukushima Prefecture, but also in communities farther away, including the Tokyo megalopolis some 140 miles southwest of the danger zone. That anxiety rose sharply when authorities raised the Fukushima crisis to a Level 5 on the seven-point nuclear-severity scale. That bump puts Fukushima in the company of Three Mile Island, where a partial meltdown occurred in 1979.

Japanese were quickly alerted about the discovery of radiation in fresh milk from cows at a dairy farm in Fukushima Prefecture, as well as in six samples of spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture, which abuts Fukushima. One of Edano’s deputies assured fellow citizens that there would be no impact on public health, noting that even if the milk were consumed every day for a year, the effect would be “tantamount to going under a CT scan once.”

By connecting the Nos. 5 and 6 reactors to outside power sources, Tokyo Electric and Power Company, owner of the plant, raised hopes that the reactors’ own cooling systems would get back online, removing the need to use seawater to cool down those reactors, but it was too early to say if that had happened. As for the No. 3 reactor, officials said they had little choice but to release air into the outside, even though that would increase radiation levels in the atmosphere. The alternative was to risk the reactor being “destroyed,” they said.

Tokyo Fire Department workers were preparing to resume spraying water on the No. 3 reactor Sunday evening. A senior member of the detail said he was mostly concerned about his firefighters, who would necessarily get close enough to the wounded reactor to risk contamination. “My firefighters know there’s a high level of radiation and they worked very hard,” said the official, who was not identified. “They’ve left families behind, and I would like to apologize to those families.” He said he phoned his wife to tell her about the task he and his men were confronting, and that she said, “Please become a savior for Japan.”

The firefighters join others, notably the plant workers who have striven around the clock to prevent a full-blown meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, as local heroes. Under Japan’s privacy regulations, those workers have not been identified, but their efforts have captured the imagination of the nation and inspired people—even normally carefree and fun-loving young Japanese in cutting-edge Tokyo.

At weekends, the capital’s hip section of Shibuya, close to the trendy Shinjuku redoubt, is typically mobbed with young people out for a good time—through the wee hours. But the neighborhood was muted Saturday night, with only a fraction of the usual crowds loitering and chatting. The normally blazing lights in and around happening Hachikomae Square, the local version of Times Square, were turned down and many shops had reduced their opening hours. Youths bedecked in the unique fashion amalgam of American hip-hop and colorful Japanese élan gathered in clumps, many discussing the calamity besetting their country.

“The number of trains [that operate] is decreasing and it’s kind of a hardship,” said Tsuyoshi Taneichi, a rail-thin 24-year-old clad in sagging yellow pants and sporting reddish-orange hair. “We’re trying to continue our lifestyle, but our priorities have changed.” His friend, Shunsuke Ishii, also 24 and wearing a white mask to ward off any kind of contamination—including hay fever—agreed: “I try to save as much power as possible. And, you know, we don’t have to shop so much!”

Some Japanese are hoping for the best, but preparing themselves for something less than that. Limousine driver Toshio Cote said his business has plunged 60 percent since the quake and tsunami hit. “I guess people don’t feel like going out drinking,” he told The Daily Beast. “This power shortage is making the city more melancholy.” As he lingered near Hamamatsucho train station, he noted that if the crisis were to stretch into months, “that would be a problem” for his family’s livelihood, but added that he and his colleagues are collecting money and supplies for refugees who have fled the area near the nuclear plant or have been left homeless by the quake and tidal wave. With the campaign to conquer Japan’s tripartite disaster seesawing between success and setback, such civic attitudes will be essential in the weeks and months ahead.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.