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Nuclear Fears, Winter Storms Add to Japanese Quake Survivors’ Misery

March 16, 2011 at 5:57 PM EST
The threat of a nuclear meltdown at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant continued to escalate Wednesday. Meanwhile, rescuers switched operations from rescue to recovery following the earthquake and tsunami. Alex Thomson, Angus Walker and Sarah Smith of Independent Television News report on the latest developments.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Japan’s nuclear crisis deepened today, as radiation levels jumped at a badly damaged nuclear plant. And for millions who survived last week’s earthquake and tsunami, winter storms added misery to nuclear fears and the struggle for food, water and basic comforts.

We have a series of reports from Independent Television News, beginning with Alex Thomson, who traveled today to the town of Kamaishi.

ALEX THOMSON: Army aid convoys heading east over the central mountains into the quake zone this morning.

Several Japanese have asked me: What have we done to deserve an historically powerful earthquake, this vast tsunami damage, and now the blizzards?

With officials here now saying more than 4,000 people are confirmed dead, we have come to the east coast to see how far search and rescue for bodies has gone in this vast area of damage.

Our driver, Shin, just can’t believe what he’s seeing. He was last here on holiday several years ago.

HIROMI HARAGUCHI (through translator): The tsunami reached up there. There’s only five homes left up there. All the rest are destroyed.

ALEX THOMSON: At the coast, we meet Hiromi. And his plea to the wider world, that of so very many here: It’s freezing. We need blankets, but much more.

HIROMI HARAGUCHI (through translator): Let’s be frank. I need a bath and stuff like that. But I know it’s too much to ask. It’s so cold here. We need kerosene, and we need petrol.

ALEX THOMSON: We had seen towns wrecked, factories pulverized, but never roads, bridges and the vast anti-tsunami sea defenses here at Kamaishi smashed, like they were today.

And Hiromi had been good enough to explain to us exactly what happened here six days ago. It was about half-an-hour after the last of the earth tremors finished. People noticed that this entire bay began simply emptying with water. The tide went out way beyond the red hulk of the wrecked ship you can see there, out even beyond the lighthouse which you can just see sticking up in the snow.

The entire bay was emptied of water, and it stayed that way for some moments. Then people living here describe an enormous rushing, roaring sound. It was the tsunami approaching at 15, 20 miles an hour, pushing everything before it right up right through this bay.

The people living in the village in the corner there, many of them stayed put. They had never had problems with tsunamis before. They had come and gone, no issue. On this occasion, things were very different.

We decided to try and get there. Clearly, no vehicles are going anywhere near. And look at the size of these supposed tsunami defenses, high enough, thick enough, long enough — so everybody thought — an entire town stripped away to the elaborate foundations of houses designed to withstand earthquakes, yes, but a tsunami of this scale, certainly not.

We finally reached the part of the town where local people had said many stayed, believing they would be safe, family property and effects strewn around everywhere, demonstrating these people’s faith in the vast ramparts of their seawalls was fatally misplaced.

Just look at it. There is no way you can get a vehicle anywhere near this village. Walking in is bad enough. It’s pretty clear this village has not been reached.

And I have to tell you, there is a fairly strong smell of decay coming from the buildings behind me, particularly that garage just there, one small example in one small village of the enormous job here in Japan simply to locate the bodies, let alone begin clearing up this mess.

GWEN IFILL: Many Japanese have been leaving the ravaged northeast coast, partly over radiation fears, and partly to find shelter. Others are trying to help locate those who disappeared in Friday’s disaster.

Angus Walker reports from the town of Miyako, where the search continues.

ANGUS WALKER: Miyako, a fishing port where the harbor offered no sanctuary. A ferry is now marooned in the middle of town.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a war zone. Instead, it’s a place where soldiers are battling to find victims of nature’s forces. More than 1,000 are missing.

It took the Japanese army three days to get to Miyako. They’re still here, still searching for bodies. And the weather conditions are getting worse. This town can only be reached by mountainous roads.

The sergeant tells me they have pulled 10 people out alive since Monday, and if they only find one more, it will all still be worth it.

This was the moment the tsunami smashed through Miyako’s defenses. A boat is slammed into a bridge. The waters have receded, exposing the destruction in their wake.

Now you get a real sense of the terrifying scale of this disaster. So much water poured over the seawall, that it hit the bottom of the bridge, which must be around 30 feet above me.

These are the lists of the living, more than 5,000 in emergency shelters. And this woman is one of Japan’s countless Good Samaritans. Pikoko has collected the names of the missing posted on the Internet. She’s come here hoping to find people she doesn’t know on behalf of people she’s never met.

WOMAN: It is just horrible. I want to think it is nightmare, what happened in my hometown, but — I can’t say anything.

ANGUS WALKER: And all along Japan’s northeastern coast, the nightmare never seems to end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the search went on for the living and the dead, the potential for a nuclear nightmare hung over Japan for another day.

A radiation surge sent levels to 300 times normal just south of the stricken Fukushima plant. The levels dropped as the day went on. U.S. nuclear officials reported all the water has boiled away from a pool holding spent fuel rods, a claim the Japanese denied. But the plant owner said it is close to connecting a new power line to restore the plant’s cooling system.

Sarah Smith has more on the day’s nuclear developments.

SARAH SMITH: Helicopters carrying water to try to cool down an overheating nuclear reactor look like a pretty desperate last measure. It looks even worse when the choppers get turned back because there’s too much radiation in the air already.

You can see the smoke or steam that’s pouring out of reactor number three. That’s the most worrying development of the day.

YUKIO EDANO, Japanese chief Cabinet secretary (through translator): Steam built up inside and then burst out as smoke. It was very concentrated. And, when it was measured, it was highly radioactive.

SARAH SMITH: The power company now have to admit how dangerous the situation is, showing pictures of what two fires have done to reactor four.

Inside here, a small number of workers are left, putting themselves in danger trying to prevent a much greater catastrophe. Even they had to evacuate for part of the day as radiation levels erupted. Anxious citizens watch the news everywhere. They don’t even know the names of the people still working inside Fukushima, the human shields who are Japan’s last defense against a full nuclear meltdown.

Then the emperor himself made a very rare appearance on TV, saying he’s deeply concerned about the nuclear situation, because it’s so uncertain, and he hopes, with the help of those who remained at the plant, things will not get worse.

Some people leaving the area around the nuclear plant are testing positive for radiation. Daichi Ishii fled from Fukushima to Tokyo. He told me and our translator that he’s worried he might have been contaminated, but he can’t get any hospital to test him.

DAICHI ISHII (through translator): We can’t see the radiation, and even the tiniest amount could affect our health. So, no matter how far away I go, I don’t feel safe.

SARAH SMITH: Government instructions to evacuate the danger zone are repeated on the giant screens. People watching in Tokyo find it hard to accept the official assurances that they are safe here.

Another thing that has people really worried is the feeling that they don’t know if they can believe what their own government is telling them. Normally, no country on Earth has as much faith in its leaders and in its parliament as the Japanese do.

But now, in the midst of this crisis, people are loudly complaining that the government is giving them contradictory information, and that they’re getting mixed messages about what’s safe and what’s not. And that’s left everybody worried that the government’s actually trying to hide the real truth.

This eminent radiologist feels even he is being kept in the dark, and not just because of the continuing power cuts. He thinks the government is not telling people the whole truth.

NOGUCHI KUNIKAZU, Japanese Scientists’ Association (through translator): Maybe the government isn’t telling us everything because they are worried the country will panic. But people aren’t stupid. If they were given a full explanation of what’s happening, then they could make informed decisions.

SARAH SMITH: The French government thinks they have enough information to instruct all their nationals to leave Tokyo. Many multinationals are moving their staff out of the city, while Japanese residents are simply being told to keep calm and carry on, even in the face of an ongoing nuclear disaster that is worse than any other except Chernobyl.