This story in today’s Telegraph is one of many about Japan’s impending nuclear disaster, but I think the simple and poignant image of the railway station is one which will stay with me for a while.
The railway station at Nasushiobara, the last one still operating near Japan’s nuclear crisis area, was jammed with frightened people. In this ghost town of closed shops and offices, pedestrian-free pavements, and empty petrol pumps, the station was the only place still alive, and the only escape route that most had left.
The Tokyo highway a mile to the west was busy, too – but you needed a lot of petrol to get to Tokyo. At the only garage which still had it, there was a five-hour queue. With radiation now leaking from the stricken plant just down the road, there might not be five hours to spare.
From the town and the whole surrounding region, on foot, by bicycle and using the last fuel in their tanks, the people came to the railway station, a river turning into a flood as word spread of just how serious the danger now was.
“I couldn’t sleep and I was watching TV,” said Noriyuki Fukada, an English teacher. “Then it was announced that there would be a government statement at 6.30. I thought, if the government announces something at 6.30am, it cannot be good.”
It wasn’t. Radioactive fuel rods in one of the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors, the official spokesman admitted, were now “fully exposed”, at risk of meltdown, and radiation had escaped into the atmosphere. Ninety per cent of the plant’s own staff were evacuated, leaving only a skeleton team fighting off catastrophe. Most serious of all, an explosion the previous day – the plant’s third – might have damaged a reactor containment vessel.
The containment vessels are the last barriers between the reactors’ cores and the outside world, the very things the government has spent the last several days promising will protect us. A few hours later, the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, appeared on television.
“Now we are talking about levels [of leakage] that can impact human health. I would like all of you to embrace this information calmly,” he said. But the beads of sweat were clearly visible on his own brow.
By that point, however, I, and a good part of the population of the district around Koriyama, the major town closest to the stricken plant, were getting out. Mr Edano was telling us to stay indoors and keep our windows closed. But old habits of deference to authority were breaking down after days of conflicting and partial information, evacuations and evasions. Many were taking matters into their own hands.
Koriyama’s own station has been closed for days, but the word was that there were still a few trains, for the moment, at Nasushiobara, 25 miles away. In another humbling example of Japanese kindness and hospitality, the family I stayed with on Monday night decided to use some of their precious petrol to drive me there – and would accept no payment. We joined a line of cars heading south.
Arriving at the station, it was a vast relief to see the long white snout of a bullet train. Japan’s reputation in nuclear matters might have taken a knock, but at least they can lay on a fast getaway vehicle.
Inside the booking hall, there was Japanese-style panic – whose symptoms are not the same as those of Western-style panic. Even without the shouting and fighting, people were clearly under great strain. Many had flared nostrils and terrified eyes.
The electronic departure board showed only two more trains that day, far too few for the swelling crowd. This caused a nasty moment, a low murmur of anger when the mood threatened to turn markedly ugly, but the board turned out to be wrong, as white-gloved railway officials hastily explained through little loudhailers. The TV screens showing the latest 24-hour rolling news were tactfully switched off.
A quarrel broke out in the ticket queue when one man tried to pay by credit card, holding everybody up. But there still was a ticket queue, and a queue to board, even though it was about half a mile long. Most people were too stressed to talk, or had no English. “Very happy,” said one man. “Very happy to get out.”
Two slightly grubby European backpackers – the only other Westerners there – looked every bit as pleased, but were swept away in the crowd before I could talk to them. Other people’s backpacks, and suitcases, were of a size suggesting they expected to be away for a while. There were big family groups, too, with children and old people.
Fascinatingly, while thousands were waiting to leave, a small trickle of people actually arrived on the inbound express from Tokyo. Had they not heard the news?
The train left without an inch of spare standing space in any doorway or aisle. As we charged away from the reactor at 110mph, the atmosphere became noticeably lighter, and I felt my own spirits lifting. The difference between fear and relief was only about 75 minutes – though, with the wind blowing towards Tokyo, and higher radiation levels already present in the city, the feeling of deliverance may well be an illusory one.
Mr Fukada, the English teacher, said: “People are fed up with being told what to do and treated like fools. The problem with radiation is that you cannot know anything – you depend on the government for the information to save your life. Now we are acting for ourselves, but the worry is that we left it too late.”
Perhaps we did. But the train, at least, arrived precisely on time.