Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear meltdown: To panic or not to panic?

I am still in Japan and I am still safe. But the very real possibility of a nuclear meltdown is making me increasingly nervous. I'm not panicking but maybe I should be.

I don't know what to do. The news changes hourly and it's often full of contradictory and confusing information. There was an explosion. There wasn't an explosion. Radiation is leaking. Radiation isn't leaking. Radiation levels have risen. Radiation levels have fallen. There's a risk to human health. There's no risk to human health. I don't know what to believe.

My Japanese isn't good enough to follow local media reports so I'm relying on western media outlets to keep me informed. It's an incredibly strange feeling to be sitting inside my Kyoto apartment watching Canadian, American and British journalists report on the disaster in Japan. I'm counting on people from outside the country to tell me what's happening inside the country. Life is still so unremarkably normal in Kyoto that it feels like I'm watching the disaster unfold half a world away.

The disconnect -- between the unfathomable devastation in the northern half of Japan and the absolute normality in the southern half of Japan -- is huge.

But I'm starting to wonder if this disconnect, and its accompanying feeling of safety, is just an illusion. The mask of calmness across Japan is starting to crack. For the first time since the earthquake and tsunami hit, Japanese people are starting to get angry. A lot of people don't trust what the government is saying and have chosen to get as far away from the nuclear power plant as possible. It's difficult to gauge the real level of panic because people communicate in an indirect way here. What is unsaid is often more important than what is said. You never take a sentence at face value. You have to read the subtext and decipher its unspoken meanings. So when a government minister appears on TV to tell people the risk of a nuclear meltdown is low, it's difficult for people to accept that as the whole truth.

Not only am I getting nervous but I'm also getting frustrated. There is no information about what a nuclear meltdown would mean for those of us in other parts of the country. Kyoto University has not contacted its students. City Hall is not publishing any information in English. The Canadian Embassy is telling us to stay away from the disaster zone but offers no advice to anyone anywhere else. No one is telling us whether or not we need to take potassium iodide tablets. If you were to trust what the Japanese government is saying, then only people living within a 30-kilometre radius of the Fukushima nuclear plant need to be concerned. Everyone else can remain calm.

But some people aren't buying it. A friend of mine left Tokyo and came to Kyoto a few days ago because she was worried the city would become chaotic if things got worse. She decided it was better to leave while there was an easy way out before becoming stuck if millions of people decided to flee at the same time. Another friend and his wife decided the radiation risk just wasn't worth it (they have a baby) and they're flying out of Japan tonight. My mom, who booked a flight to Japan several months ago, is debating whether or not to cancel the trip. She was supposed to fly into Tokyo two weeks from today. But that's looking more and more unlikely.

My friends and family back in Canada are becoming increasingly worried and it's starting to make me anxious. I'm getting emails on a daily basis urging me to leave the country. I don't blame them. Life north of here is a nightmare. The earthquake and tsunami have killed more than 10,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless. Food, water, fuel, medicine and electricity are in short supply. And as if all that wasn't bad enough, we're dealing with a nuclear crisis at the same time.

But I'm not panicking yet. No one has given me any reason to believe Kyoto is not safe. People here are still going about their daily lives. Everything is so remakably ordinary you wouldn't know there was a disaster to the north of us.

Any suggestions?

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