TOKYO (Reuters) - Panic swept Tokyo on Tuesday after a rise in radioactive levels around an earthquake-hit nuclear power plant north of the city, causing some to leave the capital or stock up on food and supplies.
Embassies advised staff to leave affected areas, tourists cut short vacations and some multinational companies told staff to move from Tokyo out after low levels of radiation were detected in one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated cities.
In one sign of the panic, Don Quixote, a multistory, 24-hour general store in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, was sold out of radios, flashlights, candles, fuel cans and sleeping bags on Tuesday as a Reuters reported visited the shop.
Tourists such as Christy Niver, of Egan, Minnesota, said they had had enough. Her 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, was more emphatic.
“I’m scared. I’m so scared I would rather be in the eye of a tornado,” she said. “I want to leave.”
Winds over the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex, about 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, are blowing slowly southwesterly toward Tokyo but will shift westerly later on Tuesday, a weather official said.
Some scientists, however, urged Tokyo to stay calm.
“Radioactive material will reach Tokyo but it is not harmful to human bodies because it will be dissipated by the time it gets to Tokyo,” said Koji Yamazaki, professor at Hokkaido University graduate school of environmental science.
“If the wind gets stronger, it means the material flies faster but it will be even more dispersed in the air.”
University of Tokyo professor of bioengineering Hiroyuki Takahashi added: “If the nuclear fuel remains contained, there will be very little health risk.”
The Czech Symphony Orchestra left Tokyo by bus for Ishikawa prefecture on the west coast.
“Some of them wanted to go home after the earthquake but it’s pretty much impossible to get tickets for a hundred people now,” said Hitomi Sakuma, a friend of the orchestra who was seeing them off at a Tokyo hotel.
About 350 Japan-based expatriates at Infosys Technologies Ltd, India’s second-largest software services exporter, are returning to India, its chief executive said.
“Some of them have returned, some are in the process of coming back,” S. Gopalakrishnan told Reuters. “The revenue from Japan is very small and overall it will have a minimal impact on business.” U.S. banking giant Citigroup said it was keeping workers in Tokyo informed but there were no evacuation orders, said a spokesman, adding the bank was closely following guidance by the U.S. Embassy, which has not urged nationals to leave.
Some international journalists covering the disaster from the worst-hit region around the northeastern city of Sendai, devastated by Friday’s mammoth earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 10,000, were pulling out.
The Tokyo office of Michael Page International, a British recruitment agency, was closing for the week. “I am leaving for Singapore tomorrow,” said one employee.
Levels of radiation had risen in Tokyo but for now were “not a problem,” the city government said. Radiation in Saitama, near Tokyo, was 40 times normal levels — not enough to cause human damage but enough to stoke panic in the bustling, ultra-modern and hyper-efficient metropolis of about 12 million people.
Some Tokyo supermarkets had out of rice, a Japanese staple. Yoshiyuki Sakuma, a musician who lives in Yashio city in Saitama prefecture, just north of Tokyo, was searching markets for bread in one district of the city.
“If you lose electricity, water and gas, at least you can still eat bread,” he said.
The French Embassy advised citizens to leave. The German Embassy urged its nationals to consider doing the same, especially those with families. China’s embassy asked said Chinese should heed any evacuation order if issued.
Some wanted the government to expand the 30 km evacuation zone surrounding the nuclear plant. “The evacuation zone may not be enough,” said a Hiroshima-based Japanese scientist who treats nuclear radiation victims.
The number of stranded passengers at Tokyo’s main international airport at Narita was rising but only China’s national airline Air China and Taiwan’s EVA Airways were known to have canceled flights to Tokyo. Others said they were monitoring the situation.
Flights heading into Tokyo were nearly empty of seats. “I am afraid to go back,” Makoto Usui, 74-year-old air traveler as he was about to board a flight in Hong Kong to Tokyo. “I don’t what to expect. It will be a changed country.”
The worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 has drawn criticism that authorities were ill-prepared and revived debate about the safety of atomic power.
Additional reporting by Junko Fujita, Mayumi Negishi, Kei Okamura and Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Nick Macfie