Elevated radiation levels cause alarm in Tokyo

Commuters make their way after train services are suspended after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Tokyo, Japan.

Updated Interview

JEREMY HOBSON: Now let's get to the top story. The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan. The Japanese government has ordered 140,000 people to stay indoors because of deteriorating conditions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Higher than normal radiation levels are being reported in Tokyo, about 170 miles away from the plant. Though officials say the 39 million people who live there are safe for the moment.

We're going to find out about the effects on U.S. companies in a moment with our regular Tuesday analyst Juli Niemann, but first let's bring in our Asia Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz who's with us from Hiroshima. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ: Good morning.

HOBSON: So Rob you just evacuated Tokyo. Describe your experience.

SCHMITZ: Well, the bullet trains were working today, so I got on one heading southwest towards the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. The train was completely full, as was the bullet train station. You know I saw a lot of foreigners. And I spoke with many of them. Many businesses here are relocating their staff either out of the country, or to cities they feel are out of harm's way, like Osaka. I heard today that Norway was pulling all of its journalists out the country. At the same time I met local Japanese who told me they were packing it up and staying with extended family in other parts of Japan.

But not everyone's leaving. I met one Japanese woman who decided to stay. She said she'd keep her door shut in case of radiation. She told me her grandmother is stuck just outside of Fukushima, the location of the damaged nuclear power plants. So she didn't feel like she should be leaving.

HOBSON: And Rob, obviously all of this has big economic consequences. The Japanese government stepped in today with billions of dollars to prop up the economy there. What's at stake economically in Japan and around the world?

SCHMITZ: Well, Japan's a big exporter -- plasma TVs, cars, tons of electronic gadgets. So this disaster will interrupt that. And the ramifications will definitely be felt in the U.S. and everywhere else they export to. On top of that, these past two days have been terrible for Japan's stock market. It's in a free fall. Japan's stock index dropped by 10 percent today. The drop it's seen in the past two days has been the worst in 40 years. But you know, with that said, Japan's growth resumed at the end of last year. They still have one of the highest net worth's of any economy. So that should help Japan through this disaster.

HOBSON: Marketplace's Asia Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz joining us from Hiroshima, Japan. Thanks Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks Jeremy.


Original Interview

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: There was another explosion at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan raising worries there. Stores are running out of emergency supplies. The government's warning hundreds of thousands of residents within 20 miles of the plant to stay inside or risk radiation. And even in Tokyo, which is a couple hundred miles away, there's a threat of higher radiation levels because of wind patterns.

Marketplace's Rob Schmitz is in Japan. Hey Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ: Hey Steve.

CHIOTAKIS: So you were in Tokyo earlier today. How were people handling the news?

SCHMITZ: Well, I mean first off, people here are glued to their televisions. After what happened today, I mean they want to know whether they're safe or not. I happened to be at Tokyo Station while Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary spoke live to the country about what was happening.

In the crowd of people watching this was Tim Noles, a British ex-pat who's lived in Tokyo for 30 years. He and his family were joined by a lot of others who were essentially fleeing the city due to a fear of radiation exposure. Here's what he said.

TIM NOLES: Well, I mean the thing is, it's a stress. I'm fed up with worrying. So I guess we'll go so I don't really have to worry.

CHIOTAKIS: But is there a real threat to Tokyo, Rob?

SCHMITZ: It's not clear yet. What is clear is that a fair amount of radiation is leaking 135 miles North of Tokyo. Earlier today, it appeared the wind would blow the radiation in Tokyo's direction, but that's not clear now. We do know that radiation levels 22 times what is normal have already been recorded in Tokyo, but that this level is still low and won't necessarily harm human health. The government certainly has been asking people to stay calm. But what's also clear is that in addition to this reactor, there are two other reactors that are at risk of leaking more radiation, and for many here, that's a scenario they don't want to stick around for.

CHIOTAKIS: Marketplace Asia Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Steve.

About the author

Steve Chiotakis was the host of Marketplace Morning Report until January 2012.

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