Japan nuclear fears spread to China
Chinese buy up salt, in search of iodine.
Kathleen E. McLaughlin March 17, 2011 08:01
BEIJING, China – By mid-afternoon Thursday, Fang Zhiming had already rummaged through three supermarkets in the Chinese capital searching for salt. She found none, but was on her way to a fourth shop, where her friend assured her salt remained.
"We already have a large bag at home for cooking, but I want to get as much as possible just in case it runs out,” said Fang, a 34-year-old office worker who went salt shopping on her lunch break.
(IMAGE: A woman stretches to get a bottle of soy sauce on the shelf after salt sold out early at a supermarket in Beijing on March 17, 2011. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images))
Fang was one in a sea of Chinese citizens scouring the country’s stores for salt, in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Fears of a nuclear meltdown and radiation contamination continue, and China’s population proved it was not immune to potentially irrational panic. Salt in China typically contains small amounts of iodine, added to prevent thyroid and related health problems, particularly in children.
Some shoppers apparently were after the iodine, mistakenly seeking protection against potential radioactive fallout from Japan. Even though scientists say prevailing wind patterns should carry contamination from failed nuclear plants out to sea, away from China, people don’t want to be caught unprepared. Yet the small amount of iodine in table salt is nowhere near what’s recommended for exposure to radiation, making it virtually impossible to use iodized salt as a prophylactic. It would take more than two pounds of salt to equal the iodine in one tablet.
Even the popular e-commerce platform Taobao was short of salt. In a posting, the company said it was working to manage salt supplies but couldn’t keep up, echoing stores across the country.
“I want to get as much as possible just in case it runs out.”
~Fang, a 34-year-old office worker
But not all salt-buyers were looking for radiation protection. Instead, there seemed to be a more prevalent fear that cooking supplies would run out amid hoarding. As a result, soy sauce was also in short supply, several shops reported.
The manager of a supermarket in Nanjing, who didn’t want to give his full name, said by telephone that he believed the salt splurge was driven by greedy forces, rather than real panic.
“Don’t worry about this; salt is a common product,” he said. “The current situation is manipulated by a few people and there will be salt soon.”
Reason seemed absent, however, as prices rose and salt sailed off the shelves. Many stores ran out, while others raised prices and rationed supplies. In an initial attempt to calm the salt rush, the Xinhua news agency weighed in with a one-line statement from the government Thursday afternoon, saying: “[The] China National Salt Industry Corp. (CNSIC) on Thursday said China has rich salt reserves to meet people's demand and consumers need not panic to hoard salt.”
Meanwhile, China’s state-run radio was reporting that salt was not a protective measure against radiation.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Environment published radiation readings in 41 cities across China, showing that all were within allowed limits. But given past coverups and limited information in state-controlled media, Chinese people don’t always trust the official line in a crisis.
A day earlier, the government’s main ruling cabinet, the State Council, announced that it would suspend approvals and construction of new nuclear power facilities to conduct a safety review.
That changed the official line from over the weekend, when a senior official said China would not changed or delay its current plans to build more than two dozen new nuclear plants in the coming years, as part of a drive to reduce carbon emissions from coal burning. The country now has six operating nuclear plants, but has plans to scale that up dramatically.
“Safety is our top priority in developing nuclear power plants,” the State Council said in brief notice on its website.
Less than six months ago, the head of China’s nuclear energy program was sentenced to life in prison for taking bribes and abusing his authority. Rampant graft in the building industry, leading to use of subpar materials, has been cited as one cause of the high death toll in the Sichuan province earthquake of 2008, when nearly 90,000 people were killed.
Exodus overwhelms Tokyo airport
Ben Doherty, Tokyo
March 18, 2011
AS RADIATION warnings escalate, food and water runs short and rumours sweep the city of another big quake coming, Tokyo's international airport has become an outlet for this city's fear.
Thousands of Japanese and expatriates poured into Narita Airport's departures hall yesterday, many without tickets but carrying suitcases, looking for a way out of the country.
With flights full or over-booked, and no rooms available at any of the six largest hotels around the airport, hopeful passengers are sleeping on benches or on blankets on the floor.
New Zealander Heather Watson arrived with a ticket. Still, she got to the airport at 10am for an 8.20pm flight to the Gold Coast.
"When I got here you couldn't move, it was so full of people. I knew it would be slow and I couldn't miss this flight," she said.
Having endured last Friday's devastating earthquake, the aftershocks and now warnings of possible nuclear fallout from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant 240 kilometres to the north, Ms Watson bought a one-way ticket home.
The kindergarten teacher left behind an apartment full of furniture, having given away piles of clothes she couldn't carry home. She doesn't know when, or if, she'll be back.
"I just decided it was time to go. It's the radiation warnings, it's the panic buying that is going on, and now they are saying there is going to be another big quake in the next few days,'' she said.
"If there is going to be another big one, I don't want to be here for it. I want to be at home with my son and my grandchildren."
Throughout yesterday, the queues at Narita barely dimmed. Some lines snaked nearly the length of the massive departures hall.
Despite the crowds, the rush for tickets and the long lines, the mood was calm, if tense.
But even accounting for typical Japanese efficiency and extra airline staff being flown in from overseas, the sheer crush of people caused major delays. By mid-afternoon, the queue to clear immigration and customs was beyond two hours.
Flights to China were particularly sought after. Thousands of Chinese passport holders pressed staff at makeshift booking desks, paying cash for one-way tickets.
Ren Haiyin arrived at the airport on Wednesday afternoon trying to find a flight to anywhere in China. By late yesterday he was still several hundred from the front of a queue for a China Southern flight.
"My mother was on the phone crying, saying come home. So I am going home. I don't know if I will get a ticket.''
Qantas is still flying to Tokyo, but is rerouting flights through Hong Kong, where crews will rest instead of in Japan. The airline insists the change is not a response to concerns over nuclear fallout but because of power shortages and bottlenecks at Tokyo's airports.
The Australian government says Australians should reconsider their need to travel to Tokyo and other earthquake-affected areas and should not travel to Miyagi prefecture or within 80 kilometres of the Fukushima plant.
The Australian embassy has pinned a flag to a wall in one corner of the Narita departures hall and consular officials are on hand to help Australians stranded at the airport.
Outside, Tokyo is a city barely functioning. Its famously efficient public transport system is severely disrupted. Power is unavailable for hours at a time.
Supermarket shelves are empty, and petrol is almost completely unavailable.
With JOHN GARNAUT