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Embassy staff in Tokyo remain at work

Satellite image of the Fukushima nuclear facility Keystone

Urs Bucher, the Swiss ambassador in Japan, tells he and his team are staying in Tokyo despite reports of a spreading radioactive cloud.

On Tuesday dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors after an explosion and a fire dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by a deadly tsunami.

In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation had spread from the four stricken reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant along Japan’s northeastern coast.

The region was shattered by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummelled the world’s third-largest economy.

The humanitarian crisis has been unfolding on multiple fronts: from a sudden rise in orphaned children to shortages of water, food, medicine and electricity to overflowing toilets in packed shelters and erratic care of traumatised survivors. After the third explosion in the Fukushima nuclear power plant do you still feel safe in Tokyo?

Urs Bucher: At the moment it’s hard to say what’s going to happen with the damaged nuclear reactors, plus aftershocks are possible.

We therefore recommend all Swiss living in the crisis zone of northeastern Japan and in the metropolitan areas of Tokyo/Yokohama to leave temporarily unless they really need to be there.

There is naturally a level of uncertainty, but people are following the government’s reports on the situation on a regular basis. And we’re obviously following those issued by the Swiss authorities. Are you taking any precautionary measures?

U.B.: We’re keeping a close eye on the situation and are in close contact with the authorities. We’re informing our compatriots via email, our website and by speaking to them directly.

The embassy helps Swiss nationals get hold of iodine tablets [for thyroid protection from radiation]. Obviously we have contingency plans. Are you removing embassy staff following the latest reports?

U.B.: No, we have a job to do. And we’ll continue to do it in the future. What are your greatest concerns at the embassy?

U.B.: We currently have two main tasks. First, we’re identifying the Swiss who are living in Japan and in particular in the crisis zone and providing them with the necessary information. Fortunately we’ve been able to determine that so far there have been no Swiss victims.

Second, the embassy is supporting the Swiss rescue teams belonging to the disaster relief unit, which at the moment is busy in the main crisis area. The Swiss aid workers haven’t been able to begin their work because of a tsunami warning. German relief workers have apparently already stopped because there’s no one else to be saved. Can the Swiss still be of help?

U.B.: It’s true that yesterday the rescue work was interrupted twice. But on Tuesday the search team was deployed. It will probably also go into action on Wednesday. What problems do Swiss have who are contacting the embassy?

U.B.: Those Swiss who live here haven’t come to us with many problems – they mostly want to know about the safety situation.

So far we’ve managed to contact around 1,540 of the total 1,890 Swiss nationals. Fortunately we’ve got in touch with each of the 100 registered Swiss who live in the crisis zone. Is the embassy contactable 24 hours a day?

U.B.: Since the earthquake on March 11 we’ve been open for business 24 hours a day. We work in shifts and the embassy can be contacted round the clock. That will remain the case in the coming days. Are many Swiss returning to Switzerland?

U.B.: We don’t have any exact figures, since only some of those leaving informed the embassy. Many Swiss who live here – who in many cases have Japanese partners – have moved to safer places, for example the south of the country. Energy is now being saved everywhere. Fewer trains are running. Is the embassy also saving electricity?

U.B.: Of course. We’ve cut our electricity consumption down to what is absolute necessary. In the West, the earthquake and tsunami have been pushed into the background by the nuclear situation. What’s it like in Japan?

U.B.: In the region that has been hardest hit by the earthquake the top priority remains searching for the thousands of missing people.

The death toll from Friday’s earthquake and tsunami is expected to exceed 10,000, and rescue workers are continuing to search northeastern coastal cities for survivors.

Radiation levels fell at quake-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant on the northeastern coast, the Japanese government said on Tuesday, after an earlier spike in radiation. 

People within a 30 km radius of the facility have been urged to stay indoors.

The Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate however on Tuesday called the situation “very serious”.

More and more people based in Japan are seeking to return to Switzerland and flights from Tokyo to Zurich this week are now full, according to Swiss International Air Lines.

There are still some Swiss tourists in Tokyo and one Swiss travel agent, Hotelplan, has facilitated cancellations by 18 clients who were booked to travel to Japan shortly. 

A tour of Japan organised by tour operator Kuoni for 19 clients in April has also been cancelled.

Some of the most devastating earthquakes in recent times struck last year.

The largest quakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand claimed well over 200,000 lives, almost exclusively in Haiti, and caused an estimated $50 billion (SFr46.7 billion) in damage to the economy.

Losses varied substantially across affected regions. In the case of Chile and New Zealand, events showed that strict implementation of building codes saved lives by significantly reducing building damage.

On a worldwide basis, natural disasters cost insurers $22 billion in 2009. However, compared with previous years, 2009 was a low loss year.

Historically,disaster losses have been highly volatile, but with a strong upward trend.

(source: Swiss Re, Zurich)

(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR