China said it has evacuated thousands of its citizens from Japan in the wake of an intensifying nuclear crisis on Wednesday, ordering safety inspections at its nuclear power plants and stepping up radiation checks on its eastern seaboard.
Japan's Emperor Akihito addressed the nation on television on Wednesday, underlining the severity of the crisis gripping a Japan still reeling from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami, which killed thousands of people.
Akihito said he was "deeply concerned" about the "unpredictable" situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, which has been hit by a series of explosions after the quake knocked out reactor cooling systems.
"I sincerely hope that we can keep the situation from getting worse," Akihito said.
More than 3,000 Chinese nationals have been evacuated from northeastern Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures following last week's massive earthquake and tsunami, official Chinese media reported.
"If they are Chinese nationals, then we will pick them up," said an employee who answered the phone at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo.
"Resources are scarce, and there's a shortage of gas and diesel right now," she said.
"We are assembling all our nationals in a few locations, and then we will go to pick them up all at once," she said.
About 600 Chinese left for home on Wednesday and more frequent flights from Niigata to China have been arranged, Xinhua news agency reported.
Japanese crews grappling with the world's worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl briefly suspended work after a spike in radiation levels at the plant 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, which was also jolted by aftershocks as strong as 6.0 on the Richter scale.
More than 3,000 people were confirmed dead, with more than 11,000 reported missing after the quake and tsunami, which also caused panic on local and global financial markets.
Chinese residents of Tokyo said the authorities had been broadcasting repeated warnings all day that radiation levels in the capital were currently 10 times higher than normal background levels.
"They are carrying out regular checks on citizens from the disaster region and on rescue workers," said a Chinese resident of Tokyo surnamed Feng.
A spokeswoman for Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Hong Kong said a team of medical personnel from the group had traveled to Miyagi prefecture to assess the needs of local people.
"There are about 9,000 people living [in the north of Miyagi prefecture]," said Li Bijun.
"Right now they have an acute need of clean drinking water, non-grain foodstuffs, and medical supplies," she said.
In Tokyo, residents were huddling indoors as instructed by government broadcasts.
"There are very few people on the streets," said a Chinese resident of Tokyo surnamed Chen. "The children have gone back to half-day studies, but they are coming straight home afterwards."
"If people do go out, they wear face-masks and take umbrellas with them," she said. "They are also following government guidelines on dealing with their clothing."
Chinese authorities have moved to quell fears of nuclear contamination following the quake-triggered accidents, freezing approvals of new plants until extensive safety reviews are carried out, official media said on Wednesday.
China has 13 nuclear reactors operating at present, with 27 under construction. There are firm plans to build 50 while another 110 are proposed for construction by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Nuclear experts said they are increasingly concerned about developments at the Fukushima plant, where a tall white cloud was seen billowing into the sky over the stricken complex following an evacuation order to staff.
Earlier, crews at Fukushima contended with a new fire and feared damage to the vessel containing one of the plant's six reactor cores.
"They seem unable to start the cooling system or the back-up system, which didn't back it up," said physics professor Zhou Quanhao of Hong Kong's Baptist University.
"The cold water has been unable to cool the reactor's core and it has been emitting radioactive steam, which has caused explosions," he said.
"There has also been damage to the reactor casing," said Zhou, adding that 90 percent of staff of the Fukushima plant had already been evacuated.
"It is hard to assess the level of risk now," he said.
Guo Wei, a nuclear safety expert and head of Hong Kong's City University, said the worsening crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant had come as a surprise to him in the wake of public statements by power company and government officials.
"Personally, I believe that the power company must have some information which it isn't telling us," Guo said.
"Because the chances of something like this happening three or four days after the event are very small."
Hong Kong Observatory expert Chen Jixiang said the effects of the radiation leaks on Hong Kong are likely to be minimal, at least for the time being.
"The Observatory is following events in Japan very closely," Chen said. "We are monitoring radiation levels in Hong Kong around the clock, and so far there has been nothing out of the ordinary."
He said meteorologists were also collecting air samples for radioactive dust. "So far, we haven't found any," Chen added.
He said current prevailing winds suggest that the radiation is being carried away from the accident site in an easterly direction.
"The impact on Hong Kong will be extremely small," Chen said. "Mainland China also lies to the west of Japan, and they are unlikely to be much affected either."
Chinese authorities said Wednesday they were stepping up checks of incoming travelers and goods for possible radiation contamination as Japan's quake-triggered nuclear crisis escalated.
Border inspection authorities in Shanghai released a statement Wednesday saying they were checking all incoming travelers, luggage, and imports of food and other goods from Japan that enter the city's airport or port.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.