NIHONMATSU, Japan — Some 140 people evacuated from their homes near the nuclear power plant in Fukushima were quarantined Sunday night at a local community center here awaiting radiation testing, officials said.
“Nobody is going out until they’re tested,” said Takaya Sato, with the Fukushima Kenpoku Health and Welfare Center.
The people were brought to the Fukushima Gender Equality Center in Nihonmatsu city by helicopter or bus from Futaba Kosei Hospital.
An estimated 170,000 people have fled the evacuation zone, a 12-mile radius around the Fukushima nuclear plant, since authorities detected radiation leaks on Saturday. The number of people exposed to radiation could be as high as 160, the Japanese Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency said in a news release.
Officials say at least three people have tested positive for radiation exposure and were being evacuated by helicopter from a hospital about two miles from the reactor. As of late Sunday evening, 12 had shown symptoms of radiation poisoning, according to the agency.
Inside the Nihonmatsu center, health officials in hazmat suits were testing residents, while Japanese Self-Defense Force troops set up a series of tents outside the building to cleanse those who had been exposed to radiation.
Troops were seen taking two people from a cleansing tent to an awaiting ambulance about 8:30 p.m.
Sato would not say how many people had tested positive for radiation exposure. He also would not say how many people had been tested or cleared.
A group of elderly Japanese who were sitting on a bus outside the building had been cleared and were being taken to a local nursing home, the bus driver said.
The scene was hectic as about 15 ambulances and other emergency vehicles passed in and out of the parking lot between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Some officials — both inside and outside of the center — wore hazmat suits while others did not.
Officials at the door were not letting anyone in or out of the center.
Yoshiharu Sakurai and his family left the Nihonmatsu Gender Equality Center all smiles after testing negative for radiation exposure.
“We were worried,” said Sakurai, 63, of Namie, a small town just north of the nuclear reactor in Fukushima.
The Sakurais fled their home Saturday before the government-mandated evacuation and were staying at a relative’s house in Nihonmatsu. They came to get tested for radiation after hearing the site had been set up Sunday night.
Sakurai said the Japanese government had been slow in releasing information to residents who had potentially been exposed to radiation from the nuclear site.
“We don’t believe what the government is saying,” he said.
Others were also skeptical of the information coming from government officials.
Like the Sakurais, Yoshimi Kyoya and his family evacuated their home in Minamisoma, near the nuclear plant, to Nihonmatsu and had also come to the radiation testing site voluntarily.
They, too, left radiation free but also leery of the information they received about radiation exposure, the 71-year-old Kyoya said.
Reporter Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.