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An official in protective clothing waits with residents in a line for those to be scanned for radiation near Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 16, 2011.Gregory Bull

When a man in a white mask swept a Geiger counter over Shuzo Kaneyama and his family and pronounced them all radiation-free, it was the first bit of good news the six of them had received in a week of fleeing one disaster after another.

Until Friday, the Kaneyamas lived in Namie, a tiny fishing town on the northeast coast of Honshu island that - like so many others - was nearly obliterated when a giant tsunami crashed ashore.

When Mr. Kaneyama heard the buzzer warning of an incoming tsunami, he quickly packed his family into a car and drove for the nearby mountains. Their home was obliterated, but Mr. Kaneyama and his wife, Keiko, were safe, along with their four children.

But it was only the beginning of the family's exhausting exodus away from first the waves and then a series of explosions at the nuclear power plant 80 kilometres east of here.

Their first scramble got them up and away from the 9.0 earthquake and the wall of water that devastated Namie, but it brought them 15 kilometres closer to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where unbeknownst to them, a major crisis was already under way.

The day after they arrived to stay with relatives in the mountains, an explosion at reactor No. 1 destroyed the outer containment building, the beginning of a chain of events that many now worry has as many as four of the reactors at Fukushima on the verge of meltdown.

Now a party of eight travelling in two cars, the Kaneyamas fled again, this time to the town of Minami-Soma, which they thought was a safe distance of 25 kilometres away from the reactors. Barely 24 hours later, there was another explosion at reactor No. 3, and the government expanded the evacuation zone around the plant to 30 kilometres from 20. The Kaneyamas made their way to the relative safety of Fukushima city.

"So many things are happening so rapidly. It's as if it's all a dream," said a dazed-looking Mr. Kaneyama, clutching at a tiny white ticket that pronounced him radiation-free after all his driving. His teenaged children wandered glumly around the Fukushima gymnasium that is now home to 2,500 evacuees from the radiation zone.

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The bad news, of course, is that their worries may not yet be over. On Wednesday, a new fire broke out another troubled reactor in the same plant, reactor No. 4, while radiation spiked at No. 3, temporarily forcing the few battling to keep the situation under control to abandon their tasks and head for an onsite shelter. They later returned as radiation levels fell.

As the confusing events unfolded, a quiet panic reigned over Fukushima city, which is normally home to some 290,000 people. Few cars moved in the downtown core even at what would normally be weekday rush hour, and nearly all stores and fuel stations were closed. Gasoline was scarce all across northern Japan, and even further south, in largely unscathed Tokyo.

"I've been driving for 25 years and I've never seen the streets like this before. Usually, they're full of people," said 68-year-old Masahiro Ooji as he waited with two dozen other taxi drivers for fares that weren't coming outside Fukushima's main train station. Rather than fleeing, he said, most Fukushima residents were waiting inside their homes with the doors and windows shut, waiting to see what happens next.

The only activity at the station was three busloads of Chinese nationals being driven out of the city as part of a general evacuation from northern Japan being organized by the Chinese government.

Back at the evacuee centre, a lineup sometimes 100 people long waited to be tested for radiation. The queue was so calm and orderly there could have been a bank machine at the other end of it, rather than health officials who might tell you that you or your children have radiation poisoning. "We're just numb. Whatever happens, happens," explained a young woman carrying her cheerfully unaware one-year-old daughter.

While Japanese have remained remarkably calm and collected throughout their country's almost unfathomable recent string of bad luck, fear of invisible radiation emanating from the nearby nuclear plant appears to be eating into that veneer.

"The Japanese people, we don't show emotions, but on the inside we are exploding. I feel very afraid, but we all know that if one of us starts to panic, everybody will," explained Eriko Ishida, a 37-year-old English teacher from the coastal town of Soma, 50 kilometres north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Though the government had not yet ordered residents of Soma to leave, Ms. Ishida said she and a dozen relatives had decided they could no longer trust the information they were getting from the Japanese government and media. They decided to flee, but couldn't get any further away than Fukushima city because they ran out of fuel for their car.

"All we want to do is get as far away as possible, but we can't."