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Japan field notes: Navigating radiation fears

Evacuees are screened for radiation contamination at a testing center March 15, 2011, in the city of Koriyama in Japan's Fukushima prefecture. AP Photo

Megan Towey is a CBS News producer based in Miami on assignment in Japan.

ON THE ROAD FROM SENDAI, Japan - Every once in a while, a journalist has to make a very serious choice.

The call comes and someone in an office far, far away asks you to decide if you want stay in a potentially dangerous situation or pull out. I've received that call several times before in natural disasters and war zones. So have my co-workers, CBS News' Harry Smith and photographer Randy Schmidt. We all faced that choice again together Tuesday. This time it was about leaving Sendai, a town about 50 miles from the troubled nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

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When we woke up from quick naps 13 hours ago, none of us were thinking about leaving Sendai. We got in the car and started looking for the day's story, talking to some people in lines for gasoline and others who were desperately searching for loved ones. We stopped at a gravesite and spoke with a couple who'd come to check on their family's final resting place in the wake of the tsunami.

As we wrapped up a conversation with them, the rain began to fall. We walked back over to our van and started scraping mud off our boots. As we stood talking in the rain, some emergency workers walked by. They spoke animatedly to our translator, Yamaki. Yamaki turned to us and said we needed to get out of the rain. When we asked why, he said "black rain," or, in other words, the threat of radiation from the Fukushima plant being carried and spread through condensation.

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We still weren't terribly concerned, though we did have a conversation about protective measures. Doctors say people exposed to radiation should take iodine pills, but in Japan you need a prescription to get them. Our colleague in the Tokyo bureau, Marsha Cooke, had been trying to get some for us, but we didn't know if it was possible. So we ate some seaweed, known to contain iodine, and carried on with our day.

We were trying to get to Onagawa, where we'd heard reports that there were bodies washing up on shore. Even with a special pass from the Japanese police that allowed us to travel on the highway, closed to all non-emergency personnel, it was slow going. The roads that led to the coast were clogged with traffic and plagued by closed or flooded roads.

We got stuck in Ishinomaki, a town devastated by and still partially flooded from the tsunami. We couldn't go any farther on those roads, and we didn't have time to seek another route. We had to get back to our hotel and an Internet connection, where we could transmit the video we shot for "The Early Show."

(Watch Smith's segment at left)

We'd been out of cell range for hours. When we got closer to Sendai, our phones started blowing up. It was the question. There's a possibility you are in danger of nuclear radiation. Do you want to stay or do you want to go? The CBS News foreign desk sent us all kinds of assessments on the potential nuclear threat so we could make an educated choice.

During the course of the next few hours, we had a few more conversations and finally decided that we would go back to Tokyo, for now. If we stayed and something did happen in Sendai, we could be trapped and wouldn't be able to get out to tell the story anyway. It's not like we were going to hang out in Fukushima to get the story. There's a danger zone for miles around the nuclear plant, and none of us have a death wish.

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Once we wrapped up with our "Early Show" duties, about 9:30 p.m. Japan time (about 8:30 a.m. Eastern*), we bundled in the van for the trip to Tokyo.

I passed out for an hour on the drive. When I woke up, we were stopped. Harry and Neki, our fantastic driver, were filling up our tank with diesel fuel we'd been carrying with us. Once we were back on the road after our pit stop, I asked Neki what town we'd just stopped in.

"Fukushima," he replied nonchalantly. Definitely a petrol stop I'm not likely to forget anytime soon.

*Correction: Due to an editing error, the incorrect Eastern time was added to this blog post. The difference between the time in Japan and Eastern time was reduced to 13 hours with the beginning of daylight saving time in the United States, which was Sunday.
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