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Blast at Japan nuke plant; 10,000 missing after quake

13 March, 2011

Blast at Japan nuke plant; 10,000 missing after quake
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SENDAI: An explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant triggered fears of a meltdown Saturday after a massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead and at least 10,000 unaccounted for.

As workers doused the stricken reactor with sea water to try to avert catastrophe, Japan`s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the chaos unleashed by Friday`s 8.9 magnitude quake was an "unprecedented national disaster".

The quake, one of the biggest ever recorded, unleashed a terrifying tsunami that engulfed towns and cities on Japan`s northeastern coast, destroying everything in its path.

In the small port town of Minamisanriku alone, some 10,000 people are unaccounted for -- more than half the population -- public broadcaster NHK reported.

Even as Japan struggled to assess the full extent of the devastation, the nation faced an atomic emergency as cooling systems damaged by the quake failed at two nuclear reactors.

Earlier, radiation leaked from Japan’s earthquake-crippled nuclear plant on Saturday after a blast blew the roof off, and authorities prepared to distribute iodine to people in the vicinity to protect them from exposure.

The government insisted radiation levels were low because although the explosion severely damaged the main building of the plant, it had not affected the reactor core container.

Local media said three workers suffered radiation exposure at the plant in the wake of Friday’s massive earthquake, which sent a 10-metre tsunami ripping through towns and cities across the northeast coast.

Death toll reached 3,000 as a result of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the biggest in Japan since records began in the nineteenth century.

The blast raised fears of a meltdown at the power facility, 240 km north of Tokyo, as officials scrambled to contain what could be the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 that shocked the world.

However, experts said Japan should not expect a repeat of Chernobyl. They said pictures of mist above the plant suggested only small amounts of radiation had been expelled as part of measures to ensure its stability, far from the radioactive clouds Chernobyl spewed out 25 years ago.

Valeriy Hlyhalo, deputy director of the Chernobyl nuclear safety centre, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Japanese reactors were better protected than Chernobyl.

“Apart from that, these reactors are designed to work at a high seismicity zone, although what has happened is beyond the impact the plants were designed to withstand,” Hlyhalo said.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters the nuclear reaction facility was surrounded by a steel storage machine, which was itself surrounded by a concrete building.

“This concrete building collapsed. We learnt that the storage machine inside did not explode,” he said.

Edano initially said an evacuation radius of 10 km from the stricken 40-year-old Daiichi 1 reactor plant in Fukushima prefecture was adequate, but then an hour later the boundary was extended to 20 km. TV footage showed vapour rising from the plant.

Japanese officials told the UN’s atomic watchdog they were making preparations to distribute iodine to people living near nuclear power plants affected by the quake, the Vienna-based agency said. Iodine can be used to help protect the body from radioactive exposure.

The wind at the disabled plant was blowing from the south, which could affect residents north of the facility, Japan’s national weather forecaster said, adding the direction may shift later so that it blows from the north-west towards the sea.

The direction of the wind is a key factor in judging possible damage on the environment from radiation.

Along the northeast coast, rescue workers searched through the rubble of destroyed buildings, cars and boats, looking for survivors in hardest-hit areas such as the city of Sendai, 300 km northeast of Tokyo.

Dazed residents hoarded water and huddled in makeshift shelters in near-freezing temperatures. Aerial footage showed buildings and trains strewn over mudflats like children’s toys.

“All the shops are closed, this is one of the few still open. I came to buy and stock up on diapers, drinking water and food,” Kunio Iwatsuki, 68, told Reuters in Mito city, where residents queued outside a damaged supermarket for supplies.

Across the coastline, survivors clambered over nearly impassable roads. In Iwanuma, not far from Sendai, people spelled S.O.S. out on the roof of a hospital surrounded by water, one of many desperate scenes.

The earthquake and tsunami, and now the radiation leak, present Japan’s government with its biggest challenge in a generation.

The blast at the nuclear facility came as plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) was working desperately to reduce pressures in the core of the reactor.

The company has had a rocky past in an industry plagued by scandal. In 2002, the president of the country’s largest power utility was forced to resign along with four other senior executives, taking responsibility for suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records. Earlier the operator released what it said was a tiny amount of radioactive steam to reduce the pressure and the danger was minimal because tens of thousands of people had already been evacuated from the vicinity.

Reuters journalists were in Fukushima prefecture, about 70 km from the plant. Other media reported police roadblocks in the area to prevent people getting closer.

Friday’s tremor was so huge that thousands fled their homes from coastlines around the Pacific Rim, as far away as North and South America, fearful of a tsunami.

A strong 6.8 magnitude aftershock struck off the east coast of Japan on Saturday, US seismologists said, less than 24 hours after a massive earthquake created a powerful and destructive tsunami.

The aftershock, which the US Geological Survey said hit at a depth of just 24 kilometres was centred 174 kilometres east-southeast of the city of Sendai.

Around 10,000 people are unaccounted for in the Japanese port town of Minamisanriku in quake-hit Miyagi prefecture, public broadcaster NHK reported Saturday. The figure is more than half of the population of roughly 17,000 in the town on the Pacific coast, it said.

Local authorities are trying to find their whereabouts with the help of Self-Defence Forces, NHK said.

Authorities have so far confirmed that around 7,500 people were evacuated to 25 shelters after Friday’s quake, but they have been unable to contact the other 10,000, NHK said.

Tomohiko Kato, an official of the disaster bureau of Miyagi, told AFP that it had contacted at least 7,500 local residents at shelters and houses.

“But our monitoring operations have been hampered with debris and mad,” Kato said. “Even helicopters can’t approach some of the shelters. I’m afraid that it will take more time to finish our confirmation procedures.”

End.

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