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Japan quake toll hits 613; nuke plants overheat

TOKYO (Agencies)

At least 613 people have been confirmed killed and authorities scrambled to prevent meltdown at two nuclear plants Saturday after a monster tsunami devastated a swathe of northeast Japan.

But the government voiced fears that more than 1,000 had died.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s right-hand man and top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, said “it is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives”.

Over 215,000 people were put up in emergency shelters in the eastern and northern parts of the country, the National Police Agency said.

Reactor cooling systems failed after Friday’s record 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit, unleashing a terrifying 10-metre (33-foot) high wave that tore through coastal towns and cities and destroying all in its path.

No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction   

Naoto Sekimura

Radiation 1,000 times above normal was detected in the control room of one nuclear plant, although authorities said levels outside the facility’s gates were only eight times above normal, spelling “no immediate health hazard”.

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from around the plants as Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the facilities, said it had released some radioactive vapor at both locations to relieve building reactor pressure.

Officials said that so far the level of radiation leakage was small. And Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said a major radioactive disaster was unlikely.

“No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction,” he said.

“Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean some radioactive leakage and equipment damage, but not an explosion. If venting is done carefully, there will be little leakage. Certainly not beyond the 3 km radius.”

The two nuclear plants affected are the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 plants, both located about 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo.

Extent of devastation

The damage is so enormous that it will take us much time to gather data   

Police agency official

The atomic emergency came as the country struggled to assess the full extent of the devastation wrought by the massive tsunami, which was unleashed by the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan off the eastern coast.

The towering wall of water pulverized the northeastern city of Sendai, where police reportedly said 200-300 bodies had been found on the coast.

The unstoppable black tide picked up shipping containers, wrecked cars and the debris of shattered homes and crashed through the streets of Sendai and across open fields, forming a mud slick that covered swathes of land.

The National Police Agency said 202 people had been confirmed dead and 673 were missing, with 991 injured. A spokesman said this did not include the bodies reportedly found on the Sendai coast.

Kyodo News said the final death toll was likely to pass 1,000.

“The damage is so enormous that it will take us much time to gather data,” an official at the police agency told AFP.

Authorities said more than 3,000 homes were destroyed or swept away.

The tsunami obliterated Rikuzen Takata, a coastal city of some 23,000 people, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.

The towering wave set off alerts across the Pacific, sparking evacuations in Hawaii and on the U.S. West Coast, damaging boats and leaving one man missing.

Chile said it was evacuating coastal areas and Ecuador’s state oil company announced it had suspended crude oil exports due to risks posed by the tsunami.

The Bank of Japan said it would do its “utmost” to ensure the stability of financial markets after the quake brought huge disruption to key industries.

More than eight million homes lost power, mobile and landline phone systems broke down and gas was cut to more than 300,000 homes, meaning many Japanese could not heat their dark homes during a tense, cold night.

The military mobilized thousands of troops, 300 planes and 40 ships for the relief effort. An armada of 20 naval destroyers and other vessels headed for the devastated Pacific coast area of Honshu island.

Leading international offers of help, President Barack Obama mobilized the U.S. military to provide emergency aid after what he called a “simply heartbreaking” disaster.

The United States, which has nearly 40,000 military personnel in Japan, ordered a flotilla including two aircraft carriers and support ships to the region to provide aid.

“Super quake”

The quake, which hit at 2:46 pm (0546 GMT) and lasted about two minutes, rattled buildings in greater Tokyo, the world’s largest urban area and home to some 30 million people.

Millions were left stranded in the evening after the earthquake shut down the city’s vast subway system.

But with small quakes felt every day somewhere in Japan, the country is one of the best prepared to deal with the aftermath of such a calamity.

People take part in regular drills at schools and workplaces to prepare for a tremor on the scale of Friday’s “super quake”.

As the emergency response swung into action, the government urged people to stay near their workplaces rather than risk a long walk home as there was major disruption to air travel.

Bullet train services, like the country’s network of advanced nuclear power plants, are designed to shut down as soon as the earth shakes in one of the world’s most quake-prone countries.

In a rare piece of good news, a ship that was earlier reported missing was found swept out to sea and all 81 people aboard were airlifted to safety.

But mostly the picture was one of utter devastation.

The tsunami submerged the runway at Sendai airport, while a process known as liquefaction, caused by the intense shaking of the tremor, turned parts of the ground to liquid.

Hours after the quake struck, TV images showed huge orange balls of flame rolling up into the night sky as fires raged around a petrochemical complex in Sendai. A massive blaze also engulfed an oil refinery near Tokyo.

Nearly 24 hours after the first, massive quake struck just under 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Tokyo, aftershocks were still rattling the region, including a strong 6.8 magnitude tremor on Saturday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said more than 100 aftershocks had hit the area.

Japan sits on the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and Tokyo is in one of its most dangerous areas, where three continental plates are slowly grinding against each other, building up enormous seismic pressure.

The government has long warned of the likelihood that a devastating magnitude-eight quake will strike within the next 30 years in the Kanto plains, home to Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl.

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