An explosion and feared meltdown at a Japanese nuclear plant Saturday exposed the scale of the disaster facing the country after a massive quake and tsunami left more than 1,000 dead.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the 8.9-magnitude quake and the terrifying tsunami which followed were an “unprecedented national disaster” and vowed to protect those living near the stricken plant.
Reactor cooling systems failed at two nuclear facilities after Friday’s record earthquake, which unleashed a terrifying 10-metre (33-foot) wave that tore through coastal towns and cities, destroying everything in its path.
Smoke was seen billowing from the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant about 250 kilometres (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo after an explosion at the site.
Kyodo News agency said radioactive caesium had been detected near the ageing facility, citing the nuclear safety agency.
Kan’s top spokesman, Yukio Edano, said however that the Fukushima plant’s operator had reported the reactor container was not damaged and that radiation levels near it had fallen after the blast.
Kyodo and Jiji reported before the explosion that the plant “may be experiencing nuclear meltdown”, while public broadcaster NHK quoted the safety agency as saying metal tubes that contain uranium fuel may have melted.
The cooling system of the plant was damaged in the massive earthquake that struck the region 24 hours earlier, leaving authorities scrambling to fix the problem and evacuate tens of thousands of people within a 20-kilometre radius.
Thousands were evacuated from near another damaged plant, Fukushima No. 2.
The atomic emergency came as the country struggled to assess the full extent of the devastation wreaked by Friday’s massive tsunami, which was unleashed by the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan.
The wall of water pulverised towns and cities along the northeastern coast. Police reportedly said 200-300 bodies had been found in the city of Sendai.
Some 300-400 bodies were recovered in Rikuzentakata, a coastal town of some 23,000 people, NHK quoted the military as saying. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said the tsunami had obliterated the town. Japan quake: live report
It was not immediately clear whether any of the bodies found by the military were included in police tolls showing at least 700 people dead. The government spokesman said at least 1,000 people were believed to have lost their lives.
More than 215,000 people were huddled in emergency shelters, police said.
The full scale of those left homeless was believed to be much higher, with police saying they had not received a tally from Miyagi prefecture, the hard-hit province that is home to Sendai.
“What used to be residential areas were mostly swept away in many coastal areas and fires are still blazing there,” Prime Minister Kan said after surveying the damage by helicopter.
The raging tsunami picked up shipping containers, cars and the debris of shattered homes. It crashed through the streets of Sendai and across open fields, forming a mud slick that covered vast tracts of land.
“There are so many people who lost their lives,” an elderly man told TV reporters before breaking down in tears. “I have no words to say.”
“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.
In the shattered town of Minamisoma, Sayori Suzuki, a 34-year-old housewife, recalled the utter horror of the moment the quake hit.
“It was a tremor like I’ve never experienced before,” she told AFP. “Things just flew from the shelves.”
“My house is okay, but a relative’s house was washed away.”
Some 50,000 military and other rescue personnel were spearheading a Herculean rescue and recovery effort with hundreds of ships, aircraft and vehicles headed to the Pacific coast area.
Army helicopters airlifted people off the roof of an elementary school in Watari, Miyagi prefecture.
The towering wave set off alerts across the Pacific, sparking evacuations in Hawaii and on the US West Coast.
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, raising short-term concerns for the nation’s struggling economy.
In quake-hit areas, 5.6 million households had no power Saturday and more than one million households were without water. Telecommunications networks were also hit.
Leading international offers of help, President Barack Obama mobilised the US 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.
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.
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.
“If there is any place in the world ready for a disaster of the scale and scope of this historic calamity, it is Japan,” said Stacey White, senior research consultant at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
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.
More than 24 hours after the first, massive quake struck just under 400 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, aftershocks were still rattling the region, including a strong 6.8 magnitude tremor on Saturday.
The US 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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