Japan earthquake,toll rises,thousands missing

An explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant triggered fears of a meltdown Saturday, after a massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 1,700 dead and at least 10,000 unaccounted for.

As workers doused the stricken reactor with seawater to try to avert a 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 10-metre wave that tore through 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. Radiation leaked from the quake-crippled plant after a blast blew off the roof, and authorities prepared to distribute iodine to local people to protect them from exposure.

The blast raised fears of a meltdown at the power facility, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, as officials scrambled to contain what could be the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. 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. Japan’s nuclear safety agency said the accident rated less serious than either the Three Mile Island or Chernobyl disasters.

Valeriy Hlyhalo, deputy director of the Chernobyl nuclear safety centre, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that Japanese reactors were better protected than Chernobyl. Local media said three people suffered radiation exposure near the plant. An evacuation order for tens of thousands of residents was expanded to 20 kilometres around the Fukushima plant, where authorities scrambled to control rising temperatures and pressure inside several reactors.

Work was continuing to douse the site with seawater to reduce the temperature. “Right now we are considering the accident should be rated four,” an official of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said early Sunday, adding that the rating may be changed according to how the situation develops.

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. Kyodo news agency said more than 1,700 people were killed or missing as a result of the 8.9-magnitude quake, the biggest in Japan since records began in the 19th century. 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.

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. Japan has been struggling to assess the full extent of the devastation. Japan had, on Friday, declared an atomic emergency amid growing international concern over its reactors after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake.

The operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) pumped water into the Fukushima No 1 plant and released steam to depressurise the hut containers, an action that experts say will release a certain amount of radioactive vapour. Tepco said that, at its highest level, the hourly radiation inside the plant reached 1,015 micro sievert before the blast – equivalent to the permissible exposure for people over one year.

Top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano said containment activities would now focus on “dousing the container with sea water”. Premier Naoto Kan, speaking at the same press conference, urged residents to stay calm and vowed the government would “do our best not to have even a single person suffer from health problems”.

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