Workers battled to prevent a nuclear meltdown after a second blast rocked an atomic plant north of Tokyo, as helicopters and convoys of army trucks headed toward areas worst hit by Japan’s strongest earthquake.
No large release of radiation was detected after the explosion, which didn’t breach Fukushima power station’s No. 3 reactor and followed a build-up of hydrogen gas, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in Tokyo today. The risk of a large leak is very small, he said.
The 8.9-magnitude temblor and subsequent tsunami has killed thousands and left millions without electricity or water. Stocks plunged and the Bank of Japan poured record funds into the economy after Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the country was facing its worst crisis since World War II.
“The situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant continues to be a concern,” Kan said at a meeting of the government’s crisis response team in Tokyo. “Everyone connected with this is working with all their might, without regard to day or night, to prevent further damage.”
The cooling system failed at Fukushima Dai-Ichi station’s No. 1 and No. 3 reactors after the earthquake, and it stopped working today at the No. 2 reactor. Fuel rods in the reactors may have melted when water levels fell, Edano said. Molten rods would increase the risk of a meltdown.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the nuclear plant, stopped pumping seawater into its Nos. 1 and 3 reactors earlier today because it needed to use the one working pump on the No. 2 reactor to cool it down, said Nishiyama Hidehiko, director general at Japan’s Trade Ministry.
10,000 Feared Dead
Three other reactors at the station were shut for maintenance before the quake. Six people were injured in today’s blast, Tokyo Electric Power said.
The earthquake and tsunami may have killed 10,000 in Miyagi prefecture, north of Tokyo, said Go Sugawara, a spokesman for the prefectural police department. The official toll reached 1,823 dead and 2,369 missing, the National Police Agency said.
About 1.3 million households were without power this morning, and 1.4 million had no running water, according to a government report. Rescue teams were having trouble reaching about 24,000 people stranded in northeastern Japan, NHK Television said.
More than 310,000 people are in emergency shelters and heating systems are short of fuel, the state broadcaster reported. Temperatures in Sendai, near the epicenter of the quake, are forecast to fall to around freezing tonight.
About 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water, 100,000 packages of instant noodles, 10,000 diapers and 130 portable toilets were en route to the most devastated areas, according to a statement on the prime minister’s website posted at 7 a.m.
Convoys of army trucks and police buses could be seen heading in both directions on the Tohoku expressway, which runs from Tokyo to the north of Japan. In the town of Motomiya, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) north of the capital, ambulances and Tokyo Electric vehicles were queuing for petrol at a gasoline station.
Some of the expressways leading north from Tokyo were closed to regular traffic for the relief efforts. Drivers are allowed to buy 10 liters (2.6 gallons) at gasoline stands that have fuel, attendants told Bloomberg News.
Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano said “the economic impact will exceed the 20 trillion yen in damage sustained during the Kobe earthquake” of 1995. The government still has 1.3 trillion yen ($15.8 billion) in discretionary funds from this year’s budget that can be allocated for quake relief, he said at a press conference.
The Bank of Japan poured a record 15 trillion yen into the world’s third-biggest economy today as the earthquake triggered a plunge in stocks and surge in credit risk. Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average closed 6.2 percent down, the biggest one-day drop since December 2008.
Kan is sending 100,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel into the areas around Sendai, a city of 1 million people, for search-and-rescue efforts, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said. About 190 aircraft and 45 vessels were deployed to transport injured people and supplies, according to the Defense Ministry website. More than 50 countries pledged help.
The parliament suspended its current session, Kyodo News reported, citing lawmakers.
“Our country faces its worst crisis since the end of the war 65 years ago,” an emotional Kan said at a nationally televised press conference in Tokyo yesterday. “I’m convinced that working together with all our might the Japanese people can overcome this.”
A temblor measuring 6.1 shook buildings across Tokyo at 4:12 p.m. today. There have been 32 aftershocks with a magnitude of 6 or greater since the main quake struck on March 11, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One quake this morning triggered an alert for a 5-meter tsunami for Iwate prefecture that didn’t materialize.
At Yurakucho station in the capital’s central business district, commuters stood 12 deep, waiting to board at 8 a.m. As a delayed train pulled in and passengers got off, people surged forward to squeeze into carriages. Riders who usually read newspapers or check their mobile phones were packed so tightly inside the car, they couldn’t lift their arms.
Japan is setting up power conservation measures, Edano said yesterday. Tokyo Electric will start power outages in parts of the greater Tokyo area today, according to a statement. Edano, in a predawn press conference in Tokyo today, urged Japanese citizens to “save electricity in the most maximum way possible, including large electricity users.”
Winds took small radiation releases from the reactors out to sea away from the population and shouldn’t affect the U.S. west coast, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which sent reactor experts to Japan, said in a statement. Radiation at the plant exceeded Japanese limits after an explosion on March 12 at the No. 1 reactor destroyed the walls of the plant and injured four workers, said Naoyuki Matsumoto, a company spokesman.
Inadequate cooling of the reactor core may lead to a meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident because of the threat of radiation releases, according to the NRC. The 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania failed to breach the containment building, according to the commission.
‘Prepare for Worst’
Air Self-Defense Forces transported batteries, generators and pumps for cooling water to the plant, the Defense Ministry said. More than 100 military staff members were dispatched to provide containment assistance with special chemical units.
Seawater was pumped into reactors to prevent a meltdown.
The government ordered people within 10 kilometers of the power plant to evacuate after the cooling system failed.
“We’d like to keep the length of the evacuation at a minimum, but at the same time we must prepare for the worst,” Edano said.
Rescue workers used chain saws and hand picks to dig out bodies in coastal towns hit by the quake, the Associated Press reported. Hajime Sato, a government official in the quake-ravaged Iwate prefecture, told AP that not enough supplies were getting through and that there was a shortage of body bags and coffins.
The U.S. Agency for International Development sent 150 search-and-rescue personnel with dogs that can find bodies in rubble. The U.K., Australia and South Korea also were sending teams with dogs.
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was off the coast to support relief efforts, said Leslie Hull-Ryde, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman. The carrier will be joined by the USS Essex, and both vessels “can be used for helicopter operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Bahrain on March 12.
The U.S. Navy moved its ships and planes involved in the rescue efforts after radiation was detected on three helicopters operating near the Fukushima plant.
“Low-level radioactivity” was detected on 17 air crew members when they returned to the Ronald Reagan operating about 100 miles northeast from the plant, Navy spokesman Jeff Davis said in an e-mail.
The maximum radiation dose detected on any crew member was less than one month’s exposure to natural radiation emitted from sources such as “rocks, soil and the sun,” Davis said.
The U.S. State Department urged tourists and non-emergency American officials to defer travel to Japan. France urged its citizens to leave Tokyo over concerns of danger from the nuclear power plants, the Daily Telegraph reported, citing the French embassy in the Japanese capital.
The quake was the world’s strongest since a December 2004 temblor in Indonesia that left about 220,000 people dead or missing in 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. It was the biggest within the boundaries of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates in 1,200 years, said Dave Applegate, a senior adviser at USGS.
Some of the nation’s largest manufacturers, including Sony Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and beermaker Sapporo Holdings Ltd., shut down facilities in northern Japan.
Sony said its plant in Miyagi that makes Blu-ray discs, magnetic tapes and optical discs was flooded. Toshiba closed a plant that makes sensors for the cameras in its mobile phones. Refiner JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. also shut operations. Toyota Motor Corp. closed 12 plants in the nation through March 16. Refiner JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. also shut operations.
‘Ring of Fire’
Tokyo Disney Resort will be closed until at least March 21, depending on the state of transportation and infrastructure around the park, operator Oriental Land Co. said. No major damage to the park’s facilities was reported, it said.
Japan lies on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin. A 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Kobe, western Japan, killed more than 6,000 people in 1995, while the 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Quake of 1923 destroyed 576,262 structures and killed an estimated 140,000.
Within an hour of the March 11 quake, a 7-meter-high tsunami engulfed towns on the northern coast, washing away buildings, vehicles and boats.
The wall of water reached as far as 20 kilometers inland, according to NHK. It swamped an area from Erimo in the northern island of Hokkaido to Oarai, Fukushima, about 670 kilometers to the south, according to Japan’s meteorological agency.