Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for calm as the government battled to cool three quake-damaged nuclear reactors with seawater while Tokyo shoppers stockpiled supplies.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said this afternoon radiation readings outside reactors rocked by explosions were falling below harmful levels, while a fire at a separate unit appeared to have been put out. Earlier today, Edano said the steel unit containing the radioactive core of one reactor had been damaged and warned of dangerous contamination.
Stocks slumped after the news that a third explosion and fire struck Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant this morning, and supermarkets reported panic buying. Hundreds of thousands of people without power faced freezing temperatures after Japan’s strongest earthquake on record caused a 7-meter (23-foot) tsunami that engulfed the northeast coast.
“The water supply at reactors No. 1 and 3 are stable, and the radiation level at the front gate of the plant has dropped to a level that isn’t harmful to the human body,” Edano said at a briefing in Tokyo. At the same time, “the temperature is rising slightly” at the pond that stores spent nuclear fuel in the No. 4 reactor.
Water in the pond may be boiling, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official at Japan’s nuclear safety agency. The rods need to be kept covered with water or they can overheat and spill radioactive material into the air, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Chain of Explosions
Group of Eight foreign ministers meeting in Paris today expressed confidence in Japan’s ability to handle the crisis, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at a briefing.
Concern is mounting that unless the Fukushima plant, 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Tokyo, is brought under control, radiation will disrupt or endanger life in the country’s biggest city. Austria’s ambassador in Japan is leaving the capital because of the reactors’ “unpredictability” and will work from Osaka, the state-run Austrian Press Agency reported.
Japanese stocks fell after reports of today’s explosion and fire, sending the Topix 9.5 percent lower at the close in Tokyo, the largest one-day slide since October 2008. The gauge has dropped 18 percent since the quake. The central bank injected 8 trillion yen ($98 billion) into the financial system today, on top of a record 15 trillion yen yesterday.
“We are in uncharted waters now,” said Kirby Daley, a Hong Kong-based senior strategist with Newedge Group’s prime brokerage business.
Today’s blast and fire followed two earlier explosions when cooling systems damaged by the magnitude-9 earthquake on March 11 failed. At a morning briefing, Edano said radiation readings around the plant reached “a level that could harm people.”
Kan said the total evacuation of those within a 10-kilometer radius was almost complete. The government ordered people within 20 kilometers to leave the area and said everyone within 30 kilometers should stay indoors.
Kan urged people to remain calm and said the country had sufficient food supplies. Seven & I Holdings Co., Japan’s biggest retailer, said store shelves at its Ito-Yokado supermarkets are being emptied daily of necessities such as water, rice and batteries as soon as fresh supplies arrive.
“Every day the stores provide a certain amount, but as soon as a shop opens, the products disappear,” Hirotake Henmi, a spokesman for Seven & I, said in a phone interview.
Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent SA and Bangalore-based Infosys Technologies Ltd. are among companies that said they may move employees to safer locations. Citigroup Inc. received requests from several senior employees in Tokyo who are asking to leave Japan, said a person with knowledge of the matter.
Radiation levels in Kitaibaraki city, about a quarter of the way between the Fukushima plant and Tokyo, fell to 962 nanosieverts per hour as of 1 p.m., from 3,560 nanosieverts at 8:10 a.m., the local government said. That compares with 50 nanosieverts when the measurements began March 13.
“The radiation levels are above normal, but at most only about one-tenth of a chest X-ray,” the government said in a separate statement today.
As of 10.22 a.m. local time, 400 millisieverts per hour of radiation were detected at the No. 3 reactor. The exposure limit for a nuclear industry employee is 20 millisieverts a year, according to the World Nuclear Association. A radiation dose of 100 millisieverts a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer is evident, the WNA said on its website.
Japan has distributed 230,000 units of stable iodine to evacuation centers from the area around the nuclear plants, according to officials. The ingestion of stable iodine can help to prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid.
Official police figures put the death toll at 2,734, with 3,743 missing as at 6:30 p.m. local time. The temblor and resulting tsunami destroyed or partially damaged 60,007 homes or buildings and 719 roads and swept away 26 bridges.
The death toll may reach 10,000 in Miyagi prefecture, Go Sugawara, a spokesman for the police said.
The U.S. Geological Survey raised its estimate of the earthquake’s magnitude to 9 from 8.9, making it the world’s fourth-strongest since 1900 and Japan’s biggest on record. There have been at least 405 aftershocks since the main quake, according to the survey’s website.
Near Sendai, a city of about 1 million, television footage showed entire towns razed as the tsunami carried a black-colored mass of cars, buildings and other debris inland.
More than 440,000 people were evacuated to about 1,500 shelters in the northeast region, according to the National Police Agency, and almost 800,000 remain without power.
In Miyagi prefecture, snow is forecast for tomorrow morning, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. Temperatures are forecast to drop to minus 3 degrees Celsius in some areas.
The town of Motomiya has become an evacuation center for people fleeing the area around the damaged nuclear reactor, with 150 people sleeping in the town’s high school overnight. Its only open gas station is a major refueling stop for convoys of Self-Defense Force troops, police, fire and telephone servicemen as they travel 350 kilometers (217 miles) north between Tokyo and Sendai along the Tohoku Expressway.
At the Idemitsu Kosan Co. gas station, a stream of military trucks, uninterrupted for almost an hour, was clearly visible on the highway heading north. As residents queued for most of the morning to buy a 10-liter ration of gasoline, a fleet of more than 20 fire trucks, ambulances and NTT DoCoMo Inc. repair vans pulled in for food and refueling.
Residents were handing out rice balls to rescue workers.