Radiation leaked from an unstable Japanese nuclear reactor north of Tokyo on Saturday, the government said, after an explosion blew the roof off the facility after being hit by a powerful earthquake and tsunami, Reuters and BBC report.
Friday’s double disaster, which pulverized Japan’s northeastern coast, has left 574 people dead by official count, although local media reports said at least 1,300 people may have been killed.
The blast at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility – which was damaged by Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan – occurred just hours after officials said they feared the reactor could melt down.
Tokyo Power Electric Co., the utility that runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said four workers had suffered fractures and bruises and were being treated at a hospital. There were fears the reactor at the site could melt down and radiation levels around the plant had already reached 20 times the normal.
“We are looking into the cause and the situation and we’ll make that public when we have further information,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.
Edano said an evacuation radius of 10 km from the stricken 40-year-old Daiichi 1 reactor plant in Fukushima prefecture was adequate. TV footage showed vapor rising from the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
The blast came as plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) worked desperately to reduce pressures in the core of the reactor.
“An unchecked rise in temperature could cause the core to essentially turn into a molten mass that could burn through the reactor vessel,” risk information service Stratfor said in a report before the explosion. “This may lead to a release of an unchecked amount of radiation into the containment building that surrounds the reactor.”
Japanese NHK television and Jiji said the outer structure of the building that houses the reactor appeared to have blown off, which could suggest the containment building had already been breached.
Earlier the operator released what it said was a tiny amount of radioactive steam to reduce the pressure and the danger was minimal because tens of thousands of people had already been evacuated from the vicinity.
Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a Russian nuclear expert, said a Chernobyl-style meltdown was unlikely. “It’s not a fast reaction like at Chernobyl,” he said. “I think that everything will be contained within the grounds, and there will be no big catastrophe.”
Friday’s tremor was so huge that thousands fled their homes from coastlines around the Pacific Rim, as far away as North and South America, fearful of a tsunami.
Most appeared to have been spared anything more serious than some high waves, unlike Japan’s northeast coastline which was hammered by the huge tsunami that turned houses and ships into floating debris as it surged into cities and villages, sweeping aside everything in its path.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said 50,000 troops would join rescue and recovery efforts after a 30ft tsunami smashed through towns, airports and submerged highways. The official death toll currently stands at 574, but 784 people were still missing and more than 1,000 injured.
Police said between 200 and 300 bodies have been found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake’s epicentre. Untold numbers of bodies are believed to be buried in the rubble and debris.
Rail operators lost contact with four trains running on coastal lines on Friday and still had not found them by this morning. East Japan Railway Co. said it did not know how many people were aboard the trains.
The unfolding natural disaster, which has been followed by dozens of aftershocks, prompted offers of search and rescue help from 50 countries.
In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out for rescue, Kyodo news agency reported. TV footage showed staff at one hospital waving banners with the words “FOOD” and “HELP” from a rooftop. The airport in coastal city Sendai, home to one million people, was on fire, Japanese media said.
Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said the earth’s axis shifted 25 cm as a result of the quake and the U.S. Geological Survey said the main island of Japan had shifted 2.4 meters.
President Barack Obama pledged U.S. assistance following what he called a potentially “catastrophic” disaster. He said one U.S. aircraft carrier was already in Japan and a second was on its way. A U.S. ship was also heading to the Marianas Islands to assist as needed, he said.
Japan’s worst previous quake was a magnitude 8.3 temblor in Kanto that killed 143,000 people in 1923, according to the USGS. A magnitude 7.2 quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995 and caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. [via MSNBC, BBC and Daily Mail (UK)]