Exodus from Japan nuclear plant

Posted on March 12, 2011


13 March 2011 Last updated at 02:07 GMT 

An estimated 170,000 people have been evacuated from the area around a quake-damaged nuclear power station in north-east Japan that was hit by an explosion, the UN atomic watchdog says.

A building housing a reactor was destroyed in Saturday’s blast but the reactor is said to be intact.

Staff are now trying to cool another damaged reactor but radiation has risen above safety limits, reports say.

Friday’s quake and tsunami are thought to have left more than 1,000 dead.

The authorities are stepping up relief efforts as the scale of the tragedy becomes clear.

Officials announced that the number of troops helping with rescue work in the region would be doubled to 100,000.

‘Minimal radiation’The Japanese government has sought to play down fears of a meltdown at Fukushima 1, saying that radiation levels around the stricken plant have now fallen.

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image of Chris Hogg Chris Hogg BBC News, Tokyo 

There are now problems at the number three reactor – the concern is that it is overheating. They’re trying to pump sea water through it at the moment. That’s an unusual, somewhat innovative solution to the problem. But the fact that they’re prepared to consider unusual solutions like that gives you a hint of just how serious the problem is.

This is a very difficult issue for the Japanese government. There has always been concern here about the safety of nuclear power stations, about the wisdom of building nuclear power stations, on which Japan relies hugely for its energy needs, in a country which is so prone to earthquakes.

They’re also aware that they don’t want to cause panic. On Saturday we saw the exclusion zone around this plant gradually increase. First of all it was just a few kilometres, now it’s much wider. But obviously once that exclusion zone is extended, you’ve then got to get the people out. So it’s important, they would say, not to cause unnecessary panic. And that’s why they’re trying to play this down as much as they can.

But on Sunday morning, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) revealed that the cooling system of another reactor had failed.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano said air with some radioactive content was being released to help to cool it.

“We believe that we can stabilise the situation of the reactor,” he said.

“And although the air being vented out does contain some minimal radioactive material, however, we believe that it is a minimal level that does not affect human health.”

Later Kyodo news agency quoted Tepco as saying radiation levels around the plant had risen above permissable limits.

The company added that this did not necessarily mean a threat to human health.

Technicians performed a similar operation on the first reactor at Fukushima 1 hours before the explosion that wrecked the building it was housed in.

Meanwhile, Tepco said at least 15 people at a nearby hospital were found to have been exposed to radioactivity.

And the firm also confirmed that four of its workers were injured in Saturday’s explosion, but that their injuries were not life-threatening.

The Japanese government doubled the size of the evacuation zone around Fukushima 1 to 20km (12.4 miles) after the blast.

The government has urged local people to remain calm and is preparing to distribute iodine to anyone affected.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a statement: “In the 20km radius around Fukushima Daiichi [No. 1], an estimated 170,000 people have been evacuated.

“In the 10-kilometre radius around Fukushima Daini [No. 2] an estimated 30,000 people have been evacuated. Full evacuation measures have not been completed.”

Scenes of devastationThe tsunami that followed the 8.9-magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc along a huge stretch of on Japan’s north-east coast, sweeping far inland and devastating a number of towns and villages. Powerful aftershocks are continuing to hit the region.

The BBC’s Damian Grammaticas in the coastal city of Sendai says the scenes of devastation are astonishing.

He says giant shipping containers have been swept inland and smashed against buildings, and fires are still burning close to the harbour.

Police said between 200 and 300 bodies were found in just one ward of the city.

The town of Rikuzentakada, Iwate prefecture, was almost completely submerged. Japanese broadcaster NHK reported that soldiers had found hundreds of bodies there.

NHK reports that in the port of Minamisanriku, Miyagi, the authorities say that about 7,500 people were evacuated to 25 shelters after Friday’s quake but they have been unable to contact the town’s other 10,000 inhabitants.

A local official in the town of Futaba said more than 90% of the houses in three coastal communities had been washed away by the tsunami.

Couple walk past overturned vehicles in Miyako (12 March) The scale of the devastation is immense

“The tsunami was unbelievably fast,” said Koichi Takairin, a 34-year-old truck driver who was inside his four-ton rig when the wave hit Sendai.

“Smaller cars were being swept around me. All I could do was sit in my truck.”

More than 215,000 people are said to be living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures.

International disaster relief teams are being sent to Japan, with the UN helping to co-ordinate the operation.

President Barack Obama has pledged US assistance. One US aircraft carrier that was already in Japan will help with rescue and relief efforts, and a second is on its way.

Japan’s worst previous earthquake was of 8.3 magnitude and killed 143,000 people in Kanto in 1923. A magnitude 7.2 quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995.