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Villages and towns wiped off Japan’s map


Published: Mar 16, 2011 04:08 Updated: Mar 16, 2011 04:18

TOKYO: The full extent of the destruction from last Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that followed it was becoming clear as rescuers combed through the region north of Tokyo where officials say at least 10,000 people were killed.

Whole villages and towns have been wiped off the map by Friday’s wall of water, triggering an international humanitarian effort of epic proportions. A 6.4-magnitude aftershock — a significant earthquake in its own right on any other day — shook buildings in Tokyo late on Tuesday but caused no damage.

About 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water. Tens of thousands of people were missing.

Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist for Japan at Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients that the economic loss will likely be around 14-15 trillion yen ($171-183 billion) just to the region hit by the quake and tsunami.

“The earthquake could have great implications on the global economic front,” said Andre Bakhos, director of market analytics at Lec Securities in New York. “If you shut down Japan, there could be a global recession.”

Fire nuclear reactor

As if the combined earthquake and tsunami devastation were not enough, Japan’s problems  worsened on Wednesday after fire broke out at a nuclear plant that has sent low levels of radiation wafting into Tokyo, prompting some people to flee the capital and triggering growing international alarm.

Public broadcaster NHK said flames were no longer visible at the building housing the No. 4 reactor of the plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, hours after the operator reported fire had broken out at the quake-crippled facility.

Experts say spent fuel rods in a cooling pool at the No. 4 reactor could be exposed by the fire and spew more radiation into the atmosphere. Operator Tokyo Electric Power said it was considering using a helicopter to dump boric acid, a fire retardant, on the facility.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said two workers were missing after blasts at the facility a day earlier blew a hole in the building housing the No. 4 reactor.

In the first hint of international frustration at the pace of updates from Japan, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he wanted more timely and detailed information.

“We do not have all the details of the information so what we can do is limited,” Amano told a news conference in Vienna. “I am trying to further improve the communication.”

Concern now centers on damage to a part of the No. 4 reactor building where spent rods were being stored in pools of water outside the containment area, and also to part of the No.2 reactor that helps to cool and trap the majority of cesium, iodine and strontium in its water.

Before Tuesday’s explosion the temperature in Number 4 reactor’s cooling pool was 84 degrees Celsius, higher than normal due to a lack of electricity after the quake, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, chief spokesman of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Since then the temperature had been rising and there was a possibility that it was boiling, he said.

It would take 7-10 days for the water to boil away, leaving the spent fuel rods exposed to the air, said Kazuya Aoki, a director for safety examination. As long as the spent fuel rods were covered with water there should be no leak of radioactive material from them, he said.

US help

The US Department of Energy said it had sent a team of 34 people to help Japan with the crisis.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Tuesday urged people within 30 km (18 miles) of the facility — a population of 140,000 — to remain indoors, as authorities grappled with the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

Officials in Tokyo said radiation in the capital was 10 times normal at one point but not a threat to human health in the sprawling high-tech city of 13 million people.

The best advice experts could give them was to stay indoors, close the windows and avoid breathing bad air — steps very similar to those for handling a smog alert or avoiding influenza.

While these steps may sound inconsequential, experts said the danger in Tokyo, while worrisome, is slight — at least for now.

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