Fri Mar 11, 2011 9:54pm EST
* People buried under rubble cry for help
* Residents near reactor evacuated, radiation leak likely
* Dozens of countries offer assistance
* Houses, ships, cars tossed around like toys
By Chris Meyers and Kim Kyung-hoon
FUKUSHIMA, Japan, March 12 (Reuters) - Japan scrambled on
Saturday to reduce pressure in two nuclear plants damaged after
a massive earthquake and tsunami struck its northeast coast
probably killing at least 1,300 people.
A day after the biggest quake on record in Japan, the
government said it was still too early to grasp the full extent
of damage or casualties. The confirmed death toll so far is
almost 300, though media reports say it is at least 1,300.
"Unfortunately, we must be prepared for the number to rise
greatly," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.
The tremor, with a magnitude of 8.9, 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
Most appeared to have been spared anything more serious than
some high waves, unlike Japan's northeast coastline which was
hammered by a 10-metre high tsunami that turned houses and ships
into floating debris as it surged into cities and villages,
sweeping aside everything in its path.
"I thought I was going to die," said Wataru Fujimura, a
38-year-old sales representative in Koriyama, Fukushima, north
of Tokyo and close to area worst hit by the quake.
"Our furniture and shelves had all fallen over and there
were cracks in the apartment building, so we spent the whole
night in the car... Now we're back home trying to clean
The government warned of a possible radiation leak as
authorities began trying to reduce pressure at damaged two
nuclear plants, sending tens of thousands of residents out of
the area to avoid possible contamination.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said it had begun
steps to release pressure at its two nuclear power plants in
Fukushima, some 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo.
But Kyodo news agency quoted the company as saying it was
having difficulties opening a valve at its Daiichi reactor to
Experts and the government both insisted there would be no
"No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of
coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the
reaction," Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of
"Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean some
radioactive leakage and equipment damage, but not an explosion.
If venting is done carefully, there will be little leakage.
Certainly not beyond the 3 km radius."
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.
In Tokyo, tens of thousands of office workers were stranded
overnight after the quake shut down public transport. Many were
forced to bed down where they could, with newspapers to lie on
and briefcases for pillows.
Kyodo said at least 116,000 people in Tokyo had been unable
to return home on Friday evening due to transport disruption.
The northeastern Japanese city of Kesennuma, with a
population of 74,000, was hit by widespread fires and one-third
of the city was under water, Jiji news agency said on Saturday.
The airport in the coastal city of Sendai, home to one
million people, was on fire, it added.
"Sendai (city) is now completely sunk underwater," said
limousine driver Yoshikatsu Takayabe, 52. "What do I want the
government to do? I can't flush the toilet, I want the water
back on in my house."
TV footage from Friday showed a black torrent of water
carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland
near Sendai, 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had
been flung onto a harbour wharf, where they lay helplessly.
Kyodo news agency reported that contact had been lost with
four trains in the coastal area.
The disaster poses a huge challenge for Kan's government
which has come under such concerted attack from the opposition
and within the ruling Democratic Party (DJP) that it has
struggled to implement any policy.
Just hours before the quake struck, Kan was rejecting
demands that he resign, his political future looking
increasingly bleak and unable even to muster enough support to
ensure the passage of bills needed to enact the new budget.
But after the tremor, politicians pushed for an emergency
budget to fund relief efforts, with Kan urging them to "save the
country", Kyodo reported.
Japan is already the most heavily indebted major economy in
the world, meaning any additional borrowing by the government
would be closely scrutinised by financial markets.
The quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping
records 140 years ago, sparked at least 80 fires in cities and
towns along the coast, Kyodo said.
"When I felt the quake yesterday, I actually thought it was
a strong wind slamming the door," said Emiko Nakahara, 61.
"But then my husband said no, it's a quake. I was frightened
like I've never been before."
Other nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down
and one refinery was ablaze. Power to millions of homes and
businesses was knocked out. Several airports, including Tokyo's
Narita, were closed on Friday and rail services halted. All
ports were shut.
Nuclear power plant operator Tepco warned of severe power
shortages over the weekend.
The central bank said it would cut short a two-day policy
review scheduled for next week to one day on Monday and promised
to do its utmost to ensure financial market stability.
The disaster struck as the world's third-largest economy had
been showing signs of reviving from an economic contraction in
the final quarter of last year. It raised the prospect of major
disruptions for many key businesses and a massive repair bill
running into tens of billions of dollars.
The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world
in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of Sept.
1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than
140,000 people in the Tokyo area.
The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was
the most expensive natural disaster in history.
(Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Andrew Marshall) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/12/japan-quake-idUSL3E7EC00820110312