Shocked evacuated hotel guests sit in a shelter in Oshu, Iwate prefecture after the quake. Reuters
A strong earthquake shook northern Japan late yesterday, briefly triggering tsunami alerts and renewed fears for the safety of the already damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
People in coastal areas across north-east Japan were told to evacuate to higher ground after the magnitude 7.4 earthquake, while public broadcaster NHK issued warnings of a tsunami of up to three feet along more than 300 miles of coastline north of Tokyo.
Workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant were evacuated by the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, which said there were no reports of injuries among the emergency crews at the plant after the earthquake. The company added that there were no reports of additional problems at the plant, while other nuclear facilities in Ibaraki and Miyagi prefectures also appeared to be operating normally.
The tremor struck just days before the one-month anniversary of the magnitude nine earthquake that triggered a tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis. To date, police have confirmed that 12,596 people died as a result of the March 11 quake.
Naoto Kan, the prime minister, summoned his senior officials before midnight and was informed by the Meteorological Agency that the tremor was an aftershock from the earthquake.
He was also informed that five northern prefectures were experiencing power blackouts and that authorities had closed major expressways in northern Japan as a precaution, but that no spikes in radiation levels had been detected close to the Fukushima nuclear plant and that work to inject coolant water into the facility was continuing.
This latest earthquake will cause renewed concern about the fragile condition of the crippled facility, which continues to leak radiation into the ocean and atmosphere.
In a confidential risk-assessment study completed in late March, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned that the containment structures around the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were under great stresses as they filled up with radioactive cooling water, making them extremely vulnerable to rupturing in the event of a major aftershock.
"What occurred today is an aftershock in the same area and rupture zone to the magnitude nine main shock that occurred about a month ago," said Don Blakeman, a geophysicist in the US National Earthquake Information Centre in Golden, Colorado.
The 7.1 aftershock was the fourth of magnitude seven or higher since the major quake on March 11, according to the Japanese Meteorological Agency. The largest measured 7.7, about 30 minutes after the record quake, according to the agency's website.
More than 27,300 people are dead or missing after the initial natural disaster in northeastern Japan. High levels of radiation often have forced searchers to retreat.
"I believe the search will continue until they find as many of the missing as they can, but we fear many of the missing were washed out to sea or are buried under rubble,"said Takamitsu Hoshi, a Minami Soma official.
Some of Minami Soma lies outside the evacuation zone, such as around city hall, where things are rapidly returning to normal and many shops and restaurants have reopened. Supplies are flowing in after the mayor made a plea for help in a YouTube video. Still, more than half of the city's residents have left.
Odaka is in the southeast part of the city, about 18km from the nuclear plant, where workers have been frantically trying to restore reactor cooling systems crucial to stopping the release of radiation.
Recent progress appears to have slowed the contamination. Radiation levels in waters off the coast have fallen dramatically since workers plugged a leak gushing directly into the Pacific Ocean, although contaminated water continues to pool throughout the complex.
A floating island storage facility meant to hold the water arrived at the port near Tokyo yesterday and will soon head to Fukushima. (© Daily Telegraph, London)