Nuclear alert: Emergency workers battle to prevent disaster after 30-foot tsunami strikes
EMERGENCY workers were battling to prevent a nuclear disaster last night after reactors wer damaged by Japan's biggest earthquake at two, plants writes Gordon Rayner.
Earlier, the country's prime minister Naoto Kan declared a nuclear alert as his trade minister admitted a radiation leak might occur at the Fukushima power plant. Japanese nuclear officials say radiation levels inside the plant have surged to 1,000 times their normal levels after the cooling system failed due to a power outage from the quake.
The nuclear safety agency said early today that some radiation had also seeped outside the plant, prompting calls for further evacuations of the area.
Altogether, five reactor units - two at the Fukushima No. 1 plant and three at nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant - were in a state of emergency. All five units were said to be shut down last night.
Hundreds of people have been confirmed dead after the "superquake" 81 miles out to sea triggered a tsunami that sent a 30ft-high wall of water crashing into Japan's Pacific coast.
The earthquake was 1,000 times more powerful than the tremor that devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month, and the world's seventh biggest since records began.
Tourists were feared to be among those unaccounted for after a ship with 100 people on board was reported to have been lost at sea and two trains, one of them carrying hundreds of passengers in the Miyagi region, were listed as missing.
Japanese officials said they expected the eventual death toll to be in the thousands, but last night the country was anxiously watching the unfolding events at Fukushima, 100 miles north of Tokyo, as experts fought to prevent a nuclear accident.
More than 3,000 people living within two miles of the plant were evacuated from their homes, with everyone else living in a seven-mile radius told to stay indoors.
Millions of Japanese prepared to spend an uneasy night in fear of a further major tremor as more than 50 aftershocks were reported.
The worst affected area appeared to be in and around Sendai -- a coastal port 200 miles north of Tokyo -- where 200 to 300 people were confirmed dead after the tsunami swallowed everything in its path, churning up houses, cars, trees and boats before dumping them miles inland.
An oil refinery was one of dozens of buildings on fire along the 1,300-mile stretch of coastline affected by the tsunami as emergency workers struggled to cope with the sheer scale of the disaster.
Seismologists picked up the first signs of the tremor in time for broadcasters to put out an emergency warning one minute before it shook northern Japan.
Japan experiences up to 2,000 noticeable tremors every year and newer buildings are designed to withstand even the biggest earthquakes.
But nothing could prepare the country for the tsunami that followed minutes later.
TV news helicopters captured footage of an unstoppable tide of sludge as it spread across the parched rice fields around Sendai like ink spilled on paper.
Houses, cars, trees and anything else in the way were churned up into the advancing morass as it moved hundreds of yards inland.
Footage showed drivers jumping out of their cars on a bridge in the city and watching as the water of the harbour surged up the main bridge piles, dismasting several large fishing boats as they were driven forward by the tide and crushed beneath the concrete arches.
Between 200 and 300 bodies were recovered in Sendai, with another 120 reported to have been taken to morgues around northern Japan.
As the 500mph tidal wave spread out across the Pacific, tsunami warnings were issued as far away as Chile but early fears of low-lying islands being swamped appeared to prove unfounded.