Cascading disaster in Japan

Blast shakes a second reactor; death toll soars

By Martin Fackler and Mark McDonald
New York Times / March 14, 2011

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SENDAI, Japan — Japan reeled from a rapidly unfolding disaster of epic scale yesterday, pummeled by the death toll, destruction, and homelessness caused by the earthquake and tsunami and new hazards from damaged nuclear reactors. The prime minister called it Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.

Japan’s $5 trillion economy, the world’s third largest, was threatened with severe disruptions and partial paralysis as many industries shut down temporarily. The armed forces and volunteers mobilized for the far more urgent crisis of finding survivors, evacuating residents near the stricken power plants and caring for the victims of the record 8.9 magnitude quake that struck on Friday.

The disaster has left more than 10,000 dead, many thousands homeless, and millions without water, power, heat, or transportation.

The most urgent immediate worries concerned the failures at two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The second hydrogen explosion in three days rocked the Daiichi plant today, sending a massive column of smoke into the air and injuring six workers. It was not immediately clear how much — if any — radiation had been released.

The explosion at the plant’s Unit 3, which authorities have been frantically trying to cool following a system failure, triggered an order for hundreds of people to stay indoors, said chief Cabinet secretary Yukio Edano.

The blast follows a similar explosion Saturday that took place at the plant’s Unit 1, injuring four workers and causing mass evacuations.

Fukushima Daiichi and another power station, Fukushima Daiini, about 10 miles away, have been under a state of emergency since the quake struck.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the country’s crippled nuclear power grid, had announced a series of rotating blackouts to conserve electricity, but held off on the move and instead asked everyone to try to limit their electricity use.

Officials said more than 1,800 were confirmed dead, but that number was certain to climb as searchers began to reach coastal villages that essentially vanished under the first muddy surge of the tsunami, which struck the nation’s northern Pacific coast near the port city of Sendai. In one town alone, the port of Minamisanriku, a senior police official said the number of dead would “certainly be more than 10,000.’’ That is more than half the town’s population of 17,000.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a news conference in Tokyo late yesterday: “I think that the earthquake, tsunami, and the situation at our nuclear reactors makes up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war. If the nation works together, we will overcome.’’

The government ordered 100,000 troops — nearly half the country’s active military force and the largest mobilization in postwar Japan — to take part in the relief effort. A US naval strike group led by the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan also arrived off Japan yesterday to help with refueling, supply, and rescue duties.

The quake and tsunami did not reach Japan’s industrial heartland, although economists said the power blackouts could affect industrial production — notably carmakers, electronics manufacturers, and steel plants — and interrupt the nation’s famously efficient supply chain. Tourism was also bound to plummet, as the United States, France, and other nations urged citizens to avoid traveling to Japan.

AIR Worldwide, a risk consultant in Boston, said its disaster models estimated property damage to be as high as $35 billion. The company said 70 percent of residential construction in Japan was wood, and earthquake insurance was not widely used.

Amid the despair and mourning, and the worry over an unrelenting series of strong aftershocks, there was one bright moment when the Japanese Navy rescued a 60-year-old man who had been floating at sea for two days.

Hiromitsu Arakawa clung to the roof of his tiny home in the town of Minamisoma after it was torn from its foundations by the first wave of the tsunami, the Defense Ministry said. He saw his wife slip away in the deluge, but he hung on as the house drifted away. He was discovered late yesterday morning, still on his roof, 9 miles out to sea.

The quake was the strongest to hit Japan, which sits astride the “ring of fire’’ that marks the most violent seismic activity in the Pacific Basin.

About 80,000 people were evacuated from danger zones around two atomic facilities in Fukushima Prefecture. Japanese officials reported that 22 people showed signs of radiation exposure and as many as another 170 were feared to have been exposed, including some who had been outside one of the plants waiting to be evacuated. Three workers are suffering from full-on radiation sickness.

Tokyo and central Japan continued to be struck by aftershocks off the eastern coast of Honshu Island, and United States agencies recorded 90 smaller quakes throughout the day Saturday. A long tremor registering 6.2 caused buildings in central Tokyo to sway dramatically yesterday morning.

Search teams from more than a dozen nations were bound for Japan, including a unit from New Zealand, which suffered a devastating quake last month in Christchurch. A Japanese team that had been working in New Zealand was called home.

A combined search squad from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, Va., arrived with 150 personnel and a dozen dogs.

Teams also were expected from China and South Korea, two of Japan’s most bitter rivals.

Tokyo’s acceptance of help — along with a parade of senior officials who offered updates at televised news conferences — was in marked contrast to the government’s policies after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. Japan refused most offers of aid at the time, put restrictions on foreign aid operations, and offered little information about the disaster.

Here in Sendai, a city of roughly a million people near the center of the catastrophe, many buildings cracked, but none had collapsed. Still, city officials said that more than 500,000 households and businesses were without water service, and many more lacked electricity as well.

Soldiers surrounded Sendai’s City Hall, where officials were using two floors to shelter evacuees and treat the injured, using power drawn from a generator. Thousands of residents sought refuge inside and waited anxiously for word from their relatives. A line of people waited outside with plastic bottles and buckets in hand to collect water from a pump.

Masaki Kokubum, 35, has been living at the City Hall since the quake. He worked at a supermarket, and his neighborhood lost power and water. He said he had not slept in three days, and as he spoke he seemed dazed.

“I can’t sleep,’’ he said as he sat in a chair in a hallway.

“I just sit here and wait.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in the report. top stories on Twitter

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