KASHIWAZAKI, Japan - A strong
earthquake shook Japan's northwest coast Monday, setting off a fire at the
world's most powerful nuclear power plant and causing a reactor to spill
radioactive water into the sea-an accident not reported to the public for hours.
The 6.8-magnitude temblor killed at least nine people
and injured more than 900 as it toppled hundreds of wooden homes and tore
3-foot-wide fissures in the ground. Highways and bridges buckled, leaving
officials struggling to get emergency supplies into the region.
Some 10,000 people fled to evacuation centers as
aftershocks rattled the area. Tens of thousands of homes were left without water
The quake triggered a fire in an electrical transformer
and also caused a leak of radioactive water at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear
power plant, the world's largest in terms of electricity output.
The leak was
not announced until the evening, many hours after the quake. That fed fresh
concerns about the safety of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors, which supply 30
percent of the quake-prone country's electricity and have suffered a long string
of accidents and cover-ups.
National highway is cut off
following a powerful quake in Nagaoka, northwestern Japan, Monday, July
16, 2007. A 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan's northwest coast on
Monday, and media reports said at least five people were killed and more
than 500 injured. The area was plagued by a series of aftershocks, the
strongest of which was magnitude 5.8. [AP]More
About 315 gallons of slightly radioactive water
apparently spilled from a tank at one of the plant's seven reactors and entered
a pipe that flushed it into the sea, said Jun Oshima, an executive at Tokyo
Electric Power Co. He said it was not clear whether the tank was damaged or the
water simply spilled out.
Officials said there was no "significant change" in the
seawater near the plant, which is about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo. "The
radioactivity is one-billionth of the legal limit," Oshima said of the leaked
Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission in Washington, said the agency told Japan's government it
was ready to provide assistance if needed but had not received any request for
Brenner said he didn't have details about the incident.
But a U.S. nuclear industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because the incident was a Japanese affair, said the transformer fire and water
leak occurred in systems linked to different reactors.
In Kashiwazaki city, the quake reduced older buildings
to piles of lumber. Nine people in their 70s and 80s£ six women and three men
£died, most of them crushed by collapsing buildings, the Kyodo news agency said
Kyodo reported more than 900 people were hurt, with
injuries including broken bones, cuts and bruises. It said 780 buildings
sustained damage, and more than 300 of them were destroyed.
"I got so dizzy that I could barely stand up," said
Kazuaki Kitagami, a worker at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Kashiwazaki, the
hardest-hit city. "The jolt came violently from just below the ground."
The area was plagued by aftershocks, but there were no
immediate reports of additional damage or casualties. Near midnight, Japan's
Meteorological Agency said a 6.6-magnitude quake hit off the west coast, shaking
wide areas of Japan, but it was unrelated to the Niigata quake to the north and
there were no immediate reports of damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey put the intital quake's
magnitude at 6.6 and the second at 6.8.
First word of trouble at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa power
plant was a fire that broke out at an electrical transformer. All the reactors
were either already shut down or automatically switched off by the quake. The
blaze was reported quelled by early afternoon, and the power company announced
there was no damage to the reactor and no release of radioactivity.
But in the evening, the company released a statement
revealing the leak of radioactive water, saying it had taken all day to confirm
details of the accident. But the delay raised suspicions among
environmentalists, who oppose the government's plan to build more reactors.
"The leak itself doesn't sound significant as of yet,
but the fact that it went unreported is a concern," said Michael Mariotte at the
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Maryland-based networking center for
environmental activists. "When a company begins by denying a problem, it makes
you wonder if there's another shoe to drop."
The accident comes as the government is discussing
improving the earthquake resistance of such plants, said Aileen Mioko Smith of
the Japan-based environmentalist group Green Action.
The fire indicated that some facilities at nuclear power
plants, such as electrical transformers, were built to lower quake-resistance
levels than other equipment, like reactor cores, she said.
"That's the Achilles heel of nuclear power plants," said
Mioko Smith, who pointed out that it took plant workers two hours to put out the
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari told
the power company early Tuesday not to resume plant operations before making a
thorough safety check, Kyodo reported.
The quake, which hit at 10:13 a.m., was centered off the
coast of Niigata. The tremor made buildings sway in the capital 160 miles away
and was also felt in northern and central Japan. Tsunami warnings were issued,
but the resulting waves were too small to cause any damage.
As rescue crews dug through the rubble for survivors or
more dead, focus shifted to getting food and water to evacuation centers. Many
roads were impassable, though bullet train service to nearby Niigata resumed
More than 60,000 homes in the quake zone were without
water, 34,000 lost natural gas and 25,000 had no electricity as of late Monday
afternoon, local official Takashi Takagi said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ruling party is
trailing in the polls heading into July 29 parliamentary elections, interrupted
a campaign stop in southern Japan to go to the damaged area.
"Many people told me they want to return to their normal
lives as quickly as possible," Abe told reporters in Kashiwazaki. "The
government will make every effort to help with recovery."
Japan sits atop four tectonic plates and is one of the
world's most earthquake-prone countries.
In October 2004, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake hit Niigata,
killing 40 people and damaging more than 6,000 homes. It was the deadliest to
hit Japan since 1995, when a magnitude-7.2 quake killed 6,433 people in the
western city of Kobe.
The last major quake to hit Tokyo killed some 142,000
people in 1923, and experts say the capital has a 90 percent chance of suffering
a major quake in the next 50 years.