Japan fought on Sunday to avert a meltdown at three earthquake-crippled nuclear reactors, describing the massive quake and tsunami, which may have killed more than 10,000 people, as the nation’s biggest crisis since World War II.
The world’s third-largest economy is struggling to respond to a disaster of epic proportions, with more than five million without water or power and whole towns wiped off the map.
“The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War II,” a grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a news conference.
As he spoke, officials worked desperately to stop fuel rods in the damaged reactors from overheating, which could in turn melt the container that houses the core, or even explode, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The government said a building housing a second reactor at the same complex in Fukushima was at risk of exploding after a blast blew the roof off the first the day before. The complex is 240km north of Tokyo.
Later it said it was pouring seawater into a third reactor to release a build-up of pressure.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said the lowest state of emergency had been declared at a separate nuclear power plant north of the town of Sendai, which bore the brunt of the tsunami.
However, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said there had been a rise in radiation at the Onagawa facility due to leakage from the Fukushima plant and there was no problem with the cooling process there.
Kan said the crisis was not another Chernobyl, referring to the nuclear disaster of 1986 in Soviet Ukraine.
Broadcaster NHK, quoting a police official, said more than 10,000 people may have been killed as the wall of water triggered by Friday’s 9-magnitude quake surged across the coastline, reducing whole towns to rubble.
Kyodo news agency said about 300,000 people were evacuated nationwide, many seeking refuge in shelters, wrapped in blankets, some clutching each other sobbing.
Kan said food, water and other necessities such as blankets were being delivered by vehicles but because of damage to roads, authorities were considering air and sea transport.
Thousands spent another freezing night huddled in blankets over heaters in emergency shelters along the northeastern coast, a scene of devastation after the quake sent a 33-foot wave surging through towns and cities in the Miyagi region, including its main coastal city of Sendai.
Kyodo news agency reported there had been no contact with around 10,000 people in one town, more than half its population. Workers in protective clothing were scanning people arriving at evacuation centres for radioactive exposure.