As more and more information comes in about Japan’s tsunami and earthquake, concerns about their nuclear reactors has everyone around the world wondering if they can contain the toxic material from leaking out or are the possibilities of a nuclear meltdown unfolding before our eyes. What will be the consequences of this event?
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This article titled “Japan tsunami and earthquake – Saturday 12 March part one” was written by Lee Glendinning and Tania Branigan, for guardian.co.uk on Saturday 12th March 2011 02.00 UTC
1.36am: Hello, here’s a summary of the latest events as Japan wakes to a mass rescue mission and scenes of devastation on Saturday morning after an earthquake which measured 8.9 magnitude struck the country, prompting a massive tsunami.
• Japanese media have said the death toll is expected to exceed 1,000.
• The earthquake struck in the afternoon local time on Friday, triggering a tsunami with 10m-high waves hitting the northern port of Sendai. Waves have swept across farmland, sweeping away homes, crops, vehicles, triggering fires.
• Japan has declared states of emergency for five nuclear reactors at two power plants after the units lost cooling ability
• Japan’s military has mobilised thousands of troops and hundreds of planes as a mass relief effort begins to take shape
The latest information from the Associated Press builds a vivid picture of what Japan wakes up to this morning.
(AP) Japan’s northeastern coast was a swampy wasteland of broken houses, overturned cars, sludge and dirty water Saturday as the nation awoke to the devastating aftermath of one of its greatest disasters, a powerful tsunami created by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded.
The death toll from Friday’s massive magnitude 8.9 quake stood at more than 200, but an untold number of bodies were believed to be lying in the rubble and debris, and Japanese were bracing for more bad news as authorities tried to reach the hardest-hit areas.
Aerial footage showed military helicopters lifting people on rescue tethers from rooftops and partially submerged buildings surrounded by water and debris. At one school, a large white “SOS” had been spelled out in English.
The earthquake that struck off the northeastern shore was the biggest recorded quake ever to hit Japan. It ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientists said.
1.53am: Some updated information on nuclear reactor situation unfolding in Japan. The Japanese government has been holding an emergency meeting on the Fukushima nuclear plants. It has warned of a possible radiation leak as authorities battle to contain rising pressure at two nuclear plants damaged the quake.
Pressure was building in reactors of two plants at Tokyo Electric Power Co ‘s Fukushima facility, located 150 miles north of Tokyo. At one of them, the Daiichi plant, pressure was set to released soon , which could result in a radiation leak, officials said.
“It’s possible that radioactive material in the reactor vessel could leak outside but the amount is expected to be small, and the wind blowing towards the sea will be considered,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference.
“Residents are safe after those within a 3km radius were evacuated and those within a 10 km radius are staying indoors, so we want people to be calm,” he added.
Reuters has quoted an expert as saying that while some radiation may leak from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a major disaster is unlikely.
Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo says “No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor.”
Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction. Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean some radioactive leakage and equipment damage, but not an explosion. If venting is done carefully, there will be little leakage. Certainly not beyond the 3 km radius.
2.10am: Residents in Japan are beginning to survey the extent of the devastation.
2.20am: A new official death toll gives a clear idea of the scale of the tsunami’s destructive reach. Japan police said that as of 10am Saturday local time, 287 people were confirmed dead in nine prefectures; a further 725 are missing in six prefectures.
2.32am: This graphic and list from the US geological survey demonstrate the relentlessness with which shocks continue to pummel the quakezone.
2.38am: Justin McCurry our correspondent in Japan, writes to say that Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, has returned to Tokyo from a visit to the disaster zone. He described the damage as “huge”.
2.42am: The Japan Times is now reporting a radiation leak has been confirmed at Fukushima plant.
Radiation leak confirmed at quake-hit Fukushima plant
Radiation rose to an unusually high level in and near Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant Saturday following the powerful earthquake that hit northern Japan the previous day, the nuclear safety agency said, making it the first case of an external leak of radioactive substances since the disaster.
2:49am: @DavidHalton who is tweeting from Sendai, has posted this picture of survivors crammed into a shelter. He said it appeared that aftershocks were subsiding and that phones were now working sporadically.
“We have enough of everything except water right now. Not looking forward to nighttime and the cold,” he wrote.
Temperatures are due to drop to around zero overnight again.
Earlier, he wrote: “So grateful to be in the company of family and best friends even though we have nothing else. All that matters!”
@blaiseplant, also in Sendai, wrote: “The school we just checked was completely packed with refugees…The people at the schools seemed to be in high spirits, a lot of sad faces though.”
2.54am: A Japanese expert acknowledged that the size of Friday’s earthquake had taken many researchers by surprise. Yuji Yagi, an associate professor at Tsukuba University, said the quake had been triggered by a displacement of up to 20 meters in a fault approximately 500 km long and 200 km wide.
Yagi told Kyodo News that the boundary of a large tectonic plate stretching from offshore Iwate prefecture to offshore Ibaraki prefecture had undergone a significant realignment. ”Many earthquake researchers did not expect such a quake to happen,” he said.
Yagi believes the quake measured magnitude 9, rather than the 8.8 announced by Japan’s meteorological agency.
2.56am: News agencies are reporting that a 6.1-magnitude earthquake has struck the South Pacific nation of Tonga.
The quake hit about 143 miles (230km) northeast of Neiafu, Tonga at 2:19 pm. It occurred at a depth of 6.8 miles (10.9km).
No tsunami alert was immediately posted. Earlier the Met Office in Tonga had reported the island nation had recorded 2-3 foot (60-90cm) waves as a result of the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake off Japan.
Radio New Zealand is reporting that thousands of people in the capital Nuku’alofa had sought refuge from the tsunami at the King’s residence, which was on higher ground.
3.11am: Byron Kidd, a Tokyo resident, said phone voice services to Sendai still appeared to be down, but his father-in-law had managed to send an email from his mobile phone to confirm he was safe.
He was not at home when the earthquake struck thankfully – he lives in Sendai very close to the ocean. His place has been destroyed. Things that should be outside are inside. It’s pretty uninhabitable. There have been shelters set up in schools and gymnasiums and some people have spent the night in cars.
With concerns about power shortages persisiting, Byron added that officials are now using the public address system in Tokyo to request people conserve electricity by shutting off non-essential appliances.
3.17am: Here is a statement from the World Food Programme executive director Josette Sheeran.
When nature strikes with such force, the world has to come together. I would like to express my deepest compassion and heartfelt solidarity with the Government and people of Japan in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
This epic tragedy recalls some of the worst devastations that WFP and Japan have together responded to around the world, and all of us at WFP are impressed by the bravery and dedication of Japan’s emergency response services and the decisive measures the Japanese Government has taken to deal with the damage and save lives.
It is a spirit, a resiliency in the face of challenge, which we have come to know and admire from Japan. Japan is one of the world’s most generous nations and has always stood with WFP when tragedy occurs and, today, WFP stands with Japan.
We are ready to assist in any way Japan may find helpful. Our thoughts and prayers are with the many families affected by this tragedy.
3.27am: @s.o: All 81 passengers rescued on ship that was swept out to sea by tsunami – NHK
3.29am: Justin McCurry writes:
Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, has said that “minute” amounts of radiation were released from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Kan was speaking after a helicopter trip to survey the quake and tsunami damage. The plant’s operator had earlier opened the valves of the containers housing the reactors to reduce pressure, which in turn led to the release of a small quantity of radioactive steam.
Light planes and vehicles swept from Sendai airport in northern Japan sit among the debris from the tsumani.
3.36am: Daisuke Wakabayashi (@daiwaka), a Tokyo-based Wall Street Journal reporter who has reached Fukushima prefecture, reported “quite extensive damage to the roads and some surrounding buildings. We are seeing buildings that have crumbled.”
He added that around 200 people were queuing with buckets, bags and bottles at a water distribution centre allowing them to take 10 litres per household.
3.45am: Roland Buerk, from the BBC, writes about the scene as the country awoke this morning.
It was only when the sun came up that a more complete picture of devastation began to become a little bit more clear.
From the air it was clear that what had been paddy fields and villages are now sea-water lagoons. The water came in with the tsunami in some places and hasn’t gone out again. It must have been very difficult for rescuers to get to those areas during the night.
The scale of the devastation has become clearer too. Overnight we heard snippets of information – 300 bodies found in one ward of one city. In another town, 300 homes engulfed by a wave that came in at rooftop height. Now local media are reporting that a town in Iwate prefecture, home of 23,000 people, has been largely destroyed.
3.57am: Here are some of the latest snippets from Reuters and Japan’s Kyodo news agency:
In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out for rescue. TV footage showed staff at one hospital waving banners with the words “FOOD” and “HELP” from a rooftop.
In Tokyo, office workers who were stranded in the city after the quake forced the subway system to close early slept alongside the homeless at one station. Scores of men in suits lay on newspapers, using their briefcases as pillows.
Kyodo said at least 116,000 people in Tokyo had been unable to return home on Friday evening due to transport disruption.
The northeastern Japanese city of Kesennuma, with a population of 74,000, was hit by widespread fires and one-third of the city was under water, Jiji news agency said on Saturday.
The airport in the city of Sendai, home to one million people, was on fire, it added.
Some video footage shows the full force of water battering ships, homes and cars yesterday
4.04am: Time for a summary of events so far this morning:
• The death toll is expected to exceed 1,000, domestic media say, with most people appeared to have drowned.
• Around 3,000 residents living near nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture have been evacuated from area.
• The Northeastern city of Kesennuma, with population of 74,000, has been hit by widespread fires, with one-third of the city submerged, media say.
• Tsunami warnings were issued for the entire Pacific basin, except mainland United States and Canada, but fears of tsunami beyond Japan have not materialised.
4.23am: For readers in Japan, @TimeOutTokyo has offered this guide on how to help. Their summary: “Give money, give blood, but don’t head to the afflicted areas”
4.25am: Police in Japan have raised the death toll to 420, with 784 missing, Kyodo News is reporting.
Justin McCurry earlier spoke to Shaun Burnie, a consultant on the nuclear industry, and head of nuclear campaigns at Greenpeace International, who has explained the potential risks at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture where the cooling system has failed. Burnie has been visiting Japan for nearly 20 years, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
When nuclear power plants are shut down in an emergency that does not mean that the problem is over. And this has proved to be the case at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, south of Sendai.
One critical safety issue is the maintenance of water cooling systems to ensure that the nuclear fuel inside the reactor core does not heat up to unsafe levels. With the loss of emergency generator capacity at 3 reactors at Fukushima the risk is that the nuclear fuel is already damaged.
It appears that the reactor operator Tokyo Electric has been unable to pump cooling water for at least 3 or more hours at units 1,2 and 3. These are reactors built in the early 1970s – so are nearly 40 years old.
The possibility is that the reactor fuel is already damaged. If they are unable to restore coolant pump capacity then the fuel will continue to heat up, eventually the fuel will be exposed to air at which point a whole series of events can unfold, including steam explosions, fuel meltdown and worse case is loss of containment.
The reactors contain around 100 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel within each core. People may remember Three Mile Island which was a partial core meltdown. The fact that 2,000 people are being evacuated from around the site suggests there may already be radioactivity in the containment building.
A fire broke out at Onagawa nuclear power plant, and there are reports of leaking spent fuel ponds at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. This is a serious situation could get very much worse. The last thing the people of Japan need after the tragedy of this earthquake and tsunami is a nuclear catastrophe.
4.42am: Here is a breakdown on what we know about the nuclear reactors currently having problems, which is quite complex. This is what Richard Adams published earlier to explain:
• Diesel generators that normally would have worked as back-ups to keep cooling systems running had been disabled by tsunami flooding.
• Power supply systems to provide emergency electricity for the plants were being put in place, the World Nuclear Association said.
• Both plants are light water reactors operated by the Tokyo Electric Power company (or Tepco):
Fukushima Daiichi (No 1) plant
- has six reactors, three of which were shut down for maintainence. Two of the remaining reactors, Unit 1 has significant problems with a rising temperature and in another the operator says it has lost cooling ability.
– the Unit 1 reactor has seen radiation levels inside its control room rise, and slightly higher radiation levels have been detected outside the reactor. Pressure inside the reactor is twice the normal level, and the operator has been forced to vent radioactive vapor to relieve the pressure.
Fukushima Daini (No 2) plant
– has four reactors, and in units 1, 2 and 4 of them the operator has said it has lost cooling ability.
– Tepco says pressure is stable inside the reactors of the Daini plant but rising in the containment vessels.
• Both plants have been declared to be in a state of emergency by the government, and residents moved outside of a 10km zone around both plants.
4.49am: This is quite an incredible image of an energy map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which shows the core of the tsunami, and the intensity of the way it spread.
5.20am: Kyodo news has just reported that the Fukushima nuclear plant might be experiencing nuclear meltdown.
5.30am: @tukky_nt RT @Reuters: FLASH: #Japan nuclear authorities say high possibility of meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor – Jiji. RT @TomokoHosaka: Japan nuclear safety commission official says meltdown at nuclear power plant possible, AP confirms. #earthquake #jpquake
6.01am: As we wait for more confirmation on the nuclear situation unfolding in Japan, here is the latest information from AP.
AP) A nuclear power plant affected by a massive earthquake is facing a possible meltdown, an official with Japan’s nuclear safety commission said.
Ryohei Shiomi said that officials were checking whether a meltdown had taken place at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant’s Unit 1, which had lost cooling ability in the aftermath of Friday’s powerful earthquake.
Shiomi said that even if there was a meltdown, it wouldn’t affect humans beyond a six-mile radius. Most of the 51,000 residents living within that radius have been evacuated, he said.
The BBC has just published a fresh gallery of pictures, which show the scope of the rescue mission going on in Japan today.
6.37am: Possible good news – Japan’s Kyodo news agency is reporting that workers have successfully released pressure from the Fukushima No. 1 reactor.
It is thought they had to halt work earlier because of the high radiation levels around the valves, but were able to resume.
Reports concerning the possible meltdown remain confused: the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, does not believe there has been damage to the core due to overheating. But officials with the nuclear safety commission say they believe there is a possibility of a partial meltdown.
6.48am: This Reuters gallery shows the aftermath of the disaster in some of the worst hit areas today.
6.55am: While we wait for more news from the press conference by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, a quick update on events:
• Workers have successfully vented gas from the reactor, reducing pressure, but Japanese media report that prime minister Naoto Kan has not ruled out a possible radiation leak from the No. 2 reactor.
• The death toll from the disaster is expected to exceed 1,300, with most deaths due to drowning.
• Around 50,000 rescuers have deployed to north-eastern Japan
• Many survivors have been trapped overnight on rooftops, surrounded by a sea of mud and water, and in emergency shelters
• Tsunami warnings for most of Japan have been lowered, although there is still a risk of large waves along the north-eastern coast
7.15am: A fuller read on the nuclear situation is now up here. Events are developing fast so we will continue to update on this blog.
7.30am: An expert from the USGS has told CNN that the quake appears to have moved Japan’s main island by 8 feet and shifted the world on its axis.
Aftershocks are continuing more than 24 hours after the magnitude 8.9 tremor struck.
There’s an interesting read here on how the crucial few seconds gained thanks to Japan’s earthquake warning system may have helped to save lives.
7.52am: Japanese media reporting that explosion heard at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant around 0630 GMT – more soon
7.56am: My colleague Justin McCurry in Japan says explosion reported at Fukushima Daiichi (No 1) reactor at 15:36 local time (06:36GMT). TV footage shows smoke rising from plant.
8.35am: The nuclear plant’s operators say four people were injured in the explosion, Kyodo news agency reports.
NHK is advising people in the Fukushima area to stay inside, close doors and windows and turn off air conditioning. They have also been advised to cover their mouths with masks, towels or handkerchiefs
8.45am: Justin McCurry says television footage is showing the exposed frame of one of four buildings housing reactors. The external panelling appears to have been blown away, but no flames or smoke are visible almost two hours after the blast. Officials in Fukushima prefecture said the cause of the explosion is being investigated.
8.56am: While we’re waiting for more details from the press conference on the explosion, a quick response to a query in the comments about how people can help.
The Disasters Emergency Committee says most of its members are unlikely to play a part in the response because their expertise lies in handling disasters in poorer developing countries and points people towards the Red Cross, the only agency with significant expertise in developed nations. But the British Red Cross say they are not accepting donations for Japan at present as their Japanese colleagues have yet to ask for help.
If you’re in the US, MSNBC has suggestions here
For those in Japan, @timeouttokyo has offered a guide on what (and what not) to do
9.03am: Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano has told a press conference that he cannot confirm that the explosion at the nuclear power plant was the reactor, saying details of the incident remained unclear. He said authorities were prepared for the worst emergency but urged people to remain calm and not to listen to rumours. He also asked them to conserve electricity.
9.14am: Reuters reports that the UN’s nuclear watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency – is urgently seeking information on the situation at the power plant.
Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano has confirmed a radiation leak, but it is not clear if he was referring to the aftermath of the blast or to earlier reports of high readings in the area.
9.23am: We’re wrapping up this blog but live coverage will continue.
In the meantime, here’s a round-up of events so far in Japan on Saturday.
•There are growing fears about damage to two nuclear power stations following Friday’s 8.9 magnitute earthquake. There has been an explosion at a building at one of the plants, Fukushima No 1 in Futuba, 150 miles (240km) north of Tokyo. Japanese authorities have extended the evacuation area at the Fukushima No 2 plant to 10km, the same distance as for Fukushima No 1 plant.
•The death toll from the disaster is expected to exceed 1,300, with most deaths due to drowning. The official death toll currently stands at 413, with 784 people missing and 1,128 injured. Police said between 200 and 300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake’s epicentre.
•Police estimate that more than 215,000 people are taking refuge in emergency shelters in the east and north of the country. Many survivors have been trapped overnight on rooftops, surrounded by a sea of mud and water. Around 50,000 rescuers have deployed to the region.
•Tsunami warnings for most of Japan have been lowered, although there is still a risk of large waves along the north-eastern coast.
•The tsunami rolled across the Pacific at jet speed but had weakened before it hit Hawaii and the West Coast of the US. Initial reports suggest limited tsunami damage to Pacific island nations.
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