News

Japan's Nuclear Fears

More trouble takes hold of the Asian nation after a strong quake and powerful waves caused deadly destruction last week

March 16, 2011

The effects of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last Friday are still playing out at Japan's nuclear power plants. Nuclear reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are experiencing cooling problems after the tsunami waves knocked out the plant's power and backup power.

People with empty jugs walk through a damaged neighborhood in Kesennuma, Japan, in search of fresh water. Water and food supplies are low following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.
KYODO NEWS/AP
People with empty jugs walk through a damaged neighborhood in Kesennuma, Japan, in search of fresh water. Water and food supplies are low following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami.

On Monday morning, an explosion occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that blew off the roof of one of the buildings. Some radiation—energy that can be harmful at high levels—has been released into the air as efforts continue to shut down the reactors. Two of the three reactors that were operating when the quake struck have since been damaged. Cooling problems at the reactors have led to nuclear fuel overheating and fires, causing fears of a meltdown at the plant. Now, 50 workers are working around the clock to flood the reactors with seawater to cool off the fuel rods.

Fears of radiation exposure in Japan are slowing down recovery efforts from the tsunami. Some 70,000 residents have been evacuated from the 12-mile area around the plant. Another 140,000 people in a 19-mile area have been told to stay indoors. Many outside of the area are heading south, just to be safe. Radiation exposure testing centers have been set up for residents, but authorities believe that most people have not been exposed to high levels of radiation.

A Rippling Effect

The massive earthquake that struck Japan last Friday registered a 9.0 magnitude—upgraded from an original 8.9-magnitude reading by the U.S. Geological Survey. It was the most powerful temblor to hit Japan since officials there began keeping records 140 years ago. Before this, the country's worst earthquake was an 8.3 temblor in 1923. Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire"--an area rimming the Pacific Ocean. About 90 percent of the world's earthquakes take place in that region. With the updated 9.0 reading, Friday's quake ranks as the fourth largest quake in the world since 1900, scientists say.

The center of the quake was located about 17 miles beneath the ocean floor, in a spot 80 miles off the eastern coast of the island nation. "The earthquake has caused major damage in a broad area in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said. This week, millions of people are still without water, food or heat as recovery efforts continued and as new problems arose at the nation's nuclear power plants.

Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors Friday. Because it struck below the Pacific Ocean, the quake set off waves as high as a three-story building. The monstrous waves, called a tsunami (soo-nah-mee), swept away homes, boats and cars as the water roared several miles inland, stopped, and rolled back out to sea. Highways buckled, telephone lines snapped, and fires broke out. Hundreds of aftershocks, or smaller quakes, have followed the big quake, causing more damage and forcing residents to seek safety outside.

Tokyo, Japan's capital, is about 230 miles away from the center of the quake (Click here to see a map of Japan). But even there, people felt the ground shake. Buildings swayed, at least 2 million homes were without electricity, and trains stopped running. "At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. So I got myself and my wife under the table," said Jesse Johnson, an American living in Tokyo. "I've lived in Japan for 10 years and I've never felt anything like this before. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point where I don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake."

Japan's Devastation

Residents of Kesennuma in northern Japan, walk along a road with the ruins of the town behind them
TSUYOSHI MATSUMOTO—THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/AP
Residents of Kesennuma in northern Japan, walk along a road with the ruins of the town behind them

The total damage, deaths and injuries won't become clear for days or even weeks. On Wednesday, Japanese officials reported that the death toll has reached more than 3,600, though thousands remain missing. "In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan," Prime Minister Kan said.

A large-scale emergency response operation continues in northern Japan. As of Monday, about 15,000 people have been rescued. A 60-year-old Japanese man floated on a piece of his house's roof for over two days. He was rescued 10 miles offshore Sunday when sailors spotted the man waving a red flag.

Many of the world's nations have offered to assist Japan. President Obama has ordered five Navy ships to head for the island to help, as well as search and rescue teams. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is closely watching the situation. She promised immediate disaster relief assistance. "We are working closely with the government of Japan to provide additional help," she said in a statement. As the damage becomes clearer, Japan may need all the help it can get.


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