After an explosion and fire at a nuclear plant damaged by last Friday's earthquake in Japan released dangerous levels of radiation, the country's government ordered 140,000 people to seal themselves in their homes yesterday.
Japan orders 140,000 into nuclear lockdown
Japan ordered 140,000 people to seal themselves in their homes yesterday after an explosion and fire at a nuclear plant damaged in the earthquake that hit the country last Friday released dangerous levels of radiation.
"There is no mistake that this is a level that can have an effect on humans," the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, said in a televised address.
Mr Kan said radiation had spread from stricken reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on the northeast coast. The levels had receded by the end of the day.
The plant was damaged on Friday by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that are believed to have killed together more than 10,000 people.
Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that the fire was in a fuel storage pond - an area where used nuclear fuel is kept cool - and that "radioactivity is being released directly into the atmosphere". Long after the fire was extinguished, a Japanese official said the pool might still be boiling.
At one stage, radiation doses of 400 millisieverts an hour, 600 times the average dose a person receives in a year, were recorded at the plant. Radiation levels spiked at 20 times normal even in Tokyo, 240km from the plant.
All but 70 or so engineers trying to stabilise the plant were told to leave after the explosion and fire in reactor No4, and a blast in reactor No2.
The explosion at reactor No2 was considered more serious than earlier blasts at No1 and No3, as it damaged part of the casing surrounding the reactor.
Reactor No4, which stored spent nuclear fuel rods, suffered a blast that blew huge holes in an outer building, and several hours later a fire erupted.
The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), said last night that it was unable to pump water into the storage pool surrounding the fuel rods, increasing the chance of a meltdown that could release large amounts of radiation.
The government last night said it may seek US and Japanese military help to spray water from helicopters because of the risk of radiation contamination from approaching the pool directly.
Radiation levels in the reactor's control room became so high that staff, all wearing protective gear, were unable to remain for extended periods.
About 140,000 people living within 30km of the plant were urged to stay indoors to avoid exposure. A 20km exclusion zone was already in place.
"Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight," the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told them.
The US military announced it was diverting naval vessels and advised personnel and their families at its Yokosuka base near Tokyo to stay indoors and close windows.
As concerns mounted, Mr Kan angrily confronted Tepco officials over delays in releasing information about an earlier explosion.
The official death toll from Friday's earthquake and tsunami rose to 3,300, although the eventual total is expected reach five figures.
Survivors who fled to evacuation centres faced increasingly uncomfortable conditions last night, with temperatures falling close to zero and snow forecast. An estimated 450,000 people are in temporary shelters, many of them lacking power, food or water supplies.
Stories of survival emerged yesterday, with a 70-year-old woman, Sai Abe, pulled alive from the rubble in the town of Otsuchi. She was suffering from hypothermia but was not seriously injured.
Survivors continued to search desperately for relatives, with one man attaching a sign to his bicycle bearing the name of his wife, hoping it could help him to find her.
More than 100 countries have offered aid or assistance and many foreign rescue teams are helping search operations.
In Tokyo, supermarket shelves were bare after fears of shortages sparked panic buying among residents, something officials urged against. There were also concerns over supermarkets bulk buying, possibly with a view to cashing in when prices rise.
Transport continued to be severely disrupted and depleted fuel supplies were reserved in tsunami-hit regions for emergency and rescue services.
Rolling power cuts to deal with limited electricity supplies could last for weeks or longer. However, following complaints from survivors, scheduled cuts were suspended in tsunami-affected regions.
Prefectures further from the Fukushima plant readied facilities for people fleeing the nuclear emergency.
With some foreign governments urging citizens to consider leaving Japan, more people arrived at Tokyo's main international airport, Narita.
But with many services cancelled, in some cases until the end of the month, the ranks of the stranded continued to grow.
Stocks continued to plunge amid concerns over the economic consequences of the disaster, which has forced manufacturing giants such as Toyota, Nissan and Sony to suspend production. The final cost of rebuilding has been put as high as $180 billion (Dh661bn).
The Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, was forced to apologise yesterday after suggesting the devastating toll was "divine retribution" for egoism in Japanese politics.