March 12, 2011 / 1:13 AM / 8 years ago

WRAPUP 9-Japan warns of nuclear fuel melting after quake damage

 (Updates with meltdown)	
 * Small amount of radiation leaks at nuclear plant	
 * Fuel rods may well be melting, experts say risk small	
 * Death toll seen rising	
 * Dozens of countries offer assistance	
 * Houses, ships, cars tossed around like toys	
 	
 By Chris Meyers and Kim Kyung-hoon	
 FUKUSHIMA, Japan, March 12 (Reuters) - Japan warned of a
meltdown on Saturday at a nuclear reactor damaged when a massive
earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast, but said the
risk of radiation contamination was small.	
 Media reports estimate at least 1,300 people may have been
killed by the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and then
a 10-metre tsunami that swept inland.	
 Experts said any threat of widespread radiation leaks would
be contained as long as the reactor's outer container is intact.	
 State broadcaster NHK quoted officials as saying there was
no need to extend an evacuation area already set up around the
damaged plant.	
 Authorities have been scrambling to reduce pressure at two
nuclear power plants in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of
Tokyo, damaged by the quake, which measured a massive 8.9, the
biggest since records began in Japan 140 years ago.	
 Jiji news agency quoted nuclear authorities as saying that
there was a high possibility that nuclear fuel rods at Tokyo
Electric Power's (Tepco's) Daiichi No.1 reactor may be
melting or have melted.	
 Experts said if that is the case, it means the reactor is
heating up. If that is not halted, such as by venting steam
which releases small amounts of radiation, there is a chance it
would result in a rupture of the reactor pressure vessel.	
 But the risk of contamination can be minimised as long as
the external container structure is intact, they said. The worry
then becomes whether the quake has weakened the structure. 	
 There has been no official word so far on whether the
structure was damaged in the quake.	
 Japanese officials and experts have been at pains to say
that while there would be radiation leaks, they would be very
small and have dismissed suggestions of a repeat of a
Chernobyl-type disaster.	
  "No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of
coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the
reaction," Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of
Tokyo, said.	
  "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."  	
 	
 THOUSANDS FLEE	
 The tremor was so huge that thousands fled their homes from
coastlines around the Pacific Rim, as far away as North and
South America, fearful of a tsunami.	
 Most appeared to have been spared anything more serious than
some high waves, unlike Japan's northeast coastline which was
hammered by the huge tsunami that turned houses and ships into
floating debris as it surged into cities and villages, sweeping
aside everything in its path.	
 "I thought I was going to die," said Wataru Fujimura, a
38-year-old sales representative in Koriyama, Fukushima, north
of Tokyo and close to area worst hit by the quake.	
 "Our furniture and shelves had all fallen over and there
were cracks in the apartment building, so we spent the whole
night in the car... Now we're back home trying to clean 	
 The unfolding natural disaster, which has been followed by
dozens of aftershocks, prompted offers of search and rescue help
from 50 countries. 	
 In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried
under rubble could be heard calling out for rescue, Kyodo news
agency reported. TV footage showed staff at one hospital waving
banners with the words "FOOD" and "HELP" from a rooftop.	
 In Tokyo, tens of thousands of office workers were stranded
overnight after the quake shut down public transport. Many were
forced to bed down where they could, with newspapers to lie on
and briefcases for 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.	
City mayor Shigeo Sugawara said: "A huge number of houses
have been washed away." He said fuel storage tanks had been
destroyed, sending oil flowing out which then caught fire.	
 The airport in coastal city Sendai, home to one million
people, was on fire, Japanese media said.    	
 "Sendai (city) is now completely sunk underwater," said
limousine driver Yoshikatsu Takayabe, 52. "What do I want the
government to do? I can't flush the toilet, I want the water
back on in my house."	
 TV footage from Friday showed a black torrent of water
carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland
near Sendai, 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had
been flung onto a harbour wharf, where they lay helplessly.	
 Kyodo news agency reported that contact had been lost with
four trains in the coastal area. 	
 The disaster poses a huge challenge for Kan's government
which has come under such concerted attack from the opposition
and within the ruling Democratic Party (DJP) that it has
struggled to implement any policy.	
 Just hours before the quake struck, Kan was rejecting
demands that he resign, his political future looking
increasingly bleak and unable even to muster enough support to
ensure the passage of bills needed to enact the new budget.	
 But after the tremor, politicians pushed for an emergency
budget to fund relief efforts, with Kan urging them to "save the
country", Kyodo reported. 	
 Japan is already the most heavily indebted major economy in
the world, meaning any additional borrowing by the government
would be closely scrutinised by financial markets.	
 	
 MANY FIRES	
 The quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping
records 140 years ago, sparked at least 80 fires in cities and
towns along the coast, Kyodo said.	
 Other nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down
and one refinery was ablaze. Power to millions of homes and
businesses was knocked out. Several airports, including Tokyo's
Narita, were closed on Friday and rail services halted. All
ports were shut.  	
 Nuclear power plant operator Tepco warned of severe power
shortages over the weekend.	
 The central bank said it would cut short a two-day policy
review scheduled for next week to one day on Monday and promised
to do its utmost to ensure financial market stability.
 	
 The disaster struck as the world's third-largest economy had
been showing signs of reviving from an economic contraction in
the final quarter of last year. It raised the prospect of major
disruptions for many key businesses and a massive repair bill
running into tens of billions of dollars.  	
 The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world
in the past century. It surpassed the Great Kanto quake of Sept.
1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than
140,000 people in the Tokyo area. 	
 The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was
the most expensive natural disaster in history. 	
	
 (Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Andrew Marshall)	
 
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