Japan is battling a nuclear and humanitarian crisis, with engineers working to restore power to a stricken power plant in what the UN’s top atomic expert says is a “race against time”.
Half a million people made homeless when the huge tsunami razed Japan’s northeast coast last Friday are suffering in appalling conditions, struggling to stay warm in freezing temperatures and with scant supplies of food and fuel.
But Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised the traumatised nation late on Friday: “We will overcome this tragedy and recover… We will once more rebuild Japan.”
The number confirmed dead from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 has hit 6911, with more than 10,000 unaccounted for, making it Japan’s worst natural catastrophe since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed more than 142,000 people.
A moment of silence was observed at 2:46pm on Friday, exactly one week after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck.
At one emergency shelter in the town of Yamada in ravaged Iwate prefecture, hundreds of elderly survivors quietly stood and bowed their heads. Many of them wore face masks and overcoats. Some wiped away tears.
Global concerns remain focused on the crippled Fukushima No 1 plant, with radiation fears triggering an exodus of foreign nationals, particularly after Britain, France and others advised their citizens to leave Tokyo.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano said the crisis at the nuclear facility is a “very grave and serious accident” and that the UN atomic watchdog will begin its own monitoring of radiation levels in the capital and possibly Fukushima.
The IAEA will hold a special meeting of its board on Monday, where Amano will brief member states on his trip to quake-hit Japan.
Japan’s nuclear agency hiked the accident level to five from four on the international 0-7 scale of gravity for atomic accidents, an admission the crisis had at least equalled the US Three Mile Island accidentin 1979.
Amano emphasised that Japan must reach out for help, after criticism authorities had not issued information fast enough and fears that a larger radiation leak might contaminate the 12-million-strong capital.
“It is important that the international community, including the IAEA, handles this jointly,” he said in Tokyo, adding that measuring radiation in the capital will “contribute to reassuring the Japanese public”.
Japan has said radiation levels from the plant, 250km northeast of Tokyo, pose no health threat outside a 20km exclusion zone, despite slightly elevated levels in Tokyo earlier in the week.
The elevation of the accident level to five indicates “an accident with wider consequences”, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The world’s worst nuclear disaster, at Chernobyl in 1986, rated a seven.
Many nations have shifted embassies out of Tokyo, and the mood has grown jittery even far from Japan, with panic-buying of iodine pills in the United States, and Asian airports scanning passengers from Japan for radiation contamination.
The capital’s usually teeming streets were quiet on Friday, although some residents headed to work as usual. The city’s neon glare was dimmed at night, in line with a power-saving drive forced by shutdowns at other atomic plants.
“This town has become so lonesome at night, as many stores keep the lights off and close early,” said Shin Fujii, who runs a Spanish restaurant where custom has slowed to just a few diners a day.
“As I try to get as much information as possible about the nuclear accident, I also see baseless rumours on the Internet as well. I just try to do the best I can.”
Kan sought to rally the nation in a television address on Friday evening, recalling its post-World War II recovery and promising “firm control” of the crisis by the government despite “huge difficulties” at the power plant.
“We are in a situation in which this crisis is truly testing us as a people,” the premier said.
“While we have been called a small island country, we were able to miraculously rebuild after the war. With the power of the people, we will rebuild this country … We cannot falter at any cost.”
A major international relief operation is under way for the homeless and for millions left without water, electricity, fuel or enough food in the stricken northeast.
But thick snow has covered the wreckage littering obliterated towns and villages, all but extinguishing hopes of finding anyone alive in the debris and deepening danger and misery for survivors.
“We’re already seeing families huddling around gas fires for warmth. In these sorts of temperatures, young children are vulnerable to chest infections and flu,” Save the Children’s Steve McDonald said, estimating the disaster has left 100,000 children homeless.
At the Fukushima plant, workers conducted water cooling operations again on Friday using fire trucks in a race to bring overheating at the plant’s reactors and fuel storage tanks, known as containment pools, under control.
If the fuel is exposed to air, it could degrade further and emit dangerous levels of radioactivity.
Disaster teams managed to get a power line onto the site in an effort to reactivate crucial water pumps to cool overheating reactors and prevent a calamitous meltdown.
“The power cable is near. We would like to speed up this operation as we can then use it to speed up the rest of what we have to do,” chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said.
But nuclear expert John Price, formerly of the Safety Policy Unit of Britain’s National Nuclear Corporation and now a professor at Australia’s Monash University, said restoring power could be difficult.
“The problem is we don’t know whether connecting up those wires is actually going to make a difference — there’s other failures in the area as well,” he told AFP.
“I wouldn’t say it’s out of control but they haven’t gained full control yet.”