Japanese earthquake sparks nuclear plant fire

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The Independent Online

At least five people were killed when A 6.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan's north-west coast today.

The quake injured hundreds of people, flattened scores of buildings and triggered a fire at a nuclear power plant.

Fire sirens could be heard in hard-hit Kashiwazaki city, and older buildings were reduced to piles of wood. National broadcaster NHK reported more than 500 people were hurt, with injuries including broken bones, cuts and bruises.

Five people in their 70s and 80s - four women and one man - died after being crushed when buildings collapsed on them in the quake, said Takashi Morita, a spokesman for the National Police Agency in Tokyo.

The area was plagued by a series of aftershocks, the strongest of which was magnitude 5.8. There were no immediate reports of additional damage or injuries from the aftershocks, which triggered no tsunami warnings.

Flames and billows of black smoke poured from the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant, which automatically shut down during the quake. The fire, at an electrical transformer, was put out shortly after noon local time and there was no release of radioactivity or damage to the reactors, said Motoyasu Tamaki, a Tokyo Electric Power Company official.

Some 2,000 people in Kashiwazaki were evacuated from their homes, city official Takashi Otsuka said.

Nearly 300 buildings in the city were destroyed, a fire official said. The force of the quake buckled seaside roads and bridges, and wide fissures could been seen in the ground along the coastline.

Rescue workers dug through flattened buildings in hopes of pulling victims alive from the wreckage.

A ceiling collapsed in a gym in Kashiwazaki where about 200 people had gathered for a badminton tournament, and one person suffered minor facial injuries, Kyodo reported. The quake also knocked a train carriage off the rails while it was stopped at a station. No one was injured.

The Meteorological Agency issued tsunami warnings along the coast of Niigata prefecture (state), but the warnings were later lifted. Waves as high as 20 inches were believed to have hit the coast, but no damage was reported.

The quake, which hit the region at 10.13am (0213BST) was centred off the coast of Niigata, 160 miles north-west of the capital, Tokyo. The tremor made buildings in Tokyo sway and was also felt in northern and central Japan.

A series of smaller aftershocks rattled the area, including one with a 5.8 magnitude. Koichi Uhira of the Meteorological Agency warned that the aftershocks could continue for a week.

Several bullet train services linking Tokyo and northern and north-western Japan have been suspended. Officials said water and gas services for Kashiwazaki's 35,000 households were suspended after reports of gas leaks, reports said. Nearly 24,000 households in the quake zone were without power.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe interrupted a campaign stop in southern Japan for upcoming parliamentary elections, rushed back to Tokyo and announced he would head to the damaged area.