Nuclear leak after earthquake in Japan

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The Independent Online

A strong earthquake struck central Japan, killing at least eight people, injuring hundreds and causing a fire and radioactive leak at the world's biggest nuclear power plant.

The 6.8-magnitude quake levelled buildings, derailed trains and buckled roads after it struck about 10 miles off the coast of Niigata yesterday. The local media reported that four elderly women and a man were crushed to death by falling buildings and at least 800 people were hurt, some seriously.

Thousands more spent the night in evacuation centres as aftershocks continued to jolt the area and electricity, gas and water remained cut off. Japanese television showed footage of several people being pulled from the rubble of flattened houses. "The whole building shook from side to side, " one pensioner sheltering in a local school said. "I'm too frightened to go back home."

Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, interrupted campaigning for the 29 July general election to visit the area and oversee an emergency task force. "We have to make every effort to save lives and reassure people," he told reporters. As night fell, rescue workers were still trying to dig out people trapped under rubble before the start of heavy rain, forecast for tomorrow.

The quake, which hit just after 10am local time, also started a fire at the No 3 reactor of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa light-water nuclear plant, the largest nuclear complex in the world. A spokesman for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said there was a "small leak" of radioactive water from reactors 3 and 6 into the sea but denied the reactor was ever in any danger. "The radiation was well within safe limits," he said.

Anti-nuclear campaigners have reacted with alarm to the leak and to reports that the blaze took as long as 90 minutes to put out. "I was watching it on television and was very surprised it took so long," said Chihiro Kamisawa, a researcher with the NGO, Citizens Nuclear Information Centre. "If they're having problems putting out a small fire, what will they do when a bigger one strikes?" Staff at the plant said fire engines were " busy" at other sites.

Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action Japan said the plant was short-staffed on a national holiday.

"It raises serious questions about their emergency preparedness," she said, adding that it was "very worrying" that radiation monitoring equipment at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex may have been stopped by the quake.

Japan has a fast-growing nuclear industry, with 55 plants operating and another 11 planned. Nuclear power currently provides a third of the country's energy needs but Tokyo wants to boost this to 40 per cent. The plans are opposed by environmentalists and local residents who say the government is inviting disaster by building so many reactors in a seismically unstable country.

The power companies are currently reviewing their disaster readiness, following a string of scandals and near misses. Niigata has been hit by a series of strong quakes, including another earthquake that measured 6.8 almost three years ago, which killed 67 people and injured 4,800.

Mr Kamisawa said: "This is the second large earthquake in the same place. They should rethink concentrating so many plants in these dangerous areas."

Japanese nuclear plants are built to withstand quakes of magnitude 6.5 but most experts now think this should be increased to 6.9 and some called for a complete rethink. Journalists accused the company of operating lax construction standards at the plant.