14 March 2011 Last updated at 05:11 ET
A second explosion has hit a Japanese nuclear plant that was damaged in Friday’s earthquake, but officials said the reactor core was still intact.
A huge column of smoke billowed from Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor 3, two days after a blast hit reactor 1.
The latest explosion, said to have been caused by a hydrogen build-up, injured 11 people, one of them seriously.
Soon afterwards, the government said a third reactor at the plant had lost its cooling system.
Water levels were now falling at reactor 2, which is to be doused with sea water, said government spokesman Yukio Edano.
A similar cooling system breakdown preceded the explosions at reactors 1 and 3.
Japanese officials are playing down any health risk, but the US said it had moved one of its aircraft carriers from the area after detecting low-level radiation 100 miles (160km) offshore.
Technicians have been battling to cool reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since Friday, following the quake and tsunami.
At the scene
We headed towards where the tsunami hit land, close to the little village of Higashiro. We had to pick our way through a sea of mud.
What should have been a road was covered in broken branches, a squashed tractor and lots of electricity cables that had been brought down. The destruction goes on and on.
The seashore was in the distance behind a row of trees. Here the waves toppled houses; they lie at crazy angles. Trees have been smashed into the buildings. A motorcycle lies twisted and bent.
Inside the houses, the furniture has been turned to matchsticks, possessions tossed everywhere, and on a few walls are portraits with the faces of those who once lived here, now stained by the waters which filled everything.
The BBC’s Rachel Harvey in the port town of Minamisanriku says everything has been flattened until about 2km inland.
It looks unlikely that many survivors will be found, she adds.
Japanese police have so far confirmed 1,597 deaths, but the final toll is expected to be much higher.
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from the area around Fukushima Daiichi plant.
At least 22 people were said to be undergoing treatment for radiation exposure.
The government said radiation levels were below legal limits after Monday’s explosion. Tokyo Electric Power, which operates the plant, said the reactor’s containment vessel had resisted the impact.
Residents of the coastal city of Sendai are continuing the search for survivors amid the devastation
Experts say a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl in the 1980s is highly unlikely because the reactors are built to a much higher standard and have much more rigorous safety measures.
Earlier, the prime minister said the situation at the nuclear plant was alarming, and the earthquake had thrown Japan into “the most severe crisis since World War II”.
The government advised people not to go to work or school on Monday because the transport network would not be able to cope with demand.
The capital Tokyo is also still experiencing regular aftershocks, amid warnings that another powerful earthquake is likely to strike very soon.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of relief workers, soldiers and police have been deployed to the disaster zone.
Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami in the tens of billions of dollars.
The disaster is a huge blow for the Japanese economy (the world’s third largest), which has been ailing for two decades.
The Foreign Office has updated its travel advice to warn against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and north-eastern Japan.
British nationals and friends and relatives of those in Japan can contact the Foreign Office on +44(0) 20 7008 0000.
It was not immediately clear if the eruption was a direct result of the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that rocked northern areas on Friday, unleashing a fierce tsunami and sparking fears that more than 10,000 may have been killed.
The 1,421-metre (4,689-feet) Shinmoedake volcano in the Kirishima range saw its first major eruption for 52 years in January. There had not been any major activity at the site since March 1.
Authorities have maintained a volcano warning at a level of three out of five, restricting access to the entire mountain.
There was growing panic in Japan today as a third massive explosion and a fire at a nuclear power station hit by the tsunami pushed the country to the brink of catastrophe.
The government was forced to to order 140,000 residents to seal themselves indoors today as more radioactive material was released into the atmosphere by the third explosion at the plant in four days and the fire at another reactor.
Radioactive material is leaking ‘directly’ into the air from the stricken plant at a rate of 400 milliseverts per hour, according to The International Atomic Energy Agency. Anyone exposed to over 100 millisieverts a year risks cancer.
Radiation levels were rising around Tokyo this morning, with readings up to ten times higher than normal in Chiba – 15 miles from the capital.
It is another dramatic escalation in the nuclear crisis facing the country after Friday’s tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant – leaving engineers struggling to stop the reactors overheating and avoid a catastrophic meltdown.
It is the world’s most serious nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
All but 50 workers have been evacuated from the Fukushima plant, with the remaining employees frantically trying to keep pumping sea water into the reactors to cool them and control the fire. Although they have protective suits, they risk exposure to the dangerous levels of radiation.
In a televised address to the nation after the third explosion Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan confirmed radiation had been released into the atmosphere after blast at the Number Two reactor. The fire in the Number Four reactor was also said to be releasing radioactivity into the air.
It follows explosions at Number One and Number Three reactors.
The blaze in the spent fuel storage pond of Number Four reactor was put out today, but it was unclear if the radiation leak had been stopped.
There were also fears that the water inside the Number Four reactor may be boiling – which risks exposing nuclear fuel rods which in turn raises the risk of meltdown.
The exclusion zone around the reactor was extended to 19 miles this morning, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told residents in the danger zone: ‘Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight .These are figures that potentially affect health. There is no mistake about that,’ he said.
Prime Minister Mr Kan added: ‘The possibility of further radioactive leakage is heightening. We are making every effort to prevent the leak from spreading. I know that people are very worried but I would like to ask you to act calmly.’
Some 70,000 people had already been evacuated from a 12-mile radius around the Dai-ichi complex. About 140,000 remain in the new warning zone.
Western news reporters are also evacuating the area.
The disaster has caused chaos in the financial markets, with the Tokyo Stock Exchange closing down 10.5 per cent.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said: ‘Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health. These are readings taken near the area where we believe the releases are happening. Far away, the levels should be lower.’
Edano warned that there were signs that fuel rods were melting in all three reactors. ‘Although we cannot directly check it, it’s highly likely to be happening,’ he added.
Meanwhile, The French embassy in the capital warned in an advisory that a low level of radioactive wind could reach Tokyo within 10 hours.
Experts said the nightmare scenario was of a meltdown which triggers a massive build-up of pressure inside the containment unit. If the unit cracks, a plume of radioactive dust and gas would spill hundreds of miles into the air.
Fears of that meltdown at a Japanese power plant rose sharply last night after the third explosion was reported in the complex. It is thought the new drama occurred because the explosion in the Number 3 reactor had damaged the cooling system in the adjoining reactor, resulting in last night’s third blast.
Officials have been struggling to pacify the public’s concerns about radioactive material escaping into the atmosphere.
The Mayor of Fukushima City, Mr Tananori Seto warned of grave consequences for people who were living within a 20km range of the power station if they stepped out from their homes.
AMERICA ON RADIATION ALERT
Scientists warned yesterday of a ‘worst-case scenario’ in which the highly radioactive material could be blasted into the atmosphere and blown towards the West Coast by the Pacific jet stream – as seen in the graphic above.
They said it could be picked up by powerful 30,000ft winds, carrying the debris across the Pacific and hitting the West Coast. Some estimates claimed the radiation could arrive on America’s shores by this evening.
‘Right now it’s quite possible that there could be some radiation floating over the United States,’ said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman David McIntyre.
He admitted that although evacuations had begun in the past two days, many people had remained in their homes – and now they were trapped there.
‘It is too dangerous to go outside and even if they did they would not be able to be transported to a safe place because we have no fuel for our vehicles,’ he said.
‘We need more information from the government. We aren’t getting enough information.’
Mr Seto said he hoped those who were still in their homes would keep a watch on their TVs and listen to their radios for updates.
‘Don’t even step outside to hang out your washing,’ he said. ‘If you’ve already done your washing, don’t bring it in from the line because it will be contaminated.’
People have been told to take showers if they think they have been contaminated but in many places there is no running water.
Water stored in outside tanks, officials warned, would be contaminated anyway.
With serious questions now surrounding the safety of the three crippled reactors, many people believe the chances of the material escaping have increased dramatically.
Workers at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant fled last night after a third explosion raised serious concerns about a meltdown.
Embarrassed officials of the Tokyo Electric Power company called a hurried news conference in Tokyo to apologise to the public for ‘the inconvenience’.
But they were hesitant in disclosing details about the full extent of the danger to the public.
In the House of Commons, David Cameron said he had ‘severe concerns’ for Britons who were in Japan at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. Thousands of them are still unaccounted for.
In a day of worrying developments:
- The official death toll rose to 2,800 but is expected eventually to exceed 10,000.
- Two thousand bodies were washed up in two towns in the worst affected area in north-east Japan.
- Strong aftershocks persisted in the stricken area, and a 4.1 magnitude earthquake jolted Tokyo at about 8pm British time yesterday.
- About 450,000 people have been evacuated nationwide – plus 180,000 from around the nuclear plant, where 190 have been exposed to some form of radiation.
- Almost 2million households are without power in the freezing north and about1.4million households have been left without running water.
Inside the reactor: These shots show the interior of the Number Three reactor at Fukushima nuclear plant before the crisis. The large pool is used to cool the nuclear fuel rods, which can be seen under the water, right. But the tsunami knocked out cooling systems, causing the fuel rods to overheat and risk a meltdown
A second explosion rocks the crippled Fukushima Dalichi nuclear plant yesterday (1), (2) smoke starts to pour from the building housing the plant’s third nuclear reactor before (3) as the building collapses, the black plume stretches up into the sky
Growing panic: A baby is tested for radiation in Nihonmatsu, left, and a mother tries to talk to her daughter who has been isolated for signs of radiation after evacuating from near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant to a makeshift facility to screen, cleanse and isolate people with high radiation levels in Nihonmatsu,
Two other nuclear plants are also thought to be under threat. At Tokai there were also fears of overheating reactors as cooling pumps failed, while high levels of radiation were detected at the nuclear plant at Onagawa.
But the main concern remained the Fukushima plant on the north-east coast, where weary engineers were working around the clock for the fourth day.
Before last night’s third explosion they had been engaged in a last-ditch move to use seawater to cool the overheating core in reactor number two after fuel rods inside it were exposed.
Experts said it was probably the first time in the nuclear industry’s 57-year history that seawater, which is corrosive, has been used to cool fuel rods, a sign of how close Japan may be to a major accident.
Although the plant’s three working reactors shut down automatically when the magnitude nine earthquake struck, the cooling systems which keep the radioactive uranium and plutonium fuel rods cool have been hit by a series of failures.
Earlier yesterday a vast cloud of black smoke erupted from the plant after an explosion – the second in two days – demolished the building housing reactor three.
The explosion was triggered when engineers released steam to prevent a dangerous build-up of pressure inside the sealed reactor. At superheated temperatures inside the core the water vapour had split into hydrogen and oxygen which ignited, destroying the outer building and injuring 11 people, one seriously.
A similar explosion rocked the plant on Saturday when steam was released from another reactor.
Yesterday’s blast left the 80-inch concrete and steel walls which protect the nuclear reactor intact.
Evacuation: Residents shelter in Sendai city in Miyagi after being evacuated from their homes following the blasts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated amid growing fears that the plant could go into meltdown
However, shortly after the explosion, the Tokyo Electric Power Company said it had lost the ability to cool the neighbouring reactor two – the third reactor to suffer cooling problems.
As the engineers tried to inject seawater using fire pumps the water levels dropped twice unexpectedly, leaving the fuel rods uncovered by cooling water. At one point they were exposed for two and a half hours.
Without coolant, fuel rods can overheat and melt. In a serious meltdown, radioactive molten material falls through the floor of the containment vessel into the ground underneath.
The drama at Fukushima has added to the anxiety for locals shellshocked by the quake and tsunami. Many Japanese are sceptical of assurances given by government officials about nuclear leaks, following at least two cover-ups in the wake of dramas in other plants in recent years.
Men in protective suits continued to sweep Geiger counters over terrified survivors, looking for evidence of radiation exposure.
After Japan’s request to the United States for help cooling the reactors, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was considering providing technical advice.
President Barack Obama offered any help the U.S. could provide to help recover from its ‘multiple disasters’.
The U.S. Navy moved ships away from the devastated north-east Japanese coast after 17 helicopter crews helping in the rescue efforts were contaminated with radiation. The crews were treated on an aircraft carrier.
Scientists say there are serious dangers but little risk of a catastrophe similar to the 1986 blast in Chernobyl, where the reactor did not have a containment shell. Some said the length of time since the crisis began showed the chemical reactions inside the reactor were not moving quickly toward a complete meltdown.
Even so, the nuclear danger has prompted several countries to warn against travelling to and staying in Japan. In Britain, the Foreign Office advised against all non-essential travel to Tokyo and the north-east of Japan.
Disaster shows nuclear should be scrapped, say green groups
Green campaigners wasted no time in exploiting the disaster, claiming it proved nuclear power could never be safe.
Greenpeace warned that Japan faced a nuclear meltdown, while the Green Party called on the Coalition to scrap its nuclear programme.
Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas also called for an EU level inquiry into the wider implications of the nuclear accident.
Steve Campbell, of Greenpeace, said: ‘This proves once and for all that nuclear power cannot ever be safe. Japan’s nuclear plants were built with the latest technology, specifically to withstand natural disasters, yet we still face potential meltdown.’
Greenpeace was also concerned about the lack of data on the total amount of radiation already released, and whether the areas where spent radioactive fuel is dumped – outside the containment area of the reactor – were secure.
But nuclear scientists said the earthquake had highlighted how Japan’s power stations were robust.
Professor Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at Surrey University, said: ‘We had a doomsday earthquake in a country with 55 nuclear power stations and they all shut down perfectly, although three have had problems since.
‘This was a huge earthquake, and as a test of the resilience and robustness of nuclear plants it seems they have withstood the effects very well.’
Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has ordered a review of the safety of the country’s nuclear reactors. The UK is poised to build a new generation of nuclear power stations over the next decade.