Japan earthquake shuts nuclear power plants, leaves residents in dark

At least a dozen nuclear power plants have shut down across the country and millions of buildings around Tokyo were left without power from the Japan earthquake.

Itsuo Inouye/AP
People walk in a Tokyo street as no public transportation became available after a strong earthquake hit eastern Japan on Friday, March 11.

As night fell on Japan hours after one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, officials turned on the lights to assess the damage and search for survivors in the worst hit areas along the eastern coast.

Yet even light was on short supply, with nuclear power plants shutting down after fires broke out at some of the facilities and raised concerns of potential radiation leaks. Millions of buildings around Tokyo were reported without power.

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck northeast Japan at 2:45 p.m. local time, collapsing buildings 240 miles away in Tokyo, triggering a 30-foot tsunami that swept away everything in its path, and killing at least 300 people already. Hundreds more remain missing, including 100 crew on a lost fishing boat.

“I was in my apartment on the fourth floor when the whole place started shaking and things falling off the shelves. It was so scary because it's so soon after so many people died in the New Zealand earthquake," says Tokyo resident Saya Suzuki.

"After the shaking had stopped I went down outside and lots of people had gathered in the street around an electrical shop to watch the TVs in the window. Then the pictures of the tsunami hitting Sendai came in," she says, referring to the town where officials have reportedly discovered more than 200 bodies on the beach.

A state of emergency was declared at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which Tokyo Electric Power reports does not have sufficient electricity to adequately cool one of the reactors at the facility. The Self Defense Force has been dispatched with a generator to the No. 1 plant at the site, and about 5,800 surrounding residents were ordered to evacuate because of a possible radiation leak.

Fires broke out at Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture and at Onagawa nuclear power station in Miyagi prefecture. Tohoku Electric Power – the plant’s operator – said there had been no radiation leaks. Ten other nuclear reactors shut down automatically and Prime Minister Naoto Kan issued a statement shortly after the earthquake saying there had been no leaks so far at any nuclear facilities.

Fighter jets were scrambled to assess the damage and units of the Self Defense Force were dispatched to Miyagi and Iwate Prefecture, the hardest-hit regions. Deaths have also been confirmed in Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Ibaraki, and Tochigi.

Temblors of around magnitude 7 in the same region both followed and preceded today's massive quake, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). Known as the Japan Trench subduction zone, this area has seen nine earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater since 1973, the previous largest being magnitude 7.8 in 1994. A 7.9-magnitude quake, the largest-ever in Japan prior to today, caused the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that killed more than 100,000 people.

This time, however, Japan must deal with containing fallout from new technology such as nuclear power plants, transportation, and communication networks. Bullet train services and airports across the regions have come to a halt. Tens of thousands of people have been stranded across Tokyo as all train lines ceased operations.

Today's quake was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours. Local TV announcers delivered bulletins in hardhats and children wearing protective headwear were escorted home by teachers in some areas of Tokyo.

The quake struck shortly before the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed, sending the Nikkei index plummeting 1.7 percent and the yen down on the foreign exchange markets.

Today's quake was reportedly 160 times stronger than a Feb. 22 temblor that rocked Christchurch, New Zealand. Following that deadly quake, some predicted seismic activity in Japan, which also sits on the “Ring of Fire” that circles the Pacific and is the most seismically unstable region in the world.

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