FUKUSHIMA, Japan – The number of missing and feared dead in Japan’s epic earthquake soared early today as a reeling nation struggled to contain a nuclear crisis, pluck people in tsunami-inundated areas to safety, quell blazes and provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people left homeless and dazed.
As the second full post-quake day dawned, authorities said about 400,000 people had been forced to flee the giant swath of destruction, more than a quarter of them evacuees from the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear complex, 150 miles north of Tokyo. The crisis intensified as officials reported that three of the six reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant were in trouble and emergency measures were being taken to cool them.
The country’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, was quoted as saying that a meltdown may have occurred in at least one reactor and that authorities were concerned about the possibility of a meltdown at a second reactor.
Dozens of people were believed to have been exposed to elevated levels of radiation, but officials sought to reassure the public that there was no significant health risk to the general population, even though cesium and iodine, byproducts of nuclear fission, were detected around the plant. The incident could rank as the worst atomic accident in Japan’s roughly half-century of nuclear power generation.
With punishing aftershocks continuing to jolt the quake zone, the Japan Meteorological Agency revised the magnitude of the earthquake to 9.0, Kyodo News agency said. The U.S. Geological Survey had not altered its reading of magnitude 8.9.
The Japanese military was mobilizing 50,000 of its personnel, together with ships and planes, for a rescue effort that is a race against time. In a country where every modern convenience has long extended into even remote areas, the basics of daily survival – food, water, power – were unaccustomedly threatened.
Even in Tokyo, where the damage was limited, the rhythms of a normally throbbing metropolis were stilled. In many central districts, the trademark neon blaze was absent on streets that were eerily deserted. The subway system was running again, if sporadically, but on a Saturday evening, when its cars would normally be packed, some slid through stations all but empty, like ghost trains.
“It is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives,” said Edano, the Cabinet secretary.
But assessments of the disaster were far from certain. Although the official missing tally stood at 650, in Miyagi prefecture, north of Tokyo, officials said Saturday night that there had been no contact with about 10,000 people in the town of Minamisanriku, more than half its population.
Some people decided to try to get more information about missing relatives on their own.
When Tokyo office worker Yuki Ochiai, 25, heard that three-quarters of the 24,000 people living in the coastal town of Rikuzentakata were unaccounted for, he headed north to find out the fate of family living there. He rode his motorcycle because roads were impassable by car.
“This is crazy,” he said as he stopped to buy water and gas outside Fukushima, still far from his destination. “One place. The other 18,000 people, they don’t know where they are?”
Japan’s peacetime military, the Self-Defense Forces, was mobilizing a relief-and-rescue force of 50,000, the Defense Ministry said, including a special unit to help nuclear evacuees. Nearly 200 aircraft and 45 ships were en route or in the tsunami zone, the ministry said.
The U.S. military, whose bases are sometimes an irritant to local Japanese, was helping in the effort. The Americans said there were no injuries or serious damage at their bases, and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet would be providing search-and-rescue support along Japan’s northeastern coast.
The task was a daunting one. Whole communities were still underwater from the massive tsunami unleashed by the quake, the most powerful in Japan’s recorded history. Those included Rikuzentakata and the smaller town of Miyako, both in Iwate prefecture.
Despite Japan’s much-vaunted earthquake engineering, which saved countless lives, at least 3,400 buildings were known to have been destroyed by the quake and fires, Kyodo News said, citing the national fire agency. But that figure too could grow exponentially.
In the town of Kesennuma, in Miyagi prefecture, fires merged into a mega-blaze stretching for more than half a mile. The welfare ministry said 171 “welfare facilities,” such as nursing homes, had suffered damage.
Adding to the urgency, nearly 6 million homes were reported to be without electricity, and more than 1 million lacked water.
The populace was further traumatized by aftershocks, one of them magnitude 6.7.
The disaster’s economic toll has yet to be fully assessed. Manufacturing heavyweights such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda said production at plants well outside the quake zone was expected to be suspended Monday because of the difficulty in obtaining parts.
Flights resumed at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, but its halls were quiet, and hundreds of domestic flights were canceled.
Piles of neatly stacked sleeping bags stood as testament to the long wait endured by many to either catch a plane out or find a way into the city aboard the slower-moving local trains instead of the usual speedy express. Service on the country’s iconic Shinkansen, or bullet train, remained sharply curtailed. Nine major expressways were closed because of structural concerns.
Tokyo Disneyland said it would be shuttered for at least 10 days.
At the crippled nuclear complex in Fukushima, authorities still were unable to explain why excess levels of radiation were detected outside the grounds. An explosion was heard near a reactor at the No. 1 plant about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and plumes of white smoke could be seen.
Edano said the blast was caused by a buildup of hydrogen in the cooling system, and described the attempt to evacuate about 200,000 people from the area as a precaution.
Japan’s nuclear and industrial safety agency said more than 70 people were believed to have been exposed to elevated levels of radiation, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. Most were waiting to be airlifted from a field at the high school in nearby Futaba.
Today, the cooling system at a third reactor at the Fukushima plant was reported to be malfunctioning. Edano said steam was being vented and water added, “and those measures should stabilize the situation.”
Japan relies on nuclear power for 30 percent of its electricity generation.
“Japan is an earthquake-prone archipelago, and lining its waterfront are 54 nuclear (reactors). It’s been like a suicide bomber wearing grenades around his belt,” said Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a professor emeritus at Kobe University.
Since Friday’s quake, a dozen of the country’s reactors have been shut down, sharply reducing the power supply.