Japan Earthquake Rattles World's Largest Nuclear Power Plant

TOKYO, Japan, July 16, 2007 (ENS) - An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 jolted a wide area on the west coast of Honshu Island this morning, killing nine people, and injuring more than 900 others. The quake caused the world's largest nuclear power plant to leak radioactive water into the sea, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency and company and emergency officials.

Four of the seven reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station were operating or set to begin operation when the earthquake struck. They automatically shut down when the earth began to shake, but an electric transformer outside one of the reactors caught fire and burned for about two hours.

The earthquakes are located off the west coast of Honshu Island. (Photo courtesy Japan Meteorological Agency)
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said in a statement that 1.5 liters (.39 gallons) of water containing radioactive materials had leaked from a unit closed for maintenance at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant.

The radioactive water was released into the ocean and had no effect on the environment, the utility company said in a statement. The level of the radioactivity in the water was below the legal standard of concern, the company said.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari has instructed TEPCO President Tsunehisa Katsumata not to resume operations at the plant until safety is assured.

The focus of the initial quake was located around 60 kilometers southwest of the city of Niigata, about 17 kilometers under the seabed, the Japan Meteorological Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The quake was felt as far away as Tokyo located some 200 kilometers to the southeast.

The shaking continued throughout the day and into the night. A strong quake measuring 5.7 magnitude struck at 3:37 Monday afternoon, and more than 70 aftershocks shook Niigata Prefecture by nightfall. Another strong tremor, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, struck just after 11 pm on Monday night.

Fire at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. (Photo credit unknown)
The initial quake hit at 10:13 am on a holiday Monday, disrupting public transportation and destroying about 780 homes. Some 10,000 people in Niigata Prefecture were forced to evacuate. Power and water supplies were disrupted throughout the quake zone.

Water and gas services for Kashiwazaki City's 35,000 households were suspended after reports of gas leaks, while nearly 24,000 households in the stricken area were without power as of this afternoon.

The shaking shattered oceanside roads and bridges, and one-metre-wide cracks appeared in the ground along the coastline.

Bullet trains in the area were stopped and one train was derailed at a station. No injuries were reported.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was campaigning for a July 29 House of Councillors election in Nagasaki City when the initial quake hit. He flew to Kashiwazaki where he told reporters and emergency officials that his government would work to quickly restore services.

The government has established an emergency task force at the premier's office in Tokyo and a government investigation team, led by State Minister for Disaster Management Kensei Mizote has now inspected the affected region.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station is the world's largest. (Photo courtesy TEPCO)
About 450 Ground Self-Defense Force personnel were deployed to the area and the Maritime Self-Defense Force will use a transport vessel to deliver 15,000 emergency rations and 2,100 blankets to victims by Tuesday evening.

Environmentalists used the incident to caution about the dangers of nuclear power. Friends of the Earth-U.S. Executive Director Norman Dean said, "This accident is a reminder that nuclear power is not safe," said Dean. "Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to natural disasters and unintentional human errors, as well as intentional sabotage such as a terrorist attack."

"Like the disaster at Chernobyl and near-disaster at Three Mile Island, today's accident reminds us that nuclear power is hardly the safe panacea its supporters claim it to be," said Dean.

"Energy conservation and wind and solar power are cleaner and safer than nuclear power, and they are a better way to fight global warming."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.