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Quake fallout continues at Japan nuclear plant

KASHIWAZAKI, Japan (AP) — A nuclear power plant near the epicenter of a powerful earthquake suffered a slew of problems, including spilled waste drums, leaked radioactive water, fires and burst pipes, the reactor’s operator said Tuesday — more than 24 hours after the tremors struck northern Japan.

The malfunctions at the Kashiwazaki power plant and the delays in acknowledging them are likely to feed concerns about the safety of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, which supply 30% of the quake-prone country’s electricity and have suffered a long string of accidents and cover-ups.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said a total of 50 cases of malfunctioning and trouble had been found at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant since Monday’s magnitude 6.6 quake, which killed at least nine people and left 13,000 homeless.
The company said they were still inspecting the plant, which shut down automatically after the quake, and further problems could emerge.

Still, TEPCO spokesman Kensuke Takeuchi called the instances discovered so far “minor troubles” and said they posed no threat to people or the environment.

In five of the reactors, major exhaust pipes were knocked out of place and TEPCO was investigating whether they had leaked radioactive materials, the statement said.

TEPCO also said about 100 drums containing low-level nuclear waste fell at the plant during the quake and were found a day later, some of the lids open.

The company also said a small amount of radioactive materials cobalt-60 and chromium-51 had been emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack. Monday’s quake also initially caused a small fire at an electrical transformer in the sprawling plant.

Japan’s nuclear power plants, which have suffered a string of accidents and cover-ups amid deep concerns they are vulnerable in earthquakes.

The Kariwa nuclear power plant, the world’s largest in terms of power output capacity, stands near the epicenter of Monday’s magnitude 6.6 quake.

Monday’s quake initially triggered a small fire at an electrical transformer in the sprawling plant. But it was announced 12 hours later that the temblor also caused a leak of water containing radioactive material.

Later Tuesday, TEPCO said a small amount of radioactive materials cobalt-60 and chromium-51 had been emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack, but posed no danger to the environment. It was unclear if that leak was caused by the quake.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized the delay in notifying the public.

“They raised the alert too late. I have sent stern instructions that such alerts must be raised seriously and swiftly,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo. “Those involved should repent their actions.”

Masanori Hamada, a professor of earthquake engineering at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the quake showed the government should push to increase the quake-resistance standards of its reactors.

“It’s unthinkable that water leaks and fire could be triggered so easily,” said Hamada. “TEPCO must provide a full explanation to the public.”

Nearly 13,000 people packed into evacuation centers such as schools and other secure buildings in the quake zone 160 miles northwest of Tokyo, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.

People packed school gymnasiums and community centers in the city, camping out on traditional Japanese futon mattresses and fanning themselves from the muggy summer heat.

Thunderstorms and flooding were expected Tuesday throughout the quake zone, increasing the likelihood that the quake-softened, water-logged ground would give way on hillsides and cause even more damage, officials said.

Light rain began to fall by early afternoon in Kashiwazaki and up to 2.4 inches were expected by Wednesday morning, according to the local observatory.

“The damage is more than we had imagined,” Kashiwazaki Mayor Hiroshi Aida said while inspecting damaged areas of his town. “We want to restore the water supply as soon as possible so more people can return home.”

Nine people in their 70s or 80s — six women and three men — were killed in the quake, and 47 were seriously injured.

Victims were largely concerned with securing enough food, water and shelter for the night, but some said the threat of a devastating nuclear accident was always at the back of their minds.

“Whenever there is an earthquake, the first thing we worry about is the nuclear plant. I worry about whether there will be a fire or something. We have no information, it’s really frightening,” said Kiyokazu Tsunajima, who spent the first night sleeping in his car, afraid an aftershock might collapse his damaged house.

The Defense Ministry dispatched 450 soldiers to the devastated area to clear rumble, search for any survivors under collapsed buildings and provide food, water and toilet facilities. People formed long lines to fill bottles with fresh water.

About 50,000 homes were without water and 35,000 were without gas as of Tuesday morning, local official Mitsugu Abe said. About 27,000 households were without power.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency put the initial quake’s magnitude at 6.8, while the U.S. Geological Survey said it was 6.6. The quake, which hit the region at 10:13 a.m., was centered off the coast of Niigata, 160 miles northwest of Tokyo.

The area was plagued by a series of aftershocks, though there were no immediate reports of additional damage or injuries from the aftershocks.

Near midnight, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said a 6.6-magnitude quake hit off the west coast, shaking wide areas of Japan, but it was unrelated to the Niigata quake to the north and there were no immediate reports of damage.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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