Japanese officials issued tsunami warnings and evacuated a crippled nuclear plant after a strong earthquake struck the nation’s northeast coast Monday.
The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the magnitude of the quake at 7.1, the same strength as a major aftershock that hit on Thursday, but later revised it downward to 6.6. A tsunami warning was issued for portions of the northeast coast – the same area hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 – but was lifted after less than one hour.
Officials at Japan’s nuclear safety agency said workers were temporarily evacuated from the Fukushima nuclear plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March 11 quake. They said outside electrical power to three of the plant’s units was cut off, disrupting the injection of cooling water into the reactor cores, but that the electricity was restored after less than an hour. The officials said they had detected no change in radiation levels.
The latest aftershock came almost exactly one month after the 9.0 magnitude March 11 quake, which caused a tsunami that washed away whole towns and villages along the country’s northeast coast. Across Japan, citizens paused and offered prayers at 2:46 p.m. local time ((0546 UTC)), the precise moment of the quake.
More than 13,000 bodies have been recovered and more than 14,000 remain missing, many still lying under the rubble or washed out to sea.
Monday, authorities announced preparations to expand the 20-kilometer evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said residents should prepare to evacuate from certain towns and villages outside the zone as soon as radiation levels exceed pre-determined levels.
He said the government will coordinate with municipal officials in those areas and that residents should wait for further instructions.
Edano also said residents living between 20 and 30 kilometers from the stricken Fukushima plant should be packed and ready to leave on short notice if the situation at the plant deteriorates. He said those who are ill or have small children should leave the zone in advance of any emergency.
Edano said the decision to evacuate specified communities outside the 20-kilometer radius is based on radiation concentrations caused by geological and weather factors. He said residents must also be prepared for a new emergency at the plant, even though the likelihood of that is considerably lower than before.
The Greenpeace environmental group issued a statement earlier Monday calling for the government to evacuate residents from several radiation hotspots and to remove the most vulnerable people from Fukushima city. It said its own monitoring showed residents of the city could receive the annual maximum dose of radiation within a few weeks.
Earlier Monday, repair crews at the Fukushima plant had begun using remote-controlled power shovels and bulldozers to clear rubble from two nuclear reactors that were damaged by hydrogen explosions.
Officials said they were also preparing to transfer highly radioactive water from a tunnel next to the plant’s number two reactor into a condenser. Technicians have been pumping less radioactive water into the ocean since last week to make room in a temporary storage facility for the more dangerous water.
The crisis has made many Japanese distrustful of nuclear power. About 2,000 to 3,000 people took part in a protest march Sunday demanding that the government shut down all nuclear plants in the country.